Albert King Is Not Forgotten

In 1941, the U.S. military papered over the killing of a young Black soldier by a White officer. Can there be justice 80 years later?
(Brett Affrunti for The Washington Post)
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Pvt. Albert King’s body was still warm when his killer’s trial began at 3:02 p.m. on March 24, 1941. Sgt. Robert Lummus faced the charge of manslaughter — of willfully, feloniously and unlawfully killing King. Outside the court-martial room at Fort Benning, Ga., under overcast skies, some 50,000 soldiers were training for the possibility that the United States would enter World War II.

One day earlier, on Sunday afternoon, King had departed Fort Benning with a good-conduct card in hand. He was dressed in uniform — olive-green slacks, shirt, necktie and field cap — and headed for the nearby city of Columbus, where his grandmother, who’d recently died after a heart attack, had lived in a small shotgun house with a full porch.

King went out that night with a friend, Pfc. Lawrence Hoover, to a beer joint called the Cozy Spot where Black people like them could dance, drink and relax. They met King’s girlfriend of four years, and her friend, while they were out. It was 3:30 in the morning by the time King and Hoover started back for their barracks. They waved down a bus, paid their 15-cent fares and headed toward the back where the other Black passengers sat. The nearly full bus had more White riders than Black.

King, Hoover and the two young women continued the night’s revelry on the bus, sitting on each other’s laps, “hollering and laughing and cutting up,” as the bus driver later described it. King was loud, according to several Black passengers and the driver — shouting and “cussing” at no one in particular, which his friends did not mind.

The bus driver minded. He stopped and started the bus, and sent a second driver — armed with a handheld weapon called a blackjack, often leather with metal inside one end — to hush King, who, when threatened with being kicked off, demanded his fare back. The driver stopped again near the gates of Fort Benning. That’s when Sgt. Lummus, a White military police officer on night duty, rode up on his motorcycle and came onboard. The driver pointed out King. Both men were about 20 years old. Lummus told King to come to the front. King replied, “What do you want with me up there?”

The confrontation soon escalated. Lummus, who also was armed with a blackjack, swung it at King but missed, and Hoover spoke up for his friend: “Don’t hit him with your blackjack. I can keep him quiet.” When Lummus pulled out his .45-caliber service pistol, King and Hoover agreed to walk forward; White soldiers jumped up and closed in on them as they approached the front. King bolted out the front door and ran, disappearing into the dark and sprawling base grounds. Hoover jumped off the bus too, but Lummus hit him between the eyes with his blackjack in the melee, and four or five White soldiers came after him. Lummus caught Hoover in a ditch and then went off to get police transport.

Once Hoover had been carted away, Lummus departed alone on his motorcycle. Eventually, he spotted a Black soldier walking toward the main post. He wasn’t sure if it was King, but he pulled up behind him, parked his bike and switched off the light. He was the only person to testify to what happened next. Lummus said he told King that he was under arrest, and that King replied, “You can’t arrest me, you son of a bitch.” Lummus emptied five bullets into King. The first one hit him in the stomach.

Immediately, the authorities at Fort Benning began to write their story of what happened on that morning in March. By October, the matter was in Washington, where some of the highest officials in the War Department wrestled over who deserved what kind of justice. King had advocates — influential and prepared ones, most of them Black — but White men who held decision-making power rejected their earnest dissent. Soon, King’s death was forgotten to history — a case study in how U.S. military officials, even as they were on the brink of fighting a war against tyranny abroad, could successfully paper over the killing of a Black soldier at home. Now, however, 80 years later, King has new advocates — pro bono attorneys who see a path to setting his record straight and veteran civil rights scholars who have spent more than 10 years building an archive that proves: Albert King was one of many.

The approximate location of the house of Pvt. Albert King’s grandmother in Columbus, Ga. (Lynsey Weatherspoon for The Washington Post)

On the day King lost his life, a young Black soldier named Felix Hall was hanging from a tree in the woods of Fort Benning, his body decomposing. Pvt. Hall had disappeared from the base on Feb. 12 and remained missing until four days after King died. A few of the records on Hall and King are merged. On March 26 a Black soldier named Jack Walker wrote home to his mother in Ohio to tell her that his friend King was dead. As for Hoover, Walker described how White soldiers “beat him up so bad he is in the hospital looking for him to die.” Then on the 29th, he wrote her a letter about Hall’s body in the woods.

