America's real racial terror: How lynch mobs & barbaric violence haunt us today

It's time to recognize our history of lynchings as a form of racial terrorism. Here's what it means today

Published February 14, 2015 12:00PM (EST)

Gadsden, Alabama., March 5, 1949.     (AP)
Gadsden, Alabama., March 5, 1949. (AP)

Earlier this month, President Obama made a remark about U.S. history that sent many members of the American far-right into a paroxysm of rage. Speaking at the annual National Prayer Breakfast, Obama said that it would be wrong to blame all Muslims or Islam itself for the cruelty and evil of ISIS, because every ideology and every religion includes people who are willing to distort their creed in order to justify oppression and brutality. "[L]est we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place," Obama said of ISIS, "remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ."

Conservatives were outraged that the president had the audacity to compare Americans — American Christians, at that! — to the murderous zealots that comprise the paramilitary terrorist group. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jamelle Bouie and others rightly noted that Obama wasn't merely telling the truth but was actually soft-pedaling the historical record. The truth is, Americans not only have a long history of supporting white supremacy with pseudo-Christian arguments; they also have a history of enacting violence on the bodies of their fellow citizens that was every bit as heinous as what ISIS has done to people throughout Syria and Iraq. And essentially for the same purposes, too.

That history is available to any American willing to go and find it. But a new report from the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) shows that the American past is even bloodier than we thought. According to "Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror," between the years 1877 and 1950, nearly 4,000 African-Americans were lynched by Southern whites. In fact, during the years spent researching for the report, EJI claims to have found at least 700 more examples of racial terrorism than previously known. And as EJI founder and leader Bryan Stevenson recently told the New York Times, these barbaric acts of violence had a symbolic, political purpose, just like ISIS's most-publicized crimes.

Recently, Salon spoke over the phone with Stevenson to discuss the report, the importance of recognizing these lynchings as a form of terrorism and how the age of racial terror still influences the United States today. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

The use of the word “terror” to describe these crimes, was that done consciously? If so, why do you think it’s important for us to use that word and see these acts of violence through that lens?

I heard from older people of color in the South over the last 10 years who have complained to me that they get angry and upset when they hear TV commentators and news analysts talking about how, after the 9/11 attacks, America is dealing with terrorism for the first time in the its history. What these older people of color will say is, Mr. Stevenson, we grew up with terrorism. We were menaced and threatened and lynched and traumatized every day of our lives. And it is injurious to us to not have that recognized by these casual comments. So our use of the word “terror” was definitely intentional.

There is a narrative about America’s racial history that we have not acknowledged, that we have not confronted. We have been burdened by continuing problems with race relations and racial equality because we have not understood the narratives in the way that I think we should. It actually begins with slavery; I think even the way we talk about slavery has been superficial. I don’t think the evil of slavery was involuntary servitude. To me the great evil of slavery was this narrative of racial difference, this ideology of white supremacy, that black people weren’t fully human, that they had deficits and deficiencies that meant that it was okay, that it was moral and just, to enslave them.

That narrative that was the true evil of slavery wasn’t addressed by the Thirteenth Amendment; it wasn’t addressed by the Emancipation Proclamation. As a result, slavery didn’t end at the end of the Civil War; it just evolved. It set up an era where white people in the South felt that they had to enforce racial hierarchy in all things. So the lynchings of African-Americans during this period of time were not just simple punishments for individuals accused of crimes. It was a statement to the entire African-American community that they must remain compliant to Jim Crow segregation; no voting rights, economic exploitation and racial hierarchy.

That’s what terrorism is about. It’s about effectuating social, political and economic conditions through menace, through violence, through terror. And that’s what we saw in the Deep South during this era of lynching.

What kind of non-criminal transgressions would lead to racial terrorism?

About 25 percent of the lynchings that we documented were for violations of the social order.

An African-American man was lynched in Blakley, Georgia, returning from World War I, because he refused to take off his U.S. military uniform. There was a man in Mississippi who was running for a train and he bumped into a white woman and he was lynched for that indiscretion. Jesse Thornton in Luverne, Alabama, in 1940 was lynched because he approached a police officer to ask for assistance and he didn’t say “mister” before he evoked the officer’s name, and that made him vulnerable to an accusation of being above himself — “uppity.”

These kinds of lynchings took place all the time. In the 1920s, when black sharecroppers felt they were being exploited by white landowners who were not paying them what they had promised, if they complained about that, if they organized and formed a union, they were oftentimes lynched. The great Elaine massacre that took place in Elaine, Arkansas, which resulted in dozens of people being killed, was inspired by black farmworkers trying to organize for better treatment and economic conditions. So lynching was very much a tool designed to sustain the economic, social and political order of the day, which very much had people of color in a subordinate position.

It was also something that could be celebrated and tolerated, even in the face of very grotesque barbarity, because African-American people still weren’t seen as fully human and entitled to justice. What’s interesting is a lot of people, when they hear about lynching, they’re really thinking about frontier justice, where somebody gets hanged from a tree. And there were parts of this country were you did see people being executed in a crude form, because there was no functioning criminal justice system. That’s not true of the racial-terror lynchings; almost all of these lynchings took place in spaces where there was a functioning criminal justice system, but there was perception that African-Americans weren’t good enough to be afforded the dignity and respect of a trial, of a pronouncement of a sentence before they were executed.

