In my undergrad, I spent three years as a researcher and member of the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project. Under the diligent efforts of my Pulitzer Prize-winning professor, I researched and wrote papers about unsolved and unpunished racially motivated murders in the Jim Crow South.
One of those murders was that of a doctor and Georgia civil rights leader, Dr. Thomas Brewer. For a very long time, long after the Civil War ended, only white people could vote in primary elections. Since the South was dominated by the Democratic Party, winning the Democratic primary essentially meant winning an election, and the rationale behind enforcing the all-white primary was that the party was a private club and could choose who could and couldn’t vote for its representatives. According to the Texas Politics Project, both legal and illegal means were used to restrict the voting rights of minorities in primaries — Texas literally passed a 1923 law prohibiting Black people from voting in the Democratic Party primary.
Brewer played an instrumental role in the ability of Black Georgians to vote in Georgia. In 1944, a Columbus man named Primus King challenged the all-white primary system in Georgia. According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, Brewer was the leader of the NAACP in Columbus, Georgia, and backed King’s challenge.
The New Georgia Encyclopedia said Brewer was the man behind the scenes of challenging the all-white primary, donating to the case and galvanizing public support from the NAACP. Federal courts ruled in favor of Primus King’s challenge to the all-white primary, leading to Black voter registration drives and the subsequent hiring of Columbus’s first Black police officers. The judge ruled in 1946 that the Muscogee County Democratic Executive Party deprived King of his Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Seventeenth Amendment rights, declared any denial to vote in a primary unconstitutional and ordered the committee to pay $100 to King in damages. When the segregationist lawyer tried to defend restricting primary voting since the Democratic Party was supposed to be a private organization, the judge asked:
He asked it so many times that the segregationist lawyer said Black voters could only form a party of their own or join another white party, which deprived them of their constitutional rights.
Regardless, none of the progress could have been possible without Brewer’s work. And his activism made Brewer a lot of enemies. When Brewer supported Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, threats from the Ku Klux Klan escalated. He routinely advocated for more funding for Black schools and for them to be equal to white schools. He also tried to integrate a golf course in Columbus, and with racial resentment from white moderates in the South at an all-time high.
Brewer was killed under mysterious circumstances. His murder would have devastating consequences for Columbus, drawing 2,500 people to his funeral and weakening the NAACP in Columbus. Many Black people in WTVM expressed fear that Brewer could be killed so easily. According to Bill Madison, former President of the Columbus chapter of the NAACP:
His killer claimed self-defense, a common way killers of Black men in the Jim Crow South escaped consequences. Not only that but the killer, Luico Flowers, was killed himself a year later in what many speculate is a cover-up.
The message behind Brewer’s death was simple: if Thomas Brewer, the most high profile civil rights leader in Columbus wasn’t safe, no one was. Lillian McClung, the daughter of Columbus’s first mayor, A.J. McClung, recalls a mass exodus of Black professionals including dentists, doctors, and lawyers following the death of Thomas Brewer.
This is the story of Thomas Brewer’s contributions to civil rights, his killing, and the strange circumstances around the death of Brewer and Flowers.
Who was Thomas Brewer?
Beyond leading the NAACP and being a martyr for the civil rights movement, Thomas Brewer was a doctor. Originally from Alabama and earning his medical degree in Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Brewer migrated to Columbus, Georgia, to join the medical community in the city. He and other Black professionals would found the NAACP chapter in Columbus in 1939.
According to Columbus State University, Brewer also convinced Muscogee County to build a swimming pool, park, and library, for Black people in Columbus. Brewer was a lifelong physician and was often a delegate to the Republican National Convention. His contribution to fighting segregation and racial inequality in Columbus led the mayor of Columbus to make November 19 “Dr. Thomas H. Brewer Sr. Day.” In 2000, Brewer was listed as “100 People to Remember” in the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer.
Thomas Brewer’s death
In 2007, the Department of Justice reopened the case in Thomas Brewer after pressure from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). The DOJ wanted to see investigated Brewer’s civil rights were violated by his killer.
On February 18, 1956, the owner of a department store, Luico Flowers, shot and killed Thomas Brewer. Flowers and Brewer were familiar with each other, with Flowers’s F&B Department Store being a floor below Brewer’s office.
The two got into an argument about an arrest both witnessed from their businesses — a Black man was forcefully arrested and beaten. Brewer thought it was a case of police brutality, but Flowers believed the man was resisting arrest.
