But the town of LaGrange, Georgia, population 31,000, recently became an exception. In January, Police Chief Louis M. Dekmar, who is white, issued a rare apology for the 1940 lynching of Austin Callaway, who is believed to have been 16 or 18 years old when he was killed.
Many of LaGrange’s residents had never heard of Callaway’s lynching because local newspapers at the time attributed his death to “the result of bullets fired by an unknown person or group of individuals.” But in 2014, Jason M. McGraw, a student at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, uncovered the real story while doing a research paper about the teenager’s death.
On Sept. 7, 1940, Callaway was arrested and charged with trying to assault a white woman. That night, a band of white men dragged him from his jail cell, drove him 8 miles away, shot him in the head and arms, and left him for dead. Callaway was later found on the side of a road and taken to a hospital, where he died.
As Chief Dekmar learned more about the case, he decided that something must be done to acknowledge it. He approached the president of a local N.A.A.C.P. chapter about helping to set up a public apology for the lynching.
“I sincerely regret and denounce the role our police department played in Austin’s lynching, both through our action and our inaction,” he told a crowd at a traditionally black church. “And for that I’m profoundly sorry. It should never have happened.”
Chief Dekmar said that, in the age of Black Lives Matter, he hoped his apology could also help ease the mistrust that exists today between minorities and the police. Some white residents, however, were skeptical that the apology would have any practical effect.
“I don’t care if they apologize or don’t,” said Jessie East, 74, who works at a local furniture and appliance shop. “It’s not going to change a thing that happened 77 years ago.”
But Deborah Tatum, a relative of Callaway’s, thought the apology was a step toward healing. “I believe God when he tells us that there is power and freedom in forgiveness,” she said.
Hank Klibanoff has spent years delving into civil rights-era crimes, as a reporter and now as head of the Civil Rights Cold Cases Project at Emory University in Atlanta. He also thinks the apology is enormously important, even after so much time has passed.
“I think he’s just saying what we did was wrong, what we as a people did,” says Klibanoff. “We weren’t here, we didn’t do that, but it was wrong. And I think it gives people cover to [apologize] more. And I hope it will.”