Andrew Lee Anderson (Killing of)
On July 17, 1963, an African American teenager named Andrew Lee Anderson was killed while fleeing from a posse of white citizens and sheriff’s deputies. Anderson’s killing, and its classification as an “excusable homicide,” illustrates how white citizens of Crittenden County could commit acts of violence against Black citizens with impunity at this time and shows how the legal system failed African Americans.
Earlier that day, sixteen-year-old Anderson had been mowing a lawn in Marion (Crittenden County) when a white woman accused him of sexually assaulting her eight-year-old daughter. The mother followed Anderson in her car and called for help, attracting some neighbors and local law enforcement who took over the pursuit. The armed posse was composed of six sheriff’s deputies and three private citizens, one of whom, Sam Burns, was the girl’s stepfather. Anderson fled from the posse into a nearby soybean field. Newspapers reported that Anderson had stopped briefly to put his arms up in surrender, but one of the posse members, later speculated to be Sam Burns, shot at Anderson, hitting him in the leg. The posse apprehended Anderson and transported him to a hospital, where he died sometime after admission.
In accordance with Arkansas law, the Crittenden County coroner opened an inquisition to determine if Anderson’s killing was a criminal act. Coroner T. H. McGough summoned a grand jury of Crittenden County residents to examine the case. The all-white jury heard testimony from fifteen witnesses, including sheriff’s deputies, doctors, and the girl’s mother. Most of the witnesses testified that they did not know who fired the gun, and some testified that they did not hear the shot at all. Seven members of the Crittenden County Sheriff’s Department, including Sheriff Cecil V. Goodwin, testified that they did not know who fired the shot. One deputy even testified that he had not heard the shot. Sheriff Goodwin brought with him Anderson’s underclothing, claiming that the “stiffening” at the crotch was evidence that Anderson had indeed committed the sexual assault. When asked by jurors, Goodwin claimed that he had no knowledge of the incident other than what others had told him.
Three doctors also testified at the inquest, two of whom had assisted Anderson when he arrived at the hospital. Those two doctors offered conflicting versions of Anderson’s state upon arrival. The first doctor who attended Anderson claimed that Anderson had been “thrashing wildly about,” making it difficult to offer him any medical assistance. When asked by a juror, the second doctor testified that Anderson had “moved his extremities a couple of times very mildly and that was it.” A third doctor, L. C. McVay, testified that the deputies had originally brought Anderson to him, but he instructed them that there was nothing he could do and to take him to the hospital. According to the testimony of the girl’s mother, McVay saw the girl after the alleged assault, though he did not examine her for any signs of sexual assault.
Notably, Sam Burns, the person suspected of firing the shot, did not testify, on advice of counsel. Only one witness, H. W. Brackin, mentioned Burns’s name in testimony. Brackin was with Burns during the chase and testified that, when ordered to stop, Anderson “put his hands over his head…then he stopped.” After a moment, Anderson resumed running, and Burns asked if he should shoot. Brackin told Burns to just “knock his props out from under him.” In an exchange with the jury, Brackin testified: “The rifle fired I think. I can’t be sure. The deputies were getting out of the car. I did hear one shot. I can’t say for sure if Sam did it, but I assume he did.” After just one day of testimony, the jury ruled Anderson’s killing an excusable homicide.
In the days following the verdict, local activists demanded to know who shot Anderson and questioned whether Anderson could have been apprehended without use of force. W. E. Battle and T. H. Green, representatives of the East Arkansas District Sunday School and Baptist Training Union Congress, published their demands in a statement to the West Memphis Times.
On July 20, 1963, Anderson’s father and three companions approached George Howard, president of the Arkansas State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), asking for assistance. L. C. Bates, who was field secretary of the Arkansas NAACP, and twelve others contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on July 23, 1963, and asked that the bureau determine whether Anderson’s civil rights had been violated. Bates criticized the coroner’s inquest for multiple reasons, including the all-white jury. On July 24, 1963, the FBI opened an investigation, but no arrests were ever made.
In 2007, the FBI reopened the case as part of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Reauthorization Act of 2007. Investigators spoke with Anderson’s sisters, who claimed that their brother had started a lawnmower that “startled a horse that a young girl was riding nearby. Andrew attempted to assist the girl, and while attempting to re-gain control of the horse, this action was construed by the girl’s step-father as a sexually-motivated attack toward her.” An AP story on the killing does mention that he had left his home in nearby Vincent (Crittenden County) to look for work and was mowing a lawn shortly before being killed. The FBI closed the investigation in 2010. Because no new information was found, and because members of the posse were deceased, investigators declined to prosecute.
Surviving members of Anderson’s family continue to maintain his innocence. His name is among those displayed at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial Center as “The Forgotten.”
For additional information:
“Coroner’s Inquisition Upon the View of the Dead Body of Andrew Lee Anderson.” Transcript of Testimony, Circuit Court of Crittenden County, Arkansas, 20-61.
“Death of Negro Chased into Field Ruled Justifiable.” Northwest Arkansas Times, July 19, 1963, p. 12.
“FBI Probes Negro Death at Marion.” Camden News (Camden, Arkansas), July 28, 1963, p. 1.
“The Forgotten.” SPLCenter.org. Online at https://www.splcenter.org/what-we-do/civil-rights-memorial/forgotten (accessed November 23, 2021).
“Investigation of Shooting Said Closed.” Biloxi Daily Herald (Biloxi, Mississippi), July 20, 1963, p. 19.
Unfinished: Deep South. https://www.stitcher.com/show/unfinished/episode/introducing-unfinished-deep-south-200159240 (accessed November 23, 20201).
Ward, Shelly. United States Federal Bureau of Investigation, Andrew Lee Anderson Notice to Close File, File # 144-9-1901, Washington DC: United States Department of Justice, 2010. Online at https://www.justice.gov/crt/case-document/andrew-lee-anderson-notice-close-file (accessed November 23, 2021).
“Youth Fatally Shot in Field in Arkansas.” Biloxi Daily Herald (Biloxi, Mississippi), July 18, 1963, p. 24.
Samuel M. Ownbey
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