Despite his 22 years in LaGrange, Ga., Louis Dekmar had not heard of Austin Callaway — but some members of his community knew Callaway’s story well.
Callaway, a 16-year-old African-American in police custody, was abducted at gunpoint by a mob. Hours later, Callaway was discovered with five bullet wounds in his head. He died shortly afterward in the hospital.
The police department did not pursue an investigation into the lynching. A grand jury’s only comment on it was to recommend better jail cell locks.
That was Sept. 8, 1940. On Thursday Chief Dekmar, a white man, stood before a gathering at Warren Temple United Methodist Church, and he apologized.
“As LaGrange police chief, I sincerely regret and denounce the role our police department played in Austin’s lynching, both through our action and our inaction,” Dekmar told the assembly. “For that, I’m profoundly sorry. It should never have happened.”
Dekmar was joined during that remembrance by Mayor Jim Thornton and other authorities in the town. The full remembrance was live-streamed on Facebook by LGTV LaGrange Television for viewers outside the bounds of the church, and can be watched in the video above. Dekmar’s speech begins at about the 25-minute mark.
It was a moment long in coming — nearly three-quarters of a century, in fact.
For Dekmar, the path to this apology began several years ago, when he learned of a comment one elderly black woman made to another while waiting to see detectives: “They killed our people,” the woman said.
It was only after some research that Dekmar learned of Callaway’s story. And it was only with the help of the NAACP, local politicians and LaGrange College that a formal remembrance of Callaway could finally come together.
He tells NPR that the comment shared between the two women hammered home a crucial point for him.
“Despite the fact that very few people are alive today that were alive then, the attitudes about the police department — and the attitudes as it relates to the city government in general — is influenced by those experiences which are passed down through generations,” Dekmar says.
And those memories, and the distrust of law enforcement that they engender, create a filter between the police department and the community. He says that’s why moments like Thursday’s ceremony, however tardy they are in coming, remain necessary.
This is particularly true given the racial makeup of the community in LaGrange, which is about 48 percent African-American. Dekmar says law enforcement in the area is about 14 percent black, though he says his department has worked hard to improve diversity within its ranks.
Resentment toward police persists among members of the local black community, he says — “and rightfully so,” given the memories of lynchings like Callaway’s.
“Apology is never enough,” Kristen Reed, who attended the remembrance, told reporter Sam Whitehead of Georgia Public Broadcasting. “I don’t think an apology is ever enough for a murder or for a lynching and for the injustice that followed.”
Still, after the ceremony, Reed noted the rarity of such a moment.
“For them to feel the need to say they were sorry sends a message, especially in a climate like this,” Reed said.
And for Dekmar, it’s that small step that matters.
“We don’t expect ever to erase the past,” he says. “But what I hope last night will do is interrupt the past.”