Madison Harris

Background

In 1946, Madison Harris was the first of two World War II veterans to survive a world war but not the public transportation system in post-war Atlanta, Georgia.

On April 10, 1946, a streetcar operator shot Madison Harris, a twenty-one-year-old Army veteran of World War II, on the Irwin streetcar in Atlanta, on Mitchell Street between Tatnull and Maple Streets. As Harris exited the streetcar onto the sidewalk, T. H. Purl, the motorman, yelled to Harris “Boy, give me that gun.” Harris put his hands in the air, and Purl shot him in the temple, killing Harris. Purl, a twenty-two-year-old white man, said he had seen a gun in Harris’s pocket. The police report stated that a gun was found next to Harris’s body and not in his pocket. Purl was released “on copy” and charged with disorderly conduct and shooting another.

Streetcar motormen were employees of Georgia Power Company. A law from 1890-91 gave motormen like Purl police powers on streetcars and adjacent platforms.

Madison Harris was the youngest of nine children. Prior to his death, Harris had served from February to October of 1943 in the 212th Replacement Co., U.S. Army Casual and received a medical discharge. Harris was laid to rest at Jonesboro Cemetery.

The killing of Harris received a substantial amount of attention in the Atlanta civil rights community. Businessmen, students and veterans expressed interest. Attorney A.T. Walden, representing the NAACP, acted as the prosecution. E.E. Russell, of the Georgia Interracial Commission, invited the President of Georgia Power Company to discuss the killing in an interracial group. The issue of armed motormen stirred passions in the community. Letters to the Editor in the Atlanta Constitution, a mainstream newspaper, were both supportive and critical of the right of motormen to carry weapons while on the job. A fellow motorman even wrote in defending his right to carry a gun on the streetcar. Some of the activism was around the arming of motormen, while others focused on broader issues. In a column criticizing the response of the authorities to the killing, the Editors of the Atlanta Daily World encouraged readers to register to vote. Among other demands, the Black Ministers Union insisted that police powers be revoked from motormen. Georgia Power Company received complaints about the treatment of African Americans on the streetcars.

Legal Status

The Recorder’s Court hearing on Thursday, April 18, 1946 at the Atlanta police station had many complications. First, the hearing was reset from the day before because of the defense council’s need for more time. There was speculation that attempts were made to whitewash the case. Second, according to sources, Georgia Power Company employees arrived early to the hearings, and took up many of the seats in the front of the courtroom, which forced many of the African Americans to stand. Those able to stand were lucky, as the Atlanta police blocked around one hundred and fifty African Americans from entering the courtroom, while white people were simultaneously allowed to enter. A large number of college and high-school African American students attended the hearing, outraged from the tragedy.

Attorney Walden and attorney A. Walton Nail brought eight witnesses to testify against the defendant. All of the witnesses said that Harris had gotten off the streetcar when Purl confronted him and only one witness, called by the defense, said he saw a gun in Harris’s possession. Defense attorney William Schley Howard tried to get witnesses to testify that Harris had been causing trouble early in the day. The witnesses refused to say this on the stand, leading Howard to try and impeach his own witnesses.

Walden highlighted that the hefty amount of witness testimony that supported the case should be brought before a jury, and A. Walton Nail asserted that Purl should be held for murder. Nonetheless, Judge A. W. Callaway of the Recorders’ Court determined that T. H. Purl’s actions were a “justifiable homicide.” After the hearing, an NAACP official commented that the 1890 law was a target of advocacy for change.

The shooting of a young African American man by a white motorman was nothing new to the Atlanta community. Two weeks earlier, a motorman shot a twenty-year-old man named John R. Owens in the abdomen. Not more than six months later, in late September of 1946, another twenty-two year old African American veteran, Walter Lee Johnson, was shot and killed by a white motorman. In the Recorder’s Court, many of the same actors participated. Again, William Schley Howard offered his services to the defense, and Walden for the prosecution. For a second time, Walden was unable to get past Judge Callaway, who offered a nearly identical holding. Another familiar face was that of T.H. Purl, who exclaimed “Now I guess they see where I stand” after Callaway’s ruling. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the second family of a young man who gave the ultimate sacrifice abroad only to be a victim in his own neighborhood.