JULY 11, 1964

Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn is featured in the Civil Rights Memorial Center at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. Credit: Photo courtesy of SPLC

Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn, an assistant superintendent for Washington, D.C., public schools, was driving home with two fellow officers from the U.S. Army Reserves training when he was shot and killed by three Klansmen in a passing car in Colbert, Georgia. Penn had survived World War II, fighting in New Guinea and the Philippines, earning a Bronze Star. But he died in the attack by Klansmen, just nine days after the Civil Rights Act became law. 

Spotting the Washington, D.C., license plates, Klansman Howard Sims remarked, “That must be one of President Johnson’s boys.” He then said, “I’m going to kill me a n—–,” before he and Klansman Cecil Myers opened fire with their double-barreled shotguns on the car Penn was driving. 

The blast from the shotgun killed Penn, and the car slammed into the side of the Broad River Bridge. 

Incredibly, the judge in the case allowed Sims and Myers to take the witness stand without being cross-examined. An all-white Georgia jury found the two Klansmen not guilty, but a federal court jury convicted them. Each served about six years in federal prison. The jury, however, acquitted the other Klansman in the car as well as three other Klansmen identified as taking part in the planning. 

Years after his release from prison, Sims was killed by a friend with a 12-gauge shotgun — the same kind of gun Sims had used to shoot Penn. 

The Penn case was instrumental in the creation of a Justice Department task force, which eventually led to the Civil Rights Act of 1968. When Penn’s body arrived at Arlington National Cemetery, his casket was transferred to the same caisson used for President Kennedy with the same white horses. He received full military honors.

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.