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Groups ask Gov. Lee to exonerate Black man they say was wrongfully executed in 1922

In 1922, Maurice F. Mays was executed after authorities said he robbed and killed a woman in North Knoxville. He maintained his innocence until he died.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Beck Cultural Center is asking Governor Bill Lee to officially exonerate a Black man who they say was wrongfully executed in 1922.

In 1919, Knoxville became one of many American cities that took part in the Red Summer. It was a period marked by intense violence against Black communities, perpetrated partly by white terror organizations like the Ku Klux Klan.

Riots broke in Knoxville, following a trend seen in cities across the U.S. They were fueled partly by economic angst as Black communities, freed from slavery just five decades earlier, started to compete for jobs in those cities. But most of all, historians say they were fueled by hate.

According to the Beck Center, it is still unknown how many people died in Knoxville during the Red Summer.

Maurice F. Mays was one of the many people caught up in this period of racial terror. On August 30, 1919, Bertie Lindsey, a 27-year-old white woman, was shot and killed by an allegedly Black intruder in her home. One of her cousins identified Mays as the killer after a quick lineup by police.

Even until the day he died, Mays maintained his innocence. But less than 3 years later on March 15, 1922, he was executed. He professed that he was innocent even with his last words, according to the Beck Center. Those last words are below.

“Bless those thousands who have so nobly stood by me, though we stand now in defeat: and forgive those whom the narrowness of prejudices has placed against me. The lash of prejudiced has whipped me into the shadows of death. Cleanse the sinful hearts of men who have dipped their fingers in my innocent blood. Oh, God I am innocent of the crime for which I am to die.” 

He was tried by an all-white jury less than a month after his arrest. After an appeal, another all-white jury convicted him to die.

He was executed at 35 years old. Now, the Beck Center is working with a legal team to ask Governor Lee to formally exonerate him. In 2012, then-Governor Bill Haslam deferred judgment to the juries of the day that found him guilty, in a similar plea to exonerate Mays.

POP TENN, a Knoxville advocacy group, also organized a petition to exonerate Mays.

"Acknowledge him and his death in a proper way, and secondly, I think we [need to] begin to have more conversations about how important it was to write that history and what that means today — and how we go forward with laws, or whatever it is we do, to make sure the justice system works for all people," said Renee Kesler, the president of the Beck Center.

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