Civil Rights Tour: Legal Campaigns - Lemuel Penn, Civil Rights Martyr

1622 Upshur Street NW

DC native Lemuel A. Penn was an educator, a decorated World War II veteran and an Army reservist. He was also a civil rights martyr.

Lemuel Penn was shot and killed by Ku Klux Klan night riders on July 11, 1964, just nine days after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The new federal law, which prohibited racial discrimination in employment and by businesses and other facilities that served the public, was seen by southern segregationists as violating white people's right to practice racial exclusion.

Penn was murdered near Athens, Georgia, while driving home to Washington after two weeks of Army reserve training at Fort Benning, Georgia. His two companions, fellow reservists, were uninjured. The murder made the national news. President Lyndon Baines Johnson condemned racial terrorism and vowed to get the case solved quickly. "Penn was slain for no reason other than he happened to be black and his car bore DC plates," said reporter and author Bill Shipp, who has written about the incident. "The original reason for our following the colored men was because we had heard that Martin Luther King might make Georgia a testing ground," confessed the driver of those who shot Penn.

An FBI investigation quickly led to arrests of two men, but in a trial overseen by a judge outspoken in his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, an all-white jury acquitted them. In 1966, in the first federal case argued under the new law, the two were convicted of violating Penn’s civil rights and sentenced to just ten years in prison.

At the time of his death at age 49, Penn was director for industrial and adult education in the office of the assistant superintendent of D.C. Public Schools. In the Army Reserves, he’d achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel. He and his wife Georgia, who taught home economics, lived with their three children at 1622 Upshur Street NW.  

Penn is honored on a marker erected by the Georgia Historical Society Lemuel Penn Memorial Committee, and Colbert Grove Baptist Church in Madison County, Georgia. His name also appears on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.