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How a 1946 dispute over a broken radio in Tennessee helped spark the civil rights movement

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COLUMBIA, Tenn. – A historical marker recognizing one of the most pivotal moments in Columbia’s history was installed in 2016 on a broken sidewalk in front of an abandoned building, covered in dust, almost forgotten.

Before then, a visual reminder of the incident, dubbed by many as the Columbia race riot of 1946, could only be found in history books propped on library shelves.

James Stephenson in his Navy uniform.

On Feb. 25, 1946, a dispute over a broken radio involving James Stephenson, 19, a U.S. Navy veteran, his mother Gladys and a white store clerk — led to a seminal court case some consider “the first step” in the U.S. civil rights movement.

As James Stephenson, a boxer, stood between the angry white store clerk and his mother, the clerk struck James in the head, prompting him to retaliate by pushing the clerk through the store window — both men and broken glass lying on the ground.

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