Politics & Media
Jan 10, 2018, 05:58AM

The Festering Wound of Lynching

Memorials to victims of white terror may begin the healing. 

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“The past is never dead. It's not even past,” William Faulkner famously wrote about history's desiccated hand picking at scabbed wounds. And the recent turmoil surrounding the memorialization of the Confederacy has torn the scabs off those 150-year-old lacerations.

In all the controversy over Confederate memorials, one unhealed wound of American history remains scabrous—lynching.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has counted 718 monuments memorializing the Confederacy, some as far as Montana and Arizona. The largest is a 35-story obelisk glorifying the Kentucky birthplace of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

But only a few reminders exist of extrajudicial, racially-motivated public murders meant to instill terror by groups of whites—the definition of lynching. Only one monument and a handful of markers have been installed in recent years to note any of the victims' names, their time on earth, what happened to them, where they were killed.

In the South particularly, lynchings were community affairs, some announced beforehand in local newspapers. Often resembling a boisterous carnival, women and children pushed up among large excited crowds to watch the proceedings. Some victims were tortured or burned. Castrations were a favorite. Police and sheriffs were regularly complicit. Almost all killers went free. Bodies were cut up and pieces distributed as trophies. Commemorative photos were taken. Even souvenir postcards were printed and sold, such as this one:

The victims began to recede into the mists of history, the extent of their numbers and many names not completely known, although attempts to rescue their memory started early.

The 1892 Memphis torture and lynching of three men, including Thomas Moss, outraged his friend Ida B. Wells. The crusading civil and women’s rights journalist organized the first anti-lynching campaign by recording and publicizing them.

As lynching terror became a routine part of American life in the early 1900s, a nerdy University of Chicago educated sociologist, Monroe Nathan Work, started a lifelong compilation of African-American statistics. A son of slaves, Work created the Department of Records at Tuskegee Institute where he gathered data on African-American life... including lynchings.

With meticulous research to preclude charges of "fake news" of the day from white Southern deniers, Wells’ and Monroe Work's records are the foundation of what is known about these murders.

The NAACP counts 4743 lynchings between 1882 and 1968, the large majority being African-Americans. The Equal Justice Initiative, an organization dedicated to judicial reform, counts 4075 “racial terror lynchings” in 12 mostly Southern states between 1877 and 1950.

By expanding the definition of lynching, there have been additional hundreds—if not thousands—racially or ethnically motivated murders, such as by roving white mobs during race riots. Many of these murders occurred outside the South, and not all victims were African-American: indigenous peoples, Hispanics, Chinese, Italians, Jews, and even two Japanese can be counted as having been killed by mobs because of their race or ethnicity.

These murders are considered to have a common motive: instituting terror in the service of maintaining white supremacy.

"With time and distance people tend to forget the struggle, the reason things came to be," observes RJ Ramey, a techie with a Silicon Valley background who became interested in the history of racial killings. Adding to Monroe Work's records, he created the crowd-funded Auut Studio to bring the data to the web. Ramey sleuthed and after five years of research launched the "Monroe Work Today" website as a tribute to the scholar. Ramey counts 4796 victims verified between 1834 and 1964, but he estimates there are probably as many as 5700.

"Monroe Work, he was making sure every name was written down. You can't help know that he knew exactly what he was doing. So that a 100 years from now those names would still be there," says Ramey.

An interactive map on the website allows the viewer to zoom in and hover over a dot to reveal the name (if known), ethnicity, and circumstances of each killing. A second map distinguishes between the strict definition of "lynching" and victims murdered in mob violence and race riots.

Several other virtual lynching memorials are also on the web. Ken Gonzalez-Day is an artist known for his piece “Erased Lynchings” featuring photographs with victims’ bodies removed. He researched some 350 racial murders in California. The victims were largely indigenous peoples, Hispanics, and Chinese. He launched a website with a “downtown walking tour” of lynching sites in Los Angeles out of a list of Southern California white supremacist killings from 1850 through 1910.

But virtual lists of lynching victims in cyberspace isn’t the same as a physical memorial presence in a civic square or an historical location. To be able to stand and contemplate an exact spot where a person was tortured and hung in front of a cheering crowd is to feel a small chill of the horror.