When lynchings would happen, was it something that would happen in the shadows, as if it were regarded as necessary but ugly? Or was it more like the opening line in “Desolation Row"?

No, I think one of the really disturbing parts of the research we’ve done is to discover how many lynchings could be fairly characterized as what we call “public-spectacle lynchings,” where you have hundreds, sometimes thousands of people attending these events. We documented hundreds of lynchings that would be characterized as public-spectacle lynchings because they were literally on the courthouse lawn, oftentimes attended by hundreds or thousands of local residents.

There’d be lynchings where the local newspaper would advertise the time and date and location of the lynching the day before, or hours before. It’s really quite astonishing to imagine the entire town coming out to watch someone burned to death or mutilated or shot hundreds of times, or dragged through the streets. To see this kind of barbarism celebrated, the idea that people would take their children to “enjoy” the spectacle of this violence, says something really astonishing about the cultural attitudes that made lynching such a widespread phenomenon with so little resistance.

They would be advertised and promoted beforehand?

That’s correct. We have in our report an interesting newspaper article basically announcing “Negro to be burned today at 5 pm” and this description of what’s going to be happen. It’s fascinating for us as researchers that the grisly, grotesque details of the lynchings were sometimes easy to discover, because the local press, which was sympathetic to the lynching, didn’t have any shame about reporting all the ways the body was mutilated and tortured and destroyed. That says something about their comfort level with this kind of violence.

Remembering is important in its own right, of course. But how do you think the findings in this report should influence the way we see our country today?

I think we need to really reorient to a more truthful reflection around our history. I think we’ve been very bad at acknowledging our failures as a society, the ways in which we tolerate gross inequality, gross injustice. We have been too celebratory about parts of our history that really require more complicated reflections.

If you come to the South, you see this on display, because our landscape is littered with hundreds of monuments and memorials to the Confederacy, and we have romanticized this 19th-century era, when people were defending slavery, fighting to preserve slavery. We’ve named buildings and streets and schools after the architects of the resistance to ending slavery without any reflection on what they represent. In Alabama, Jefferson Davis’s birthday is a state holiday. Confederate memorial day is a state holiday. We don’t celebrate Dr. King’s birthday — we have Martin Luther King/Robert E. Lee day. It’s essentially a segregated holiday.

I think that narrative has to be complicated. I think it’s necessary because I think there’s a consequence when you don’t talk about your history honestly. I think the presumption of [African-American] dangerousness and guilt that was born during the lynching era still haunts us, still complicates the lives of the people of color, still creates questions and tensions and issues — from police shootings to a criminal justice system that disproportionately, unfairly sentences people of color, or wrongly convicts them.

Our unwillingness to fully face up to our history in this regard sometimes reminds me of what happened in post-Franco Spain: the unacknowledged but palpable collective amnesia that followed the dismantling of his regime and the return of liberal democracy.

I’m encouraged by what I see in other parts of the world.

After Apartheid, South Africa recognized that it had to commit itself to a process of truth and reconciliation. In Rwanda, you hear people talking about the need for truth and reconciliation to recover from the genocide. In Germany, you are forced to deal with the legacy of the Holocaust, because there are markers, monuments and stones all across the spaces where Jewish families were abducted and taken away. The concentration camps have been converted into places where people are invited to reflect and remember.

And that kind of sober reflection, I think, creates a more hopeful future. We do the opposite in this country. We don’t talk about our history of segregation and our history of lynching and our history of enslavement. We try to just celebrate the resolution of these things as if there were no lasting consequences. I think that has set us up for continuing challenges around racial justice that we would do better to approach differently.

Do you have any plans for pushing this message forward now that the report is out? You’re hoping to establish some historical markers to commemorate these atrocities, right?

I’m really excited about what I hope we can do. I think the visual landscape of this country needs to change. I think we need to mark and memorialize these spaces and force people to deal more honestly with this history. I love museums that are dedicated to civil rights or African-American history, but only the people who are interested tend to go into those museums. I think what I like about public art and public markers and public monuments is that the entire community is sort of forced to deal with what they represent. And I think if we can elevate discourse and language and memory around these incidents, we can trigger conversations that will ultimately make us a healthier society.

We put up slave markers in downtown Montgomery, and I think it’s been a really wonderful thing to see people gathering around these markers and talking about the history of slavery that’s so dominated this community. I know that it has inspired more conversation about enslavement and what it’s done to us, and what it represents, and the challenges that we still face because of our narrative of racial difference. I think lynching markers and memorials can do the same.

We have a criminal justice system that is very contaminated by this narrative of racial difference. I think we’re not working as hard as we should be working to free ourselves from the bias, the distortions, the inequality created by that race consequence. I think if we were a little more attentive to our history of lynching and terrorism, we might be motivated to do some things that we haven’t been motivated to do just yet. That’s really what excites me — that we can begin a process of something that’s more akin to transitional justice in this country, that elevates truth in hope of reconciliation. Because that’s the only way, I think, that we are going to make progress that so many of us are desperate to see.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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