Jack E. Davis


On an October morning in 1945, the body of a black man was found lying on the side of a graded road in rural Madison County, Florida. Jesse James Payne, a struggling young sharecropper with a wife and child, had been unceremoniously lynched the night before. This was not an unusual occurrence in a state that by 1920 had the nation’s highest lynching rate relative to its population. But with Payne’s death coming at the close of World War II, when such crimes were all but nonexistent, Florida was again distinguished by being host to the only recorded lynching of the year. The outrageous event raised the specter of tragedy for the South and Florida Governor Millard F. Caldwell. Trying to avert national disgrace and the resurgence of proposals for federal antilynching legislation, he defined the crime as a private murder that lacked the characteristic elements of a lynching. The media viewed his actions as a semantic deception, however, and one hostile critic, Collier’s magazine, tagged the governor an advocate of lynch law. Caldwell responded with a libel suit, for the legal system in force permitted, indeed demanded, that the governor defend his integrity against the New York publisher. Yet the familiar pattern of events that preceded and followed Payne’s lynching was testimony to the darker side of southern justice.