As far as the erection of Confederate statuary is concerned, the memorials were a stone hard exhortation of "the lost cause" consciousness in white Southern society. The statue-building boom started in the 1890s, coinciding perfectly with the social acceptance of lynching and the institution of Jim Crow laws codifying segregation. White Southerners were taking their country back after Reconstruction.

"A memorial is a physical manifestation of a cultural value," observes Ted Olson, Professor of Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee University. And existing Confederate monuments "are in some ways the manifestation of the 'lost cause' mythology. People in the South creating a romanticized perspective of who they were as a culture."

The lasting power wielded by commemorative metal and stone to enforce social memory is illustrated in the case of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest's statue in Memphis. Forrest was a prominent slave trader, implicated in the massacre of surrendering African-American Union soldiers in the battle of Fort Pillow, and founder of the first iteration of the KKK.

Funds were raised in 1902 to exhume Forrest and his wife's bodies and rebury them in the middle of Memphis at a public park named after him. The bulky 21-foot equestrian monument was installed on top of them.

"Now that was a very strong political statement," notes Tim Huebner, Sternberg Professor of History at Rhodes College in Memphis. "The idea of digging up Forrest's body and moving it into the middle of town and putting a monument at the site I think was a very forceful statement by the white Southerners at the time that they were in charge. They were the ones who were going to control the city and public memory of the war. It was very much an effort to intimidate the African-American population here."

But the past isn't dead in Memphis. When the council of the majority African-American city decided to rename "Forrest" Park to “Science” Park, the state legislature frantically moved to stop molestation or removal of public Confederate monuments by passing the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act. Such laws are not uncommon in a number of Southern states.

Most recently the mayor and city council did an end run: they transferred the ownership of the public park to a private non-profit organization and removed the statue on the same night. General Forrest and his wife will presumably be sent back to the cemetery they came from.

Tennessee lawmakers and the politically influential Sons of Confederate Veterans are vowing to fight the removal. The group's spokesman Lee Millar was quoted as saying that “It is a deliberate attempt to avoid the state law and the city is breaking the law.”

The Sons of Confederate Veterans did not respond to numerous calls and emails for an interview about the group’s feelings concerning the installation of lynching memorials.

Bit by bit, in big ways and small, Memphis is recovering its historical memory. Huebner has involved his students in a project to change a marker noting Nathan Forrest's home, which was conveniently adjacent to his slave market. "The old marker makes no reference that it was a slave market. It just has a marker there saying he became wealthy because of business enterprises. Doesn't say what business was attached to his house," says Huebner. "The students have been engaged with this issue really for the first time."

Memphis has installed several physical reminders of lynchings. One road marker memorializes the 1892 lynching of three men that drove Ida B. Wells to action. The men, who owned a neighborhood grocery, were hunted down by a white mob when a minor argument escalated.

A local volunteer group—the Memphis Lynching Project—arose to lead an effort to remember other lynchings in Shelby County. The group worked to install a sign memorializing another lynching, that of Ell Persons. With no trial for an unsolved killing, the woodcutter’s hanging was witnessed by a boisterous mob of 5000, according to contemporary news reports. “Others dismembered what was left of Persons and drove to Beale Street where they threw his head and a foot at African American pedestrians,” the marker states.

"The irony is that even though this (lynchings) is very public and it's well documented, for the last many years this history has been obscured from view. And it's been treated as if it didn't happen or as if it wasn't a part of southern history," notes Huebner. “This history has to be marked, has to be commemorated because we cannot forget what happened."

The terror of the lynching era caused a widespread, lasting, and profound trauma in African-American society and a concomitant willful ignorance of the horror among whites. Gradually, like a patient waking from etherization, the country is starting to face the truth.

In Mississippi, the Tallahatchie Sheriff and County Board of Supervisors in recent years apologized to the family of 14-year-old Emmett Till, whose brutal 1955 murder and shocking open casket magazine photos helped instigate the modern Civil Rights movement. A roadside marker—part of the Mississippi Freedom Trail commemoration of the civil rights struggle—was installed at the rural general store where Till’s supposed whistle at a white woman led to his torture and murder.