I found records on King’s killing while I was researching Hall’s lynching through Northeastern University Law School’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, which finds undocumented, racially motivated homicides from the Jim Crow era and uncovers the details. CRRJ has assembled an archive of more than 1,000 such cases — each requiring months or years of research — and continues to find new cases without pause. In 2015, the group gave Northeastern’s journalism school, where I was then a student, the documents it had on Hall. I spent more than a year researching the case and published his story in The Washington Post. In the process, I filed requests with the National Archives and Records Administration for documents on King, and received the transcript of the court-martial trial against Lummus. It was a shocking document.

Maj. Eugene M. Caffey, a military lawyer who conducted the initial investigation of King’s death in 1941. (National Archives Catalog)

Maj. Eugene M. Caffey, a military lawyer who had graduated with honors from the University of Virginia’s law school and would three years later become a war hero when he led his troops onto the beaches in Normandy, conducted the pretrial investigation into the death of King. It took him a matter of hours, and he typed out his results in four short paragraphs. Caffey determined that Lummus had told “a straightforward story of justifiable homicide” and was “to be commended for his conduct.” He also recommended that Lummus be tried by general court-martial “for his own protection.” He saw no need to call a medical witness.

When the court met that afternoon, the language of the trial was ugly: The bus driver called King and Hoover not by their names, but by their respective skin tones. Racial slurs went into the transcript unchecked. At one point a court manager misidentified Hoover. Lummus called Albert “Edward.” And throughout, men pointed to “Exhibit No. 1”: a photo of King’s body that was the opposite of how a person would care to be remembered. King was stripped of his olive green uniform; there was a blood stain under his head; and even though he was not shot below the abdomen, the photographer included his genitals in the frame.

The trial focused on the possibility that King had a knife. At the court-martial Capt. Marvin Coyle said that he and his staff turned up a knife 13 paces from King’s body as they searched the scene. He identified this knife during the trial and told the court that “it is not unusual for a knife to be flipped out of a man’s hand through nervous reaction when he is shot. Moreover, his head was so placed in that direction.”

Hoover said King did not have a knife. “I looked in his pockets down at the Cozy Spot and he didn’t have any knife,” he testified. “He took the cigarettes and hid them, and I looked through his pockets for them. I didn’t see any knife then.” Lummus did not say he saw a knife, but said he was scared of the possibility that King had a weapon. “He reached with his hand in his pocket and lunged at me, and I shot him,” Lummus testified. He also said that it was dark and he could hardly see.

The court adjourned at 5:37 p.m., about 13 hours after King had died. Lummus was found not guilty and shipped off to his new post at Fort Knox, Ky., the next day.

African American radio men at Fort Benning, Ga., in June 1941. (U.S. Army Center of Military History)
Black recruits at the fort. (U.S. Army Center of Military History)
LEFT: African American radio men at Fort Benning, Ga., in June 1941. (U.S. Army Center of Military History) RIGHT: Black recruits at the fort. (U.S. Army Center of Military History)

I sent lawyer Fred Borch, the regimental historian and archivist for the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, the 1941 files on Lummus and King to get perspective on how they read to someone with deep knowledge of the history of Army court-martials. “I think that the facts as they’re presented are such that the chain of command recognized that Lummus had used deadly force when there was no basis for it,” he told me. “It’s a cover-your-tail court-martial so ... these men who are in charge at Fort Benning can say, ‘No, we took this seriously when a soldier is killed, and we had a court-martial and we looked at all the facts and circumstances, and Lummus was found not guilty.’ ”

Borch pointed out problems in Lummus’s testimony. “If no weapon was visible to Lummus, then it was unreasonable for Lummus to fear for his life, much less use deadly force,” he says. And he took issue with the prosecutor, whose brief closing statement included: “I submit to the court for its own consideration whether or not the killing was willful, felonious and unlawful.” “The prosecutor didn’t believe in the case,” Borch says. “He never argued for a conviction, because the whole idea here was to provide cover for an unlawful use of force.”

Margaret Burnham, who was the first African American woman to serve as a judge in Massachusetts and is the founder of CRRJ at Northeastern, has read all of the more than 1,000 cases in the group’s files, including King’s. “We have hundreds of cases where African Americans killed in incidents of racial violence are alleged to have had a knife, wielded a knife, had a knife hidden on some part of their person. So that picks up a very well-worn trope that slanders the individual and slanders the race as well by accusing the individual of an act of aggression which is not supported by any of the other facts,” she says. “To see this trope travel into the Army’s file — its fact-finding file on the King case — really also makes it 100 percent clear that the decision in this case was based on racial animus.”