Of course, Flowers was the only one alive to tell his side of the story. Flowers said he killed Brewer in self-defense after Brewer reached into his pants for his gun. Of course, Brewer did carry a gun — he carried it all the time given the constant death threats he faced.
Flowers gave a written statement 10 days later to the Muscogee County grand jury. Flowers said tension had been building between himself and Flowers for years since Brewer allegedly threatened to start a boycott of his store. Flowers didn’t support a candidate Brewer wanted to win.
As for the incident of police brutality, Flowers said Brewer wanted him to intervene with the Safety Board since he had influence over it, and seek accountability for the arresting officer. Flowers, in disagreement, said no. However, Flowers said the incident wasn’t over at that point — Brewer was apparently persistent and wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Flowers and Brewer would apparently speak again in the next couple of days, but the tension culminated on February 18. Flowers said he called for protection from Brewer, but protection from a detective was lackluster — he allegedly saw Brewer pulling a gun from his pants, and Flowers shot Brewer seven times.
Three witnesses, including the detective, corroborated Flowers’s version of events. However, they all contradicted Flowers on two counts — Flowers said a witness had left the store prior to Brewers’s arrival, but the witnesses contradicted him. Flowers also said Brewer followed him into his office where he shot Brewer, but all three witnesses said Flowers followed Brewer into his office. Also, Brewer’s gun being found in his pants means it wasn’t drawn.
Not only that, but Flowers contradicted witness and police testimonies about his request for protection. The DOJ report said that Flowers anticipated that he would need self-defense:
These contradictions are suspicious, but they did not lead the grand jury to indict Brewer. The Associated Press said the grand jury sided with Flowers’s self-defense argument.
Luico Flowers’s death
While 1956 still signified the Jim Crow South in Columbus, Thomas Brewer’s killer not being held accountable was disappointing, but not shocking. The cold case was closed by the Department of Justice given a lack of prosecutorial evidence.
What was shocking was the death of Luico Flowers, a year later.
On February 11, 1957, Luico Flowers was shot and killed at the entrance of Dixie Theater, with a gunshot wound to the head. His death was ruled a suicide.
However, according to the Crisis Magazine, Thomas Brewer’s son, Dr. Thomas Brewer Jr., said Flowers’s death could not have been a suicide. Apparently, Flowers and Brewer were “friends,” and the building was owned by Brewer. Flowers rented his department store space from Brewer. Brewer Jr. questions how three white police officers could have just stood by while Flowers shot Brewer.
Brewer Jr. notes that Flowers was taken to an Alabama hospital where he hid for several days. When Flowers died, two guns were used, disputing the suicide declaration. There was also a trail of blood 50 yards from where Flowers was shot to where his body was found. The Dixie Theater was only across the street from where Flowers shot Brewer.
So was the death of Thomas Brewer a case of police conspiracy? It’s clear that Flowers’s death certainly wasn’t a suicide, so we have to question why Brewer’s killer would be killed a year later with two guns, and have his body dragged 50 yards away. Flowers also started to get paranoid, closing his store in the middle of the day because he thought he saw ghosts and heard voices.
Brewer Jr. has a theory:
What was the truth behind the Brewer murder? Perhaps we’ll never know beyond speculation because the evidence of conspiracy will be hard to find. According to the Department of Justice, the federal government can’t prosecute the suspect because he’s dead too.
Regardless, if Brewer’s gun was found inside his pants, he couldn’t have pulled it out. And he wasn’t known to have been a violent man. As a doctor, Brewer was also very intelligent, and it’s difficult to believe he would reach to pull a gun being outnumbered by multiple people hostile to him in the Jim Crow South. Why did Flowers need to engage in “self-defense” when he had multiple white police officers with him?
The fact is that Brewer’s death, and Flowers’s subsequent death, make no sense. Brewer obviously had a lot of enemies. I spent some time trying to request files from the FBI through the Freedom of Information/Privacy Act on the Thomas Brewer killing but lacked the means to go to D.C. myself and look in archives and files. The killing of Thomas Brewer led to a flight of Black professionals from Columbus and the weakening of the local civil rights movement — and it’s important for society to find out why, since the self-defense argument does not seem plausible here.
This post was previously published on Medium.
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Photo credit: Columbus Ledger-Enquirer