Tourist buses and school trips visit an Emmett Till Interpretive Center in a courtroom restored to the era when a trial by an all-white jury found Till's murderers not guilty. And an Emmett Till Memory Project website lists 51 places tracing the Till story with a tour app. Recently several markers had to be repaired after they were vandalized with bullet holes.

In Abbeville, S.C. the City Council authorized the placement of a marker in the historic court square that memorializes Anthony Crawford, a prominent African-American landholder who was lynched in 1916. An additional marker describes “racial violence in South Carolina” which lists six other lynched African-Americans. The markers are steps away from a stone monument to white supremacist John C. Calhoun and a Confederate memorial with an inscription hailing the “right cause” of the South.

As the reawakening of lynchings spreads, even individuals are moved to solitary actions of memorialization. A woman in Coos Bay, Oregon researched a lynching and installed a plywood cross near the spot where a mob of 300 white men hung Alonzo Tucker in 1902 for allegedly assaulting a white woman.

The Montgomery, Alabama based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) is responsible for many of the recent efforts to install physical reminders of lynching victims. Working with local groups, the EJI helps with organizing and pays for the markers.

Founded by executive director Bryan Stevenson, the non-profit defends poor and minorities in court as well as working for judicial reform. In its work to reverse wrongful convictions, EJI says it has saved 125 men from the death penalty. EJI's Community Remembrance Project is a campaign to memorialize victims. As part of the program, soil from lynching sites is collected by local volunteers and labeled with victims’ names to be displayed in jars row upon row.

In Alabama, the organization recently unveiled a marker in Brighton to commemorate the hanging of labor organizer William Miller, and dedicated a marker to memorialize 14 lynchings in Lowndes County. EJI plans the largest commemoration to Southern lynching victims by building a six-acre Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery. It’s slated to open in April. The building’s interior will have hanging monoliths representing counties where lynchings occurred, with victims’ names inscribed on each. Additional inscribed monoliths will be arranged outside, and eventually erected as memorials in each county where lynchings took place.

"Our nation's history of racial injustice casts a shadow across the American landscape. This shadow cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation, traumatized people of color, and compromised our commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice. We all must engage this history more honestly, and a memorial creates that opportunity," Stevenson commented in an email.

Currently the only existing major memorial of lynching was unveiled in 2003, ironically in the far north—Duluth, Minnesota. The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial is a plaza with a sculpture of three African-American figures representing circus workers who were hung across the street in 1920. The men were dragged from jail cells and lynched by a mob of thousands for a rumor they raped a white woman. The great-grandson of a mob leader read an apology at the dedication.

"It’s an important story in American history. People of the present moment need to know about it, as painful as it is. The fact is, this is a part of who we are as Americans," says Professor Olson of East Tennessee University. “This is the historical moment to have a discussion about lynching."

Venerable organizations devoted to keeping Confederate history have posted notices disavowing white supremacy and decrying hate groups' appropriation of Confederate iconography such as the notorious battle flag. But when contacted about the installation of lynching memorials, the Order of the Southern Cross and Daughters of the Confederacy did not reply to numerous email and phone inquiries. The white nationalist group League of the South also did not reply.

“Some people don't want to look too deeply into the past, but the past is too important to not examine in great depth because we have to learn all that we can from it,” observes Huebner of Rhodes College. “If we act if these things didn't happen we're certainly not going to be able to make things better, it'll just make things worse.”

Wounds heal from the inside out, the saying goes, and memorializing lynching’s historical trauma is slowly beginning to be addressed in small, local, volunteer—often multi-racial—efforts. Like a slow motion Truth and Reconciliation Commission these activities are finally trying to find restorative justice by remembering victims and telling long buried stories out loud.

The past has not passed, as middle-aged great-grandchildren of lynching victims finally get a measure of delayed vindication for tragic family legacies passed down through the years. Descendants of white lynch mobs get a chance at atonement. High school students learn by correcting history, Jewish student groups pray at the site of lynchings. And new generations of African-American and white children can stop at the public square to gaze at the physical presence of history and learn the truth.


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