John Morrow Jr., the Franklin Chair of History at the University of Georgia, comes from a family of Black veterans. His uncle served in World War II and was at Fort Benning in 1940 for his basic and officer’s training. “The only thing he said about the Benning experience was, ‘It was atrocious. It was horrible,’ ” Morrow told me. His great-uncle was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroism in World War I. “If you serve in combat, and you’re willing to shed your blood and die for your country, then you deserve equal rights,” says Morrow, who has been writing on military history for 50 years and has worked with the National WWII Museum in New Orleans for more than a decade. “And that’s what the men who fought in World War I and World War II understood.”

But instead, Morrow says, Black soldiers were widely demeaned, faced limited opportunities to engage in combat and were denied the Medal of Honor when they became war heroes. Black officers were not allowed to command White troops. In protest of this treatment, the Black community rallied around the Double V campaign, a hallmark of the World War II era. “The first V for victory over our enemies from without, the second V for victory over our enemies from within,” James Thompson wrote in a letter to the Pittsburgh Courier, a prominent Black newspaper, after the Pearl Harbor bombing.

With respect to those who lost their lives stateside, as King did, “justice isn’t on the docket,” Morrow says. “It’s, ‘Let’s make certain nobody ever knows about this. Let’s make certain we cover it up — keep it under wraps in the military.’ ”

“Justice isn’t on the docket,” says University of Georgia professor John Morrow Jr. “It’s, ‘Let’s make certain nobody ever knows about this. Let’s make certain we cover it up — keep it under wraps in the military.’ ”

The day after the trial, a different group at Fort Benning — a board of three officers, all of them White and one a doctor — began an investigation into whether King died in the line of duty. A decision in King’s favor would partially restore his name and honor, and could make his family eligible to collect financial benefits.

King was an orphan; his father died of pneumonia when he was a toddler, and his mother died of influenza when he was about 10. But King had a younger half brother, George James. And he had an uncle, Ocie Newsom, his mother’s brother, who had just buried King’s grandmother in December.

This board of officers conducted the most exhaustive investigation of the killing available. The officers reviewed King’s clothing — riddled with bullet holes — and they went to Sconiers Funeral Home to examine his body. They found that one bullet entered King through his abdomen, and one through his back near his left kidney. The three others went through the left side of his head and neck. They interviewed 10 witnesses, most of whom had not spoken at the trial. Several of those were Black people who had been on the bus. When they’d finished, the board members found that “the wounds of Private King causing his death occurred in the line of duty and not as a result of his own misconduct.” They accepted Lummus’s impression that King was attacking him but found that King “was not armed with either a knife or gun.”

That decision lasted only a few weeks. In a note from the Office of the Commanding General at Fort Benning, Maj. Gen. Lloyd Fredendall, who would go on to perform so disastrously leading his troops in World War II that he was sent back to the States, asked the board to reconvene and consider that “the deceased was in the status of having escaped from the custody of the Military Police, and was in process of being recaptured,” and that the “deceased came to his death while resisting recapture and while attacking a Military Policeman.”

One board member did not participate in this reconvening. The remaining two met and rewrote their findings, this time stating that King died as a result of his own misconduct — not in the line of duty. The War Department approved those findings in May.

In July, Thomas Brewer, a physician and a founder of the NAACP chapter in Columbus, sent a letter to the War Department in Washington. He was frustrated with the military’s story that Lummus shot King in self-defense — which was the version that had made the papers. Brewer said that “eyewitnesses” were telling a different story. He asked for a better investigation.

William Hastie, a top Black official in the War Department as a civilian aide to the secretary of war, called King’s killing a “callous and wanton shooting of an unarmed soldier.” (National Archives Catalog)

Brewer addressed his letter to William Hastie, a top Black official in the War Department whose mandate, as the civilian aide to the secretary of war, was to improve race relations in the military. Hastie was in his mid-30s, the nation’s first Black federal judge, a dean of Howard University School of Law and a graduate of Harvard Law School. Hastie read the internal files on King and wrote a detailed memo in October. He called the case a “callous and wanton shooting of an unarmed soldier.” “It is particularly difficult to understand why a board, whose original findings seem wholly consistent with the evidence, should be instructed to reconsider its action and to enter findings inconsistent with the evidence,” wrote Hastie.

He argued that King could not have escaped custody because there was no evidence that Lummus tried to arrest him on the bus. He used the medical report describing the course of the bullets through King’s body to try to reconstruct the scene, and questioned Lummus’s claim that King “reached with his hand in his pocket and lunged at me and I shot him. He threw his hands up in the air and grabbed his middle and fell on his face.” Hastie wrote: “I believe it is verifiable that a person shot in the pit of the stomach with a bullet of heavy caliber does not raise his hands after being shot, but immediately and involuntarily crumples or clutches at his stomach.” He theorized it was possible that King threw up his hands before he was shot rather than after. Hastie noted that the court-martial “prevents further prosecution of Sgt. Lummus,” but asked the War Department to reinstate the board’s original ruling that King died in the line of duty.

