The Art of Lynching

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Witnessing Lynching, edited by Anne P. Rice, is a compendium of articles and stories written by African-Americans and white abolitionists from long before the Civil War until the 20th century.  It includes writings by both Angelina Grimkes, grandmother and granddaughter. The older Angelina and her sister Sarah are featured in Sue Monk Kidd’s new book, The Invention of Wings.

According to an article reprinted in the book from Crisis magazine, between 1885 and 1916 a total of 2,843 “colored” men were lynched.  Numbers by year were published in the magazine, which was an organ of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The worst year during that time was 1892, with 155 men known to have been lynched.  Appended to the list was this statement:

“What are we going to do about this record? The civilization of America is at stake. The sincerity of Christianity is challenged.  . .”

Tragically, lynching has continued to the present day in one form or another.  Think James Byrd, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Oscar Grant (about whom the movie “Fruitvale Station was made), Ricky Birdsong, and Abner Louima. As I write, federal investigators are looking into the murder of Alfred Wright of Texas, whose tortured body was found after a four-day search (the local sheriff called the search off in three days) in November. Despite the fact that Mr. Wright’s throat was slit, the sheriff refused to investigate the death as a murder. A congresswoman persuaded Attorney General Eric Holder to open a federal investigation.

You can find a few derivations of the word “lynch” in Wikipedia. There are two that are considered most credible.  A 15th-century mayor of Galway, Ireland, named James Lynch Fitzstephen hanged his son in 1493 for murdering someone visiting from Spain.

An 18th century Virginia planter named Charles Lynch was the head of a court that rounded up British loyalists during the Revolutionary War and jailed them. The court had no proper authority to do so. The  term “lynch law” came to mean assuming judicial power outside the law. The excuse given was wartime necessity, and no doubt it was a precedent pointed to when Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II. In our own time, we have Guantanamo Bay.

Lynching began long before the Civil War, but because the institution of slavery was in full force, slaveowners had even less reason to worry about the legality. Slaves were, of course, subject to any treatment by their masters and mistresses up to and including homicide.

After the Civil War, which the South could not admit to losing even though General Lee had surrendered at Appomattox, and perhaps because the assassinated Lincoln’s vision of reconstruction was not followed, former slaveholders could not abide the thought of black people gaining any kind of economic or social power. That is when lynching began in earnest, and the Ku Klux Klan reared its satanic head.

Let’s be very clear about what I mean when I say “lynching.” Before I began studying the subject, I assumed it meant hanging someone. I envisioned an illustration for Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit,” with bodies hanging from trees. That is, of course, horrible in and of itself, but in fact, lynching of African-Americans usually included first torture, then burning alive, then hanging from a tree. There was often a carnival atmosphere surrounding lynchings, with thousands of people cheering the murderer on, including children. Lynchings often took place in very public places, so it was clear that the community not only accepted what was happening, but in fact endorsed it. People would dash toward the fire or the hung body and try to grab a finger or a bone as a souvenir.

The torture might include the severing of genitals, putting eyes out, or even putting corkscrews into the victim’s flesh over and over, as happened to Luther Holbert and his wife in 1904 in Mississippi.

After the murder of Trayvon Martin, white people heard a lot about what’s come to be called “the talk,” or the discussion that parents of black youth have had to hold with their children about the very real probability of their being profiled and pulled over while driving.

In the same way, 19th century Southern black parents kept pictures of lynching victims to show their children so the children would learn how to behave in an obsequious enough manner around while people so they would not to end up hanging from a tree.

The standard excuse for a lynching was that a black man, or boy, had raped a white woman. Because the African-American was looked at as sub-human and bestial, it apparently made sense to white Southern men that this being would lust after their women. White womanhood in the South was raised to a near-Virgin Mary status, and it didn’t take even the excuse of rape to put a black man in the wrong. Just looking a white woman in the eyes was considered a provocation.

While it is obviously true that slaves and ex-slaves and freedmen were not looked upon as equal in the South before, during and after the Civil War, at the bottom of it all the Southern whites had to know exactly how human the blacks were. They lived in very close proximity, after all, and many children knew their black nannies better than they knew their mothers. Would you entrust your child to a wet nurse you thought was no better than an animal? If your whole economic success depended on the work of others, would you entrust that work to lustful beasts? Does it not make much more sense that Southern men, at least, used the black man as a scapegoat for his own lustful desires? There was a code of honor about being a Southern gentleman that was just as rigid as any class divisions in England, and we have only to read books from the Victorian era to see the hypocrisy of such codes.

And we have a lot of evidence of those lustful desires of Southern white men. How many black women and girls were raped by their masters on a regular basis? How many black people today can trace their ancestry to a white slaveowner? Instead of the Africans defiling the white gene pool, it was the other way around.

Then there is the little matter of how many white women sought out sexual relations with black men but had to cry rape when caught.

Rape was, most of the time, the lie that covered the real reasons for lynching. Those reasons cover a range from trying to enact the right to vote, to protecting one’s own property, to drawing business away from a white-owned business. And while in a way, one could say these were economic, not racial, reasons, the same thing did not happen to white people who voted, protected their property, or opened competitive stores.

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