Jackson County was not a hotbed of Civil Rights activity during the 1950s and 1960s.

Following the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, local white citizens were outraged and vowed that local white schools would never integrate. But those efforts soon fizzled.

If there was any organized activism by local black citizens in that era of Civil Rights, it wasn't recorded.

Despite an overall veneer of racial harmony in Jackson County, there was an act of racial violence in the county in 1967 that went to the U.S. Supreme Court and became a minor, and now forgotten, landmark ruling.

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On the night of Jan. 8, 1967, three black men — Lester Hester, James Garland Sheats and John Lewis Smith — went into a local truck stop on Hwy. 53 in Braselton known as Pop's and Mom's Place. The group was a coach and players from a Monroe basketball team, according to newspaper reporting at the time. They wanted to eat supper at the truck stop.

The truck stop manager agreed, but asked the men to eat in the kitchen instead of the restaurant. The manager later testified he did that because he knew his "usual Saturday night crowd" would be in the restaurant.

The meaning of his comment was clear; the manager knew local whites would make a scene if they saw three black men eating in the restaurant.

The three black men agreed to the plan and ate their supper in the kitchen.

It's when they tried to leave the building that trouble started.

A mob of local white men surrounding the three outside the restaurant and began to beat them.

With the help of a white patron from the restaurant, a man named Harold Massey, the three black men managed to reach their car, but were dragged out by the mob and taken to a nearby service station for another beating.

Hester was injured enough in the confrontation that he was treated at the Winder Hospital that night.

A federal grand jury later said the violence was "to discourage them and other Negro citizens from seeking service at the 53 Truck Stop on the same basis as white citizens."

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We don't know how the mob violence eventually ended.

What we do know is that four local white men from the mob — H. Johnson, J. Hogan, W. Hester and M. Bagwell — were indicted in federal court in Gainesville six weeks later and charged with violating the civil rights of the black men in the beatings.

The charges came under the new Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its "public accommodations" clause.

But in May 1967, U.S. District Court Judge Sidney O. Smith dismissed the indictments. Smith, whose rulings on school integration issues would later have a profound impact on Jackson County, ruled that under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, only civil, not criminal actions could be brought to court over the beatings.

The U.S. Justice Department appealed the judge's ruling and in October 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case. In its appeal, the justice department used an anti-KKK law from 1870 to argue that it was a criminal offense to intimidate black patrons of a business with violence.

Interestingly, the solicitor-general of the appeal for the justice department was Thurgood Marshall who, in the midst of this case, was named to the U.S. Supreme Court as its first black justice. Marshall didn't participate in the court's final opinion due to his having crafted the justice department's position as the prosecutor.

In March 1968, the court heard arguments in the case (which were recorded and are available to listen to) and in April, ruled in favor of the justice department, overturning Judge Smith's ruling.

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That was a big deal in 1968 as it set a precedent that criminal charges could be brought under the 1964 Civil Rights act along with the 1870 anti-KKK law. The ruling said, in effect, that when a group of people conspire to terrorize black citizens to prevent them from using public accommodations, such as restaurants, criminal charges could apply.

It was the first time in the country that criminal charges were applied under the 1964 Civil Rights Act public accommodations language.

In October 1968, three of the four white men — Johnson, Hogan and Bagwell — went back to federal court to face criminal charges in the case. (Charges against Hester had been dropped.)

Massey, the white man who had attempted to help the three black men during the beating, testified that one of the men charged had told him just before the beating, "I hate the damned n-----s and I'm gonna get me one."

Two of the defendants testified on their own behalf.

"I didn't have nothing to do with them n-----s at all," said Johnson.

Speaking to an all-white, 12-man jury, U.S. District Attorney Charles Goodson called for a conviction.

"The only reason these men were beaten was because of the color of their skin and the fact that they went in to get something to eat," he said.

The jury agreed and convicted all three men of the beatings.

Johnson and Hogan were sentenced to 2 years, four month in prison and 20 months probation. Bagwell didn't show up for the sentencing. He died the following year, apparently before serving any sentence.

•••

We'd like to think these kinds of incidents are ancient history today.

And yet, there is still an undercurrent of racism that continues to stain the nation.

A video of a white man shouting "white power" while riding in a golf cart in an upscale Florida retirement community was re-tweeted by the president last week. National reports indicate that far-right racist groups are on the rise across the country.

You have to wonder if we've really made progress as a society on racial issues, or are we stuck in 1967 thinking?

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

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