ATLANTA – It’s been more than 75 years since an armed posse of white men snatched Austin Callaway from the LaGrange city jail, drove through darkness to a country road and violently killed him with gunshots to the head, arms and hands.
There was no effort to identify his killers, no criminal investigation and no discussion by city police about their complicity in the lynching of the young black man.
In essence, Callaway’s death had been scrubbed from the Georgia city’s record.
Yet like so many other acts of racial terror across the South, his violent end lived in the collective memory of the local black community and contributed to its distrust of police.
Now the city’s police chief has offered a public apology for his agency’s role in the 1940 lynching — an extraordinary admission that is believed to be among the first of its kind.
“I sincerely regret and denounce the role our Police Department played in Austin’s lynching, both through our action and our inaction,” LaGrange Police Chief Lou Dekmar, who is white, told a crowd at a traditionally black church. “And for that, I’m profoundly sorry. It should never have happened.”
He added that all citizens had the right to expect that their police department “be honest, decent, unbiased and ethical.”
“In Austin’s case, and in many like his, those were not the Police Department values he experienced,” he said.
The ceremony of remembrance also included the city’s mayor, local NAACP members and Callaway’s descendants.
“I believe in prayer,” said Deborah Tatum, a relative. “I believe in destiny. Seventy-seven years later here we are talking about it. It couldn’t be talked about in 1940.”
The unprecedented ceremony comes as the police profession across America wrestles with its tense relationship with the black community.
In 2015 the U.S. Department of Justice launched a program to build community trust with minorities.
The program, which includes a reconciliation component, is in a pilot stage in six communities across the country, including Minneapolis and Birmingham, Ala.
And last fall the head of one of the largest police groups in the country, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, acknowledged and apologized for his profession’s historical mistreatment of minority communities.
That came three years after a police chief in Montgomery, Ala., apologized to U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., for his agency’s failure to protect Freedom Riders in 1961.
Dekmar is believed to be the first police chief in the South to apologize for his department’s role in the legacy of lynchings that claimed more than 4,000 black lives across the region between 1877 and 1950.
“It’s important for those agencies, those institutions that have been responsible for some very bad things that have never been acknowledged,” said David Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law who has studied racial profiling by police.