Walter Lee Johnson

Background

Walter Lee Johnson was the second of two World War II Army veterans to survive a World War but not the public transportation system in post-war Atlanta, Georgia.

On Saturday, September 28, 1946, a motorman employed by Georgia Power Company shot Walter Lee Johnson, a twenty-two year old, on a streetcar in Fulton County, Atlanta, Georgia, near Simpson and Gray Streets on the inbound River line streetcar. After surviving over three years serving his country in Europe, Johnson died the morning after being shot at Lawson General Hospital on September 29, 1946.

With Johnson’s killing, a young family lost a father. Johnson and his wife Lucy Mae Johnson, had a three-year-old son, Walter Lee Johnson, Jr., and were expecting a second child at the time of the shooting. Johnson had three siblings, was employed at ZacLac Paint and Lacquer Company, and attended the Mt. Gilead Baptist Church. He was honorably discharged ten months prior to his death, in November of 1945.

There are conflicting versions of what happened during the brief altercation that ended Johnson’s life. The shooter, W.D. Lee, claimed that Johnson swore, cursed and attempted to hit him. Lee also claimed that Johnson reached in his pocket for a gun or knife. Alternatively, according to Johnson’s cousin, Harriett Ponder, other witnesses, and comments from Johnson after he had been shot, Johnson had quoted Nat King Cole and yelled “straighten up and fly right” to a friend who had driven past. Ponder said that Lee misheard him, and got off the streetcar to confront Johnson and challenge him to repeat what he said. A brief altercation followed, where Lee snapped his pistol twice and then shot Johnson in the abdomen. After the first shot, Lee tried to shoot again, however his pistol jammed. Harriet Ponder yelled, “Lord have mercy, please don’t shot him anymore.” Lee confirmed later that the only reason he stopped shooting was because of the jammed pistol. After the shooting, some white men exited nearby business with guns, and exclaimed: “Let’s go get him!” Friends of Johnson attempted to carry him away from the incident, but the white men insisted Johnson be brought back.

Judge Callaway, of the Recorders’ Court, found Lee’s actions were a “justifiable homicide.” Prominent Atlanta civil rights attorney A. T. Walden of the NAACP Atlanta assisted the prosecution and represented Johnson’s family. Detective H.C. Newton represented the prosecution. Many Georgia Power Company employees attended the hearings, and W.D. Lee even laughed during the testimonies of some of the witnesses for the prosecution.

The killing brought back painful memories for to the Atlanta community of less than six months before when Madison Harris, a twenty-one-year-old, veteran was killed by a streetcar operator, and John R. Owens, a twenty-year-old African American man, was shot in the abdomen by a motorman and survived.

In a serendipitous glimpse into the future, Reverend William Holmes Borders spoke. A decade later, he would lead the Law, Love and Liberation movement to desegregate the bus system in Atlanta. His words were both reflective for those mourning the loss of a hero of World War II, and a rallying cry for future change:

The stars and stripes in which the casket is draped represent democracy. That democracy which ensures citizenship rights to all people must come and those who fight it must go down in defeat . . . It is better to die for right [sic] than to live a coward.

Legal Status

W. D. Lee was charged with “disorderly conduct and shooting another” and was arrested by the Atlanta Police Department on the Monday following the shooting. Despite having just killed a man, he was allowed to work a shift the following day, and was released “on copy” after his arrest. Hearings in the Recorder’s Court, at first were delayed, finally taking place on October 16, 1946 on the second level of the Atlanta Police Department. Judge Callaway held “I don’t believe this man [Lee] got off the car with the intent of committing murder . . . no jury on Earth would convict him, so I am going to dismiss the case.”

There were significant difficulties in arranging the times for the Recorder’s Court, demonstrating the systemic challenges faced by A.T. Walden and Johnson’s family. The hearings were postponed after Walden had introduced a motion to reschedule, because he had not been told about an abrupt timing of the initial hearing date. Walden said that witness were not available at the time. Detective H.C. Newton of the prosecution, however, was against the rescheduling and wanted the hearing to continue because of concerns about the loss of expediency. Further, Newton worried about having to turn Lee in if the date was changed. Walden responded with, “it won’t hurt a man who is accused of killing another to spend some time in jail.” Judge Callaway responded, “this man is not charged with murder, he is charged with disorderly conduct.” The hearings were postponed yet again when defense attorney William Schley Howard was been confined to his bed.

At the hearings, A.T. Walden, on behalf of the Johnson family, demanded Judge Callaway allow the case to be argued in front of a grand jury, asserting that it was not appropriate for the case to be decided in Recorder’s Court. During the hearings, Walden focused on a Georgia state law that gave streetcar motorman police powers and the right to carry a gun. The law, from 1890, did not give motormen police power beyond the streetcar terminal. Since witnesses testified that Lee had left the platform, this had the potential to be a deal-breaker in the case. The Editorial page of the Atlanta Daily World observed, “Like this case [the Harris case], Johnson was shot while he was on the sidewalk and the question is immediately raised as to why should a motorman of a street car leave his station to shoot down a citizen in the street?”

For attorney A.T. Walden, the hearings must have felt like déjà vu. Six months before, on May 18, 1946, he had represented the family of Madison Harris in front of Judge Callaway in the same Recorder’s Court, resulting in the same outcome. He even faced off against the same defense attorney, William Schley Howard. One of the newspaper bylines in the Atlanta Daily World acknowledged the uncanny similarity of the killings. It stated: Again! And Again! And Again!. Following the Harris killing, and the Owens shooting, the NAACP expressed a commitment to overturn the expansive police powers given to motorman. In an attempt to address the shootings, the Commission on Interracial Cooperation facilitated a discussion with the President of Georgia Power Company after the killing of Madison Harris. Unfortunately, the work of the Commission was not effective enough to prevent a repeat killing.

Instead, another veteran who served his country was killed and another killer was allowed to continue with his life.