“Our country’s national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of an hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an “unwritten law” that justifies them in putting human beings to death without complaint under oath, without opportunity to make defense, and without right of appeal.”
— Ida B Wells-Barnett
On Sunday afternoon, I made a sojourn to Detroit’s Charles H Wright Museum of African History. On the second floor there’s a photographic expose on lynching in America and the devastating toll it took on the bodies of the victims and on the collective psyche of African American people.
As I entered the display room, one of the first exhibits to draw my attention was that of a whip in a glass case. It was preserved from the antebellum South where it was used as a vicious tool of terror and subjugation on the flesh of innumerable Blacks. Unlike the bullwhips made famous in Hollywood movies and American folklore, this whip was short and stout. No more than 2 and a half feet in length. The body of the whip was expertly braided. Most revealing, perhaps, concerning the devious mind set of it’s fashioner was the handle. In it was carved a ghastly likeness of a Black man’s head. His face twisted in agony. The tongue protruding out and upward in a perennial scream. It occurred to me that this was the first time I’d seen (or heard of) an instrument of torture fashioned into a grotesque caricature of its intended victim, and I shuddered at the unmitigated evil of it all.
Another exhibit depicted the lynching of a Black man named Joseph Richardson. Reportedly the town drunk, he was mercilessly set upon and murdered for accidentally stumbling into a White girl.
Then there’s the photo exhibit of Lige Daniels, who was abducted on August 3, 1930 in Center, Texas while under the protection of the US Army’s 7th Calvary. In fact a frequent theme in these incidents is that many of the victims were in police or federal custody when they were supposedly commandeered away from these “protective” agents and agencies by White mobs. Yet it has also been documented that police and government authorities have played a major role in abductions, shootings, beatings, and lynching.
I stopped and stared at the photo that portrayed the brutal mob murder of Claude Neal on October 26, 1934; an event which prompted Walter White of the NAACP to report, “(White) men, women and children were numbered in the vast throng that came to witness the lynching. Even little children drove their weapons deep into the flesh of the dead man.”
Not long into the exhibit, the awed silence gave way to sobbing and tears of bereavement. I heard a Black woman crying, then noticed as she covered her tear stained face with her hands. Then another woman across from me began to weep, tissue in hand, as she was apparently overcome by the violence and accumulative effect of the photographs.
I noticed that in the exhibit depicting the torture and murders of Jessie Slayton and Will Mills (June 1, 1896, Columbus Georgia) the photo showed Blacks as well as Whites in the crowd, with the victims suspended from a rope in the background. The expressions on the faces of the Blacks were fearful. Yet there was something more. It was as if their faces were frozen into requisite masks of resignation, shock, horror, and defeat. Contrary to this, the expressions of the Whites ranged from amusement to jubilation. Some of them pointed to the grisly spectacle (that had once housed the spirits of Black men) as if it were some kind of strange trophy that they were proud to show off.
Yet in the trilogy of photographs depicting the lynching of a Black man named Frank Embree in Fazete Missouri (July 22, 1899) the victim’s face and posture are defiant, revealing (under these most trying of circumstances) almost superhuman courage. Later he’s shown mutilated, then hung; his lifeless body suspended in mid-air with a makeshift blanket slung over his lower body in an obvious attempt to conceal the devilish act of castration.
Then there was the lynching of Will James in Cairo, Illinois (November 11, 1909). After James was hanged, his body was riddled with bullets. His heart was cut out and diced up, while the White mob jockeyed for possession of the bloody remnants to be used as keepsakes, treasured as mementos, or displayed as coffee table conversation pieces.
About halfway through the exhibit, I noticed that small children, who before entering the room had been loud and playful, were now overwhelmed into a reverent silence. Perhaps despite their youth they knew that what we were experiencing was something sacred, in the sense that the ramifications of it could act as a catalyst, as a juncture of consciousness, as a spiritual realization that would bind us together in unity, compassion, love, and purpose-men, women, children, even infants in the womb-not yet born.
