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Can We Focus on Lynching

Terry H. Schwadron

June 23, 2020

The horror of bodies hanging from trees continues — an expression of the some of the worst that humanity serves up. Let’s be clear: Lynching has no place in America.

It’s the “strange fruit” that Billie Holiday sang about, the thousands of which the National Memorial for Peace and Justice museum in Montgomery, Ala, has memorialized, and now, several new cases, some of which on investigation may not be suicides, as originally reported.

They include a 17-year-old African American boy hanging from a tree in an elementary school playground in Spring, TX., a Latino man in Houston, a Black man in New York City and two in Victorville and Palmdale, CA, Meanwhile, hate crime investigations of nooses being found have been reported from Oakland to New York City, and yesterday in the garage of race car driver Bubba Wallace, the spark behind removing Confederate flags from NASCAR races.

A new report by Byron Stevenson’s Equal Justice Institute has found that there were as many as 2,000 lynchings of Black citizens, many previously undiscovered, in the dozen years of Reconstruction following the Civil War, 1865–1877. It’s not just some ancient history: Between Reconstruction and now, there have been more than 4,400 lynchings of Blacks that have been symbolically memorialized in the Montgomery museum.

Every study suggests the numbers are undercounted for all the reasons that mob actions or acts of local retribution might be shelved. There were obvious reasons for KKK members to wear masks.

Lynching means looking the captured victim in the eye and watching him or her writhe in pain until death. It is unusually violent.

Even if the White House ignores them, these events demand our attention, of course, at the least to help explain the deep-seated fears, feelings, anger and frustration with a society that seems not to want to remember these atrocities as current or continuing. You can hear it in conversations and policy debates that start with denying personal responsibility for slavery or the notion that an over-militarized attitude towards policing, particularly in Black and brown communities, can be regarded as institutionalized, systemic authority for brutality.

In these denials, there always is a Reason for brutal tactics, whether justified or not. By contrast, there seems to be no societal demand to explain nooses and hangings.

The history

Your moment of U.S. history: After the Civil War, Reconstruction brought the registration of thousands of black voters and the election of hundreds of Black officials, as well as with fierce resistance, ending in 1877 drained of federal resources. That resistance resulted in thousands of lynchings, often away from mobs, and mostly from the documents citing reasons that 140 years later, we find predictably absurd.

What lynchings did reflect was White Supremacy and hate, pure and simple. And they have left us a legacy of violence and racial discord that we may never fully resolve. Laws and legislation can go only so far; they don’t reach the individual heart.

The murders described in the new report include politically-motivated massacres, such as the killing of as many as 150 Black people who were protesting a fixed election in Colfax, La., and singular instances of brutality, such as when three white men set fire to a black man in Tennessee in 1873, “just for the fun of seeing” the man “jump,” as one of the killers later said. There was little official restraint for vigilante groups like the Klan, and the numbers of deaths are notoriously unreliable.

Other documented deaths include Black elected officials and a Black man who had the temerity to vote in a political convention to nominate a Republican governor.

“The local minister, the local doctor, the local lawyer, the head of the City Council — these are the guys inflicting violence,” historian Eric Foner of Columbia University told The New York Times. “Even more than that, it’s supported by the vast bulk of the population.”

What About Now?

When a couple of weeks ago, the two bodies in Southern California were found hanging, there were quick findings that they were suicides before authorities, prompted by demonstrations, launched a deeper investigation. It does seem odd that two Black people in different communities would pick hanging from trees, a symbol of hate, as the best means for suicide., one with a computer cord around his neck.

The FBI is monitoring the investigations by the Los Angeles County Sheriff in areas where there have been documented cases of both police abuse and white supremacist activity.

Along with the other cases in Texas and Tennessee, the cases would seem to highlight exactly the sort of hate that is the object of multi-ethnic street protests in 750 cities across the country. That these incidents may end up being suicides, what strikes me is just how near to the surface our deep hatreds lie, whatever the slogan of the day.

Calls for Black Lives Matter are drawing responses from some nebulous other side, which alternately wants to defend police procedures or just push back against perceived Black assertiveness or argue that I personally never got to where I am through White Privilege. One push on the street is drawing another push from the sidelines, spilling into the street.

That’s how Donald Trump thinks he wins by calling for force to maintain an orderly society in which he conveniently forgets that some citizens lack full rights.

Mine is a family that survived hate. Hate is not something for light weeding; it requires a full-on attack on every front, remembering always that equality is practical as well as aspirational.

We’re so focused on the removal of Confederate statues and clearing the store shelves of brand names with racial overtones that we are forgetting to look at ourselves and our decided indifference to all that is represented by these lynchings.

Americans can do better. And we must.


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Journalist, musician, community volunteer

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