Jesse Thornton

Background

On June 21, 1940, Jesse Thornton fell victim to racial violence when he was lynched by a mob in Luverne, Alabama, Crenshaw County. One day, Jesse Thornton made a trip to the local black barbershop. In typical fashion, Thornton and a few of his acquaintances were standing in front of the barbershop talking. As an officer came along, Thornton said to his friends, “There comes Doris Rhodes, Boys.” Officer Rhodes overheard the remark, turned to Thornton and said, “What did you say?” When Thornton realized that he had been overheard by the officer, he hesitated to make a reply and tried to recant his statement by saying, “Mr. Doris Rhodes.” The officer said, “No you didn’t Nigger.” In response, Thornton said, “I did say Doris Rhodes.” Officer Rhodes immediately struck Jesse with his black jack and knocked him down to the ground.

Following the violent attack, Rhodes arrested Thornton and walked him to the local jail. At the jail door, Rhodes slightly relinquished his grasp of Thornton to unlock the jail door and Thornton attempted to get away. By the time he tried to escape, bystanders were already crowding around the jail and began to throw brick, bats, and stones at Thornton to prevent him from running away. Despite the resistance, Thornton attempted to escape again from the rapidly forming mob. As Thornton ran away the second time, five shots were fired at him as he gained ground. He ran for approximately three quarters of a mile before he fell from exhaustion due to the loss of blood. After resting, Thornton made an attempt to continue running when he saw that the mob was still chasing him, however, he gave up in sheer exhaustion as the mob finally captured him.

The mob put Thornton in a small truck, carried him to a “dead-end street,” and then dragged him from the truck to a swamp where more shots were reportedly fired.
Seven days later, a local fisherman found Thornton’s body eaten by vultures and buzzards in the Patsaliga River near Tuskegee Institute.

Legal Status

Dr. Charles A. J. McPherson, secretary of the Birmingham branch of the NAACP, wrote an investigatory report of Jesse Thornton’s lynching. After the report was written, Thurgood Marshall wrote a letter to the Department of Justice enclosing McPherson’s report, and urged the Department of Justice to execute proper investigation of the case. Assistant Attorney General John Rogge wrote Marshall back and stated that the Criminal Division would give “earnest consideration” about whether to investigate the case. Following his letter to Marshall, John Rogge sent a memo to J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, requesting that the FBI investigate any officials that were complicit in Thornton’s lynching. To date, it is uncertain if the FBI or Department of Justice took formal steps to prosecute anyone in connection to Thornton’s case.