In his famous speech, Dr. King proclaimed: "I have a dream that one day, even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice."When he said those powerful words, Mississippi wasn't the only state sweltering with the heat of hatred and violence. In 1964, Jacksonville, Florida, was in the throes of deadly race riots. In the midst of the turmoil, police say four young white men set out looking for trouble—they armed themselves and decided to kill a black person.Across town, Johnnie Mae Chappell, a 35-year-old housekeeper and mother of 10, was walking home from work. "They just slowed down and shot Mrs. Chappell to death with a single shot from a .22-caliber revolver," says C. Lee Cody Jr., a former detective sergeant. "It was probably a good 10 miles to the nearest facility that would accept her. She couldn't go to a white hospital. And she bled to death. That was her cause of death.The only photo that still exists of Johnnie Mae Chappell was shot at the morgue. Her grieving husband, Willie, stands over her just hours after she died.
"I remember that night," says Johnnie Mae's son, Willie Jr. "Our lives stopped. Our world shut down. It was like everything just froze in time."After Johnnie Mae's death, her husband, Willie, worked night and day to support his family. With little time spent at home, the state ruled Willie an unfit father and took his children away. "I can remember when we were taken away from my father," says Shelton, one of Willie and Johnnie Mae's sons. "I hadn't seen my brothers and sisters for years after that. We were put in separate foster homes."Shelton, the youngest of 10, was just an infant when his mother died and has no memories of her. He grew up longing for his family and always wondered what really happened on that dark night in 1964. "I knew there was more information out there than what I had known or heard. If you read back in some of the newspapers back then, they barely put anything in there about our mother being killed," Shelton says.
C. Lee Cody Jr. was a detective sergeant with the sheriff's office when Johnnie Mae Chappell was killed. Lee says the sheriff's department did not assign anyone to investigate the murder, so he and his partner took on the case themselves.Lee says he and his partner arrested the suspects, got full confessions and found the murder weapon. Still, Lee says charges against three of the four men were completely dropped. "Here is a black woman gunned down in cold blood on a dark, lonely highway, and none of them cared. We lived in a racist city and a racist town run by racist people," Lee says.Outraged, Lee demanded answers from his bosses. Soon after, he was fired and his life began to unravel. "I got a job driving a garbage truck, and I wasn't a very good husband, and I drank too much," he says. "I was eaten up with it, there's no doubt about it."
Decades later, in 1996, Lee saw something in the newspaper that would change everything. "I happened to see a picture of a black man kneeling down [at a gravesite]," Lee says. "It just caught my eye, and I stopped and just kind of looked at it, and I saw the name Chappell. Then, of course, that piqued my interest."Lee read that Johnnie Mae's grown children were planning a proper memorial for their mother 32 years after her murder. Lee knew he had to be there. "I said, 'Well, if you don't go, and you don't tell the family members if they're there—Shelton, whomever—how their mother was criminally violated, they'll never know,'" he says.Lee attended the service and told Shelton everything he knew about that night—and the blatant injustice that followed. "He looked at me and a little tear rolled down his cheek," Lee says. "And he said, 'Will you help us?' And I said, 'Yep.'"
Shelton and Lee—two men from completely different worlds— had spent decades tormented by the same senseless crime. Now, things were about to change as they embarked on a journey for justice together.The stretch of highway where Johnnie Mae was gunned down is now named for her. Johnnie Mae's name also hangs on the wall of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a place of great honor.But the bond between Shelton and Lee transcends their pursuit of justice. Today, the little boy who grew up longing for a family has found comfort in an unexpected place. "[Lee's] like a father figure, just a great friend," Shelton says."I love Shelton like my own children," Lee says.Together, they continue their fight. Shelton and Lee have taken their story all the way to the justice department. They say they won't stop until Johnnie Mae's case is reopened and federal charges are brought against the men alleged to be involved in the murder."Dr. King had a dream," Shelton says. "He has laid out the road map to justice. And I listen to his speeches all the time to remind me.""I thank God for him because I'm able to not be bitter and not have that hatred. … My mother would say fight on until justice is done."