On June 11, 1964, only eight days after the Civil Rights Act had passed, three black men, soldiers and teachers at the U.S. Army Reserves, headed home from training at Fort Benning, near Columbus, GA. Lt. Colonel Lemuel Penn, Major Charles Brown and Lt. Colonel John Howard were driving down a lonely road in Athens, GA in a 1959 Chevy when Ku Klux Klan members in a tan station wagon saw their D.C. license plates and began following them.
Since the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Southern racists vowed to seek some kind of retaliation. For no reason other than hate, the KKK nightriders opened fire on the Chevy, killing Lt. Colonel Lemuel Penn. The soldiers tried to steer the car to safety but after a high-speed chase, the Chevy landed in a ditch. Just days later, the Federal Bureau of Investigation came to Athens to arrest and charge the Klan members with murder.
James Lackey (the driver), Cecil Myers and Joseph Sims were arrested. Myers and Sims were charged with murder after Lackey’s confession. But by the time he got to the courtroom, Lackey’s story was deemed unbelievable and an all-white male jury acquitted the three men.
But Myers and Sims, were then charged with violating the civil rights of the black soldiers and they both served six years in prison. Lt. Colonel Lemuel Penn was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. A year after his death, Penn’s wife, Georgia, died from complications related to lupus. The couple had three children.