Col. Edwin McNeil, who was an assistant to the judge advocate general. He said King did not die in the line of duty and closed his case. (National Archives Catalog)

Col. Edwin McNeil, who was serving as assistant to the judge advocate general, sent his response memo in November. McNeil was 59, a graduate of both the U.S. Military Academy and Columbia University Law School, and a veteran of World War I. He conceded that Fredendall’s letter “may have been inaptly worded,” but said “it was not an order to reach any particular findings.” He argued that King did resist arrest, that “such misconduct on King’s part was the proximate cause of his death,” and he therefore did not die in the line of duty. With his words and signature, McNeil closed the case.

The following year, Hastie compiled a report titled “Violence Against Negro Soldiers,” outlining some 20 cases of Black soldiers, including King and Hall, killed or injured on or near domestic military operations. The perpetrators of these crimes were, for the most part, excused or exonerated — if they were even tried. One case took place inside the Pentagon when a group of Black government employees approached the Whites-only cafeteria for admittance. After a confrontation, a White officer clubbed a Black government employee (“a small unarmed man, wearing glasses”) over his head, releasing a gush of blood.

Hastie soon resigned from the War Department in protest. He had advocated for integrated training in the Army Air Forces, but he lost that bid and said he was shut out of conversations about pilot training and facility development. “I had accomplished as much as I could from inside the department,” he said in a 1972 interview.

He continued his work in other venues: He and Thurgood Marshall, his former student, argued against all-White primary elections in Texas before the Supreme Court, and they won in 1944. Hastie eventually became a federal appellate judge and served on the bench until his death at 71.

King’s closest known living relative, his first cousin Helen Russell, of Michigan. (Nick Hagen for The Washington Post)

Margaret Burnham’s archive at Northeastern expands on Hastie’s report. She has source documents on 27 active-duty Black military members who were killed because of their race on or near U.S. bases during the World War II era, and that count is growing as CRRJ continues its work.

“We are unearthing these cases in order to prod the military to engage in a thoroughgoing examination, accounting and program of redress for soldiers like Albert King,” Burnham says. “These were men who were killed not just because they were Black, but because they were Black soldiers. Rather than being in a position to take advantage of their status as full citizens, as reflected in their uniforms, in some circumstances those uniforms exposed them to greater danger than African Americans who were not in uniform. So it’s really quite a significant number.” (When asked to comment on King’s case, a spokesperson at Fort Benning responded with a summary of its work to honor the base’s African American history and to recognize Black veterans who served there.)

CRRJ took King’s files to Christopher Melendez, a Marine Corps veteran and a lawyer at Morgan Lewis in Boston. He and two other lawyers, Matthew Hawes and Micah Jones, both veterans, are working on the case pro bono through the firm’s Veterans Lawyer Network (and CRRJ associate director Rose Zoltek-Jick is advising them). Their plan is to file a petition to the Army Board for Correction of Military Records requesting to reinstate the board of officers’ initial decision, just as Hastie had asked. “A successful petition here, we think, will reclaim some honor that was lost at the time,” Melendez says.

Jones, an Army veteran, recognizes the street names and landmarks as he reads the old files. “That was my home for a year and a half,” he says of Fort Benning. “And so this case, I think, has that visceral connection for me.”

They will be filing the petition on behalf of Albert’s closest known living relative, his first cousin Helen Russell of Michigan, who is 60 and preparing to retire from her career in nursing. (CRRJ learned about Russell through my reporting on this case.) “I will do this fight for my family,” Russell says. “My main concern is to correct his paperwork — to show that he was an honorable soldier and that he was wrongfully killed.”

Their focus is on changing King’s line of duty status, but the lawyers are also open to pursuing related benefits. “To the extent that any death benefits are owed as a result of the correction of Private King’s military record,” Melendez said, “we intend to ask that the benefits are awarded to Ms. Russell.” In response to questions about whether a surviving family member today can file a claim, a spokesperson from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs pointed to the death gratuity, or six months’ worth of the deceased veteran’s pay. (In Hall’s case, a board of officers ruled that he died in the line of duty, and his father and grandmother received several thousand dollars in insurance and death benefits paid out over many years.)

For Burnham, King’s case fits into the recent national discussions on reparations, usually understood as financial restitution to the descendants of enslaved people in the U.S. “This case has everything to do with the broad call for reparations,” she says. “In my view, equally salient with a call for reparations for slavery is the claim for reparations for victims of Jim Crow: those who lost their lives, their houses, material wealth.”

