Isaiah Nixon

Background

Isaiah Nixon, a father of six, was killed for daring to exercise his constitutional right to vote. On September 8, 1948, Isaiah Nixon voted in Georgia’s democratic primary election. That evening Nixon was confronted at his home by two white men, identified as brothers Jim A. Johnson and Johnny Johnson. He was asked to step down from his porch and when Nixon refused he was shot three times by J. A. Johnson. The shooting took place in front of Nixon’s wife and young children. Nixon was transported to a hospital in Dublin where he died of his injuries forty-eight hours later.

Legal Status

The Johnson brothers were quickly arrested and charged, J. A. Johnson with murder and Johnny Johnson with accessory to murder. The story received local and national press coverage and was published in the New York Times. On September 13, NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall sent a telegram to the Governor of Georgia, M. E. Thompson, urging him to use the state’s “full authority” in prosecuting the guilty parties. Marshall appealed to the Governor about the wider impact of the crime, asserting that “this type of intimidation aimed at preventing other American citizens from exercising their constitutional rights” threatened to “make our constitution a farce” if left unpunished. The Governor replied informing Marshall that he understood the matter was being “pushed vigorously” by authorities in the judicial circuit where the “alleged murder” took place.

The Johnson brothers were indicted by a grand jury but found not guilty at the trial. The pair admitted shooting Nixon but insisted they had gone to the victim’s house hoping to hire him for work and that the shots were fired in self-defense. On November 5, after forty-five minutes of deliberation, the jury acquitted J. A. Johnson of murder. Johnny Johnson’s charges were dropped with his brother’s acquittal.

Interest in the Nixon case did not subside with the acquittal of the Johnson brothers. The Pittsburgh Courier launched an impassioned campaign seeking justice for Sallie Nixon, Isaiah’s twenty-five year old widow, and her six children, who were forced to flee town after the murder. In December 1948 the paper published a story reporting on the extreme poverty which had afflicted the Nixons since Isaiah’s death. At the time the seven Nixons were living with Isaiah’s mother in Jacksonville, Florida, sharing a two bedroom house with one other family. The Pittsburgh Courier established the ‘Nixon Fund’ and appealed to its readers for donations. This successful campaign, which accumulated contributions from across the nation, eventually led to the construction of a new home for the Nixon family.

The NAACP also retained an interest in the Nixon case, linking it to their wider campaign for the protection of black voters in the South. The discovery that the Johnson brothers were also responsible for an attack on D. V. Carter, a civil rights activist who had been active in mobilizing black voters in Nixon’s neighborhood, seemed to confirm that Nixon’s shooting was part of a campaign of intimidation. NAACP Secretary Walter White issued a statement in regard to Nixon and Carter’s cases: “Negroes have time and time again demonstrated that they are not to be intimidated by threats and violence. It is the responsibility of all of us to see that they are permitted to vote without reprisals.”

In the wake of his death Isaiah Nixon was recognized by the NAACP, the Pittsburgh Courier and sympathetic citizens across the country as having died a martyr for African American voting rights. Yet his sacrifice bore little reward; the Democratic primary in which Nixon had voted resulted in an overwhelming victory for Herman Talmadge, an avid segregationist who ran for Governor on a platform of white supremacy and opposition to Truman’s civil rights program. Today Isaiah Nixon is all but forgotten. His body lies in an unmarked grave a few hundred feet from his erstwhile home.