On Sept. 8, 1940, a mob of masked white men dragged Austin Callaway out of his jail cell in LaGrange, Georgia, shot him multiple times in the head and arms, and left him for dead. He is believed to have been 16 or 18 when he was killed.
On Jan. 26, 2017–almost eight decades later–the police chief of LaGrange apologized for his department's failure to fully investigate or arrest any of the man involved in Callaway's murder.
“I sincerely regret and denounce the role our Police Department played in Callaway’s lynching, both through our action and our inaction,” Chief Louis Dekmar, who is white, told the crowd at an African-American church, which included members of Callaway's family. “And for that, I’m profoundly sorry. It should never have happened.”
Dekmar said in an interview with The New York Times that he first heard about the case two or three years ago, when one of his fellow officers overheard a black woman say "They killed our people" while looking at old photos of the police on display.
But the chief could only find "sketchy reports" of Callaway's death at all, with no records that there was an investigation, any arrests, or any follow-up by the local media, which at the time framed Callaway's death “as a result of bullets fired by an unknown person or group of individuals.”
As Dekmar investigated the case further, it became clear that while the lynching was largely forgotten in the department's and white residents' memories, generations of black community members never forgot.
“There are relatives here and people who still remember,” he told the Times. “Even if those people are not still alive, down through the generations, that memory is still alive. That’s a burden that officers carry.”
The apology was part of a broader effort by city and local officials to reconcile with past injustices and rebuild trust with police, a movement that's taken on a renewed urgency with the national rise of groups like Black Lives Matter.
Civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis praised Dekmar's actions in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“He was moved by something,” Lewis said. “I call it the spirit of history.”