“We are unearthing these cases in order to prod the military to engage in a thoroughgoing examination, accounting and program of redress for soldiers like Albert King,” says civil rights scholar Margaret Burnham.

The people closest to Albert King’s case are dead now. Robert Lummus died in 1997. He was recently married when he killed King, and the couple later had a baby daughter, but he became estranged from them. Lummus went home to Newton County, Ga., started a new family and was a police officer. Then in 1963, he robbed a local bank for $9,692, according to a news report. When the FBI caught Lummus in a storage building, the article said, “he held a loaded .38 pistol pointed at his stomach.” (It’s unclear if Lummus faced prosecution, because related documents were most likely destroyed, according to a U.S. District Court clerk in Georgia.)

When he died in his 70s, his obituary noted that he had retired from a manufacturing company, and that he left behind his wife, a son and daughter-in-law, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I sent his closest living family the documents on this case, and they confirmed that they received them, but did not respond to my requests for comment.

Investigating officer Eugene Caffey, who wrote in the court-martial that Lummus was “to be commended for his conduct,” received the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his World War II service. He also made use of his law degree, rising to judge advocate general of the Army by 1954. His career took a turn two years later. While speaking before the Georgia legislature, he endorsed a Georgia congressman’s speech supporting segregated schools. Harlem Democrat Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who was the first African American elected to Congress from New York, asked that Caffey be dismissed from his post. Caffey retired under pressure within the year, and died in 1961 at 65.

An old building in the neighborhood where King lived in Columbus. (Lynsey Weatherspoon for The Washington Post)

Thomas Brewer — who had asked William Hastie for a better investigation and whose work for equal rights included supporting a legal battle that ended all-White primary elections in Georgia — suffered a fate not unlike King’s. In 1956, he had an argument with a White man over police beating a Black man in Columbus, an incident they’d both witnessed. The White man fatally shot Brewer, who was 61, and walked free after a jury declined to indict him.

Lawrence Hoover, King’s friend who tried to defend him, lived to be 70. His nephew, the Rev. Melvin Hoover, a retired Unitarian Universalist minister who grew up in Columbus, Ohio, calls his uncle “a soldier’s soldier.” Lawrence served in World War II and stayed on to experience the military as it desegregated, starting in 1948. He then served in Korea and Vietnam, but retired in 1967, disenchanted by the conflict in Southeast Asia. “He said, ‘I never thought I would say this. But ... that’s not my U.S. Army,’ ” Melvin recalls.

Melvin describes his family, then and now, as “a mini United Nations,” with members who trace their heritage to many races and cultures around the world. As a young man, he planned to become a “flying chaplain” with the Air Force. “The service was one of the few places at that time where you supposedly had a chance to be judged on your merit,” Melvin says. But Lawrence’s decision to leave helped him question his own intentions. Melvin went to seminary instead, met his beloved wife, and dedicated his life and career to creating a world that is “truly for everyone.”

Porterdale Cemetery in Columbus. King is buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in the cemetery. (Lynsey Weatherspoon for The Washington Post)

Albert King’s family — his uncle, Ocie Newsom; and his brother, George James — left the South for Detroit. James completed three years of high school. He filled out his draft registration card in January 1945, two days after his 18th birthday, enlisted and received an honorable discharge in the fall of 1948. When he died of heart disease at 48, he was single and unemployed. His uncle filled out his personal information on his death certificate. Ocie Newsom lived to be 96. He worked as a security guard in the Detroit area and kept a picture of himself with his twin brother when they were boys. He had a good sense of humor and a way with words, dressed well, called himself a ladies’ man and was an exceptional pool player.

His daughter, Helen Russell, is first cousin to Albert King. She studied at Howard University as a young woman, and after she graduated with a degree in nursing, she returned to Michigan, married and raised her two daughters. They all took care of Newsom in his final years. He didn’t say much about the life he left behind in the South, and never mentioned Albert.

I sent Russell the 80-year-old documents on the case, too. When she read through them she found herself focused on a blank spot in the records: the last 30 minutes or so of Albert’s life, after he’d escaped the bus but before Lummus found him. “I tried to put myself in that time,” she says, “to think about what that must have been like for him, to have to hide for such a long time and have fear, and know that, if he came out of hiding, that he had to think he may have not lived. ... And what he must have been thinking at that time: ‘What do I do? Do I get to my superior? Do I stay here?’ And he’s thinking: ‘Okay, they’re looking for me.’ They knew at that time they were lynching. So he had to sit in a dark place for a long time, and think about life and death, and what his choices could possibly be.”

Alexa Mills is a writer in New York. Washington Post researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.

Design by Christian Font. Art direction by Suzette Moyer. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks.

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