The last photo display was of a young African American named Michael Donald, killed in Mobile, Alabama on March 21, 1981. His body was tied to a tree, his feet solidly resting on the ground. Indicating not a hanging so much as a fatal beating or shooting, with the rope utilized to secure him for the expedience of the murderous assault. On his feet he wore a pair of Converse All Star gym shoes, identical to the thousands of pairs made fashionable by young Black men during that relatively modern era.
Lynching of African Americans in Contemporary Times
Although lynching is usually thought of as a disgraceful chapter in American history. It is, in fact, a practice that continues in contemporary times. Curiously, we often show a tendency to regulate crimes against Black people to the back burner of our consciousness and hope that things have changed for the better. In light of this, the 1998 racial butchery of James Byrd Jr, and the subsequent lynching of Raynard Johnson and David Newert are most worthy of our attention and our remembrance.
On a summer night in Jasper Texas in an incident that reached international notoriety, James Byrd Jr. was drug by 3 White men (Shawn Berry, Russel Brewer, and Bill King) from the back of a pick-up truck for a distance of over three miles at speeds reaching 60 miles per hour.
In the year 2000, the battered body of 17-year-old Raynard Johnson was found hanging from a tree in the front yard of his home. Gunshots had been fired out side his house for two days before his body was found. His murder was apparently in retaliation for his romantic involvement with a young White woman. Despite startling evidence of lynching, the local coroner ruled it a suicide, bringing to mind the traditional practice of racist authorities when a Black person is found murdered.(It is usually written off as suicide or stamped as “justifiable homicide”).
In the year 2004 in the state of Mississippi, a 55-year-old Black man named Roy Veal attempted to attain land title to property that he believed was owned by his family. Shortly afterward, his body was discovered dangling from a tree with a hood over the head. Upon examination his body revealed unmistakable signs of blunt force trauma. Again law enforcement authorities treated the killing as a suicide.
In the United States of America the crime of murder is not bound by the limitations of time. Homicide, regardless of the methodology, is a capital offence, which has the potential to be prosecuted into infinity.
It is a shameful testament to the moral and judicial condition of our nation that many (if not most) of the culprits of the aforementioned crimes were (or are) well known to the people in the regions where the occurred. Yet none, with the exception of the murderers of James Byrd Jr, have ever been arrested or prosecuted.
The thousands of documented lynching of African American people (many with clear evidence in the form of items taken from the victims, photographs depicting the murders, and eyewitness accounts) should be thoroughly investigated with the intent to bring the murderers and the terrorists to the bar of justice and to compensate the families of the victims with financial restitution and reparation. Not to do so, is yet another form of lynching.
Moreover, there is legal precedent of indemnities paid in several cases of mob violence committed against other groups. For example, the US government paid China $147,748.74 for the Rock Springs, Wyoming massacre. It also paid China $276,619.75 for atrocities inflicted on Chinese immigrants on the Pacific coast. The US Compensated Italy $24,330.09 for the slaughter of Italian prisoners held in federal protection in New Orleans, Louisiana. And it paid $2,88.00 for crimes committed against James Bain and Frederick Dawson.
The legacy and the current practice of lynching in America, along with White supremist ideology and methodology, will never be addressed if we minimize it, pretend it does not exist, or silently pray for the situation to improve while taking no intelligent and viable action.
We must recognize our common plight, and pool our economic, intellectual, and political resources to ensure that lynching and victimization against African people (in whatever form) is truly a thing of the past.
Notes and References:
. “Lynch Law in America”, Article by Ida B Wells-Barnett, January 1900, The Arena Magazine.
. “Mississippi Freedom Summer Remembered”,Article by David Pitts, accessible online at: http://usinfo.state.gov/usa/blackhis/missis.htm
. Dina Temple-Ratson, “A Death in Texas”, Henry Holt andCompany,LLC,. NewYork, NY (2OO2)
. “Local Cops try to Cover up Lynching”, Article by Monica Moorehead, July 13, 2000, Workers World Newspaer.
. “Mississippi is for Haters”, Article by David Neiwert, April 25, 2004,
accessible online at: http://www.gisleson.com/blog/archive/000470.htm
. “Lynch Law in America”, Ida B Wells-Barnett