Lynching By Another Name


Donald Trump can say all he wants about chasing ISIS off the earth because of the attack in Manchester yesterday, but he’d do better to eradicate domestic terrorism in the US, beginning with his white supremacist staffers.

richard collins IIIThe latest victim: Richard Collins III, stabbed to death on his college campus in Maryland Saturday night by a fellow white supremacist student.

No, Trump and his racist cabinet can’t be held responsible for the existence of domestic terrorism, but they can be held responsible for not only not trying to do anything about it, but helping it to fester by their own racist agenda.

Selling weapons to Saudi Arabia isn’t going to do a damn thing to eradicate the ISIS/Al Qaeda threat. It just means more people dying in Yemen. And those billions? Will they benefit average Americans? Will they keep black men alive? Will they prosecute police officers who point-blank murder black men? They will not.

Between Trump’s budget proposal, which will decimate programs that actually help Americans, and the Paul Ryans and Mitch McConnells in Congress, one might say they are domestic terrorists too.


American Pieta


As we approach the commemoration of Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion, I can’t help but think of all the people betrayed by the forces of evil in this country that do not believe in the either the Constitution or the words in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. May the hope of resurrection and reunion bring some small measure of comfort to all the mothers, fathers, children, sisters, brothers and friends of the betrayed.









emmett tillThe story of the lynching in 1955 of Emmett Till is both the easiest and the hardest to tell. Easy because so much has been written about it. Hard because it is so absolutely incomprehensible, so tragic, and so heart-breaking. The following comes mainly from two documentaries and Death of Innocence by his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, though you cannot read a book about lynching, racism or racial violence without coming upon Emmett’s story.

Emmett Till was 14 years old when he was lynched in Money, Mississippi. He did not grow up in the South. He was raised in Argo, a black community outside Chicago where everyone knew him; indeed everyone was pretty much related to him. Though he suffered from polio as a child, he was well taken care of and survived to grow into a confident young man. Perhaps he had more responsibilities than a lot of children; he helped his single mother do the grocery shopping, cook, clean their Chicago apartment. His mother, Mamie Bradley at the time, was self-admittedly somewhat of a child herself. Her authoritarian mother had dominated her life, and Mamie had grown used to turning to her for most things. This would change in August 1955

Mamie’s first husband, Louis Till, was killed in World War II, not in action, but by the military; more about this later. She divorced her second husband, with whom she lived in Detroit while Emmett stayed behind with his grandmother. She became more independent after that, moving into Chicago proper and securing a responsible government job, but she also began to rely on Emmett’s help more and more.

When the question of Emmett going to visit his great-uncle Mose Wright in MIssissippi came up, Mamie was fearful. She made sure to caution Emmett about what life was still like in the South, where blacks were expected to move off the sidewalk if a white person was advancing toward them, to say “Yes, sir,” and “No, sir,” and never to contradict or touch a white person, never even to look a white person in the eyes. As a parting present, she gave Emmett a ring of his father’s.

Emmett and a cousin traveled by train to their great-uncle’s cabin. Mose was a sharecropper and also known as “Preacher.” His cabin was isolated. Emmett, by all accounts, started the summer visit with all the anticipation of fun and adventure that 14-year-old boys have. He helped in the cotton fields, he went swimming and fishing, he got into scrapes when his cousins and he took Mose’s car to ride around.

One Wednesday evening, the boys took the car to go to the Bryant store, the only place for miles around where you could get candy or soda. The owner, Roy Bryant, was out of town and his young wife Carolyn was minding the store. There are different accounts of what happened next. In some way, Emmett offended Mrs. Bryant, either by touching her hand when he gave her his money (he should have just put it on the counter) or by intentionally whistling at her or even perhaps by whistling unintentionally (the polio had left him with a stutter and his mother had taught him to whistle before he spoke as a way of relaxing his mouth muscles).

Mrs. Bryant went out to her car and got a gun. The boys skedaddled. They did not tell their uncle what had happened, and Mrs. Bryant did not tell her husband until a few days later because the incident had somehow become public knowledge.

That Saturday evening Bryant and his cousin, JW Milam, went to Mose’s cabin. He testified that they knocked on the door in the middle of the night shouting for the “boy from Chicago” to come out. When he turned on the porch light, he saw guns in their hands. He also saw a third person in the shadows. They entered the cabin and found Emmett in bed and told him to get up and come with them. They took him out to their truck, from which Uncle Mose heard a woman’s voice say, “That’s him.” They put him in the truck and no one ever saw Emmett alive again.

Several days later his body was found in the Tallahatchie River, a cotton gin fan secured by barbed wire around his neck and his face unrecognizable. Though Sheriff HC Strider later testified that there was no way to even tell whether this was a white body or a black body, he immediately called the black funeral director. No autopsy was performed. The body was placed in a sealed casket and shipped to Chicago. The seal of the state of Mississippi said that the casket was not to be opened.
Against the advice and fears of the funeral home in Chicago, Mamie insisted that the casket be opened. And then she spent a horrifying time looking over every inch of Emmett’s naked body. Here’s what she saw: Emmett’s tongue was lolling outside his mouth as if it had been partially cut. One of Emmett’s eyes was missing and the other was lying on his cheek. Emmett’s nose and the top of his head had been cleaved. There was a bullet wound behind his ear. And his father’s ring was on his finger.

Somehow, Mamie Bradley found the strength to demand that Emmett be placed in a coffin with a glass lid so that the world could see what had happened to him. And the world did see. Pictures of his battered body were taken. Thousands of people filed by his coffin before the burial. The story was picked up around the world. Surely justice would be done.

After a travesty of a trial, Bryan and Milam were acquitted. Mose and Willie Reed and others who testified for the prosecution had to leave their homes and move north. A smear campaign directed at Emmett’s family came out, including the fact that Louis Till had been executed by his own side in the war. With no foundation, it was written in newspapers that his offense had been rape. Former fellow soldiers contacted Mamie and told her that Louis had been executed on a trumped-up charge, another lynching.

Not even a year after the trial, journalist William Howard Huie interviewed Milam and Bryant and extracted their confession to the lynching, though they could not now be prosecuted. Indeed, they seemed eager to confess publicly, possibly because the way they told it made 14-year-old Emmett seem like a sexual predator. The confession was published in Life magazine. Milam and Bryant claimed that Emmett had invited Carolyn Bryant to have sex, telling her that he had “had” plenty of white women in Chicago. Their intention, Bryant and Milam said, had been simply to scare him, but the more they beat him, the more defiant he became.

No one will ever know for sure what Emmett’s perceived provocation was. It doesn’t really matter. What happened to him is beyond justification. Though two men who worked to register blacks to vote in Mississippi, the Reverend George Lee and Lamar Smith, had been murdered not long before Emmett’s visit, it was his death that brought the eyes of the world to bear on racial violence in the United States. Emmett has passed into the collective conscience of all those who abhor and fight against the evil of racism, and even people who don’t know his story know his name. One would have thought that this could never happen to a child again, until in the next century Trayvon Martin happened to be walking home to his father’s condo while George Zimmerman was on the prowl.

The Art of Lynching


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.