June 21, 1940-
The lynching of Jesse Thornton on June 21, 1940 in the small town of Luverne, Alabama, demonstrates how serious and dangerous perceived infractions against Jim Crow could be, as well as role that law enforcement played in enabling racial violence. Thornton, 26 years old and the manager of a chicken farm, went to town that day to visit the barbershop. While standing outside the shop with some friends, a police officer, Rhodes, walked by, and Thornton allegedly commented to his friends, “there comes Doris Rhodes.” Rhodes apparently overheard the comment, and became enraged that Thornton had not referred to him as “mister.” Rhodes hit Thornton with his blackjack, then arrested him and took him to jail. Before they could get to the jail, a mob formed and began jeering and stoning Thornton, and then shot him as he escaped from Rhodes’ fellow officer, Noland Ellis. Weakened by blood loss, Thornton made it less than a mile before the mob overtook him. The mob then carried Thornton to a dead end street in town, dragged him into a swamp, and shot him to death.
The mob not only killed Thornton, but then went to his house, where they badly harassed his wife, Nellie May. The mob returned to her house again that night, drove her off in a car, and repeatedly threatened her not to say anything about her husband. She was so frightened she refused to talk to anyone about what happened.
A week after Thornton’s lynching, fishermen pulled his body from the Patsaliga River a couple miles outside of Luverne. Town officials made African American prisoners build a crude casket then buried Thornton in the black cemetery, without even notifying his wife. Reports of the lynching stressed not only how traumatized Nellie Thornton was by the whole affair, but that the entire African American community of Luverne was too frightened to talk, demonstrating how lynchings and racial violence functioned to intimidate whole communities into compliance with Jim Crow oppression.
NAACP leaders in Alabama investigated the lynching of Thornton, and with the help of Thurgood Marshall sent a detailed report to the Department of Justice, which instructed the FBI to determine the complicity of law enforcement. No record of prosecution of anyone for the murder of Thornton exists, suggesting that the investigation came to a dead end.
“Jesse Thornton Found Dead in Patsaliga,” Luverne Journal (AL), 3 Jul 1940, p. 1.
“N.A.A.C.P Uncovers Lynching in Alabama, the Fifth this Year; Lack of Funds Stops Probe of Three Others,” New York Age, 24 Aug 1940, p.1 and p. 9.
“On This Day- Jun 21, 1940; Black Man Lynched in Alabama for Failing to Call a White Man ‘Mr.'” A History of Racial Injustice, Equal Justice Initiative, https://calendar.eji.org/racial-injustice/jun/21.
Jess Thornton, Manuscript Census Returns, Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940, Luverne and Vernledge, Crenshaw, Alabama; Roll: m-t0627-00021; Page: 16B; Enumeration District: 21-20 , ancestry.com.
Jesse Thornton, 21 June 1940, Alabama, Deaths and Burials Index, 1881-1974, ancestry.com.