Home > Uncategorized > Looking at Lynching – posted 9/17/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor on 9/24/2017

Looking at Lynching – posted 9/17/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor on 9/24/2017

Probably like many readers, I was shocked by the Claremont, New Hampshire incident where an 8 year old bi-racial boy was nearly lynched by a group of teenage boys. You have to ask: how could that be happening?

The boy’s grandmother told local press that he and others were playing in a yard in their neighborhood when the teenagers who are white started calling racial epithets and threw sticks and rocks at his legs. Then the teens decided to hang the little boy, putting a rope around his neck and pushing him off a picnic table. According to published accounts, the boy swung back and forth by his neck three times before he was able to remove the rope. None of the teens came to his aid.

The story is beyond disquieting. It is impossible to see it as “boys will be boys” or as simple teen mischief. Somehow it connects to the larger racial zeitgeist reflected by events in Charlottesville and the growth of the alt-right. Hate seems to have a green light.

When was the last time there was a lynching in New Hampshire? Never.

Lynching is an act with deep historical roots in America. The act dredges up a history that is ignored, minimized, and buried. In my own school experience, lynching barely rated a mention. I do recall, from my own outside reading, seeing pictures of large crowds of white people surrounding the body of a black man hanging from a tree or a makeshift gallows.

In 2015, the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization based in Montgomery Alabama and started by the lawyer Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, produced a report on the history of lynching in America. Equal Justice Initiative staff had spent 6 years researching and documenting terror lynchings in America.

They documented 4,084 racial terror lynchings in twelve Southern states between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and 1950. They also documented 300 racial terror lynchings in other states during the same period. This was significantly more lynchings than had previously been recognized.

They define a terror lynching as a horrific act of violence (not just a hanging) where perpetrators were never held accountable. The murders were carried out with impunity, often on a courthouse lawn. These acts were tolerated by both state and federal officials who allowed a bypass of the existing criminal justice system. The terror lynchings were designed to create a fearful environment where racial subordination and segregation were controlling.

Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, and Arkansas had the highest number of lynchings. Right behind were Alabama, Texas, Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia. Outside the Deep South, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, West Virginia, Maryland, Kansas, Indiana, and Ohio also had lynchings.

Equal Justice Initiative analyzed the pattern of these lynchings. They found nearly 25% of lynchings of African Americans in the South came from wildly distorted fear of interracial sex; more than 50% were killed under accusation of committing murder or rape; many others were based on minor social transgressions such as speaking disrespectfully, refusing to step off a sidewalk, using an improper title for a white person or bumping into a white woman.

From 1915 to 1940, lynch mobs targeted African Americans who protested being treated as second-class citizens.

Particularly horrifying were public spectacle lynchings in which large crowds of white people gathered to witness murders that featured prolonged torture, mutilation, dismemberment and burning of victims. Equal Justice Initiative says these events had a carnival-like atmosphere with vendors selling food, printers producing postcards for sale featuring photographs of lynching and corpses, and body parts being collected as souvenirs.

It was not unusual for public spectacle lynchings to have large crowds numbering in the thousands. The killings were not conducted by Klansmen hiding in a swamp. They were typically very public, advertised events implicating entire communities.

Equal Justice Initiative documents numerous terrifying stories. In one story, in Paris Texas in 1893, a 17 year old black man named Henry Smith was accused of killing a 3 year old white girl. About a week after the child’s death, a posse located Smith in Arkansas and returned him to Paris by train. Two thousand men had combed the countryside looking for Smith. When they found Smith’s stepson and he failed to reveal Smith’s location, the stepson was lynched.

When Smith was returned to Paris on February 1, 1893, a mob of over 10,000 white people from all over Texas met the train. Smith was placed on a carnival float where he was paraded through town to the county fairgrounds. A parade of citizens followed the float, including children who had been dismissed from school for the event.

When Smith made it to the fairgrounds, the mob leaders forced him to mount a ten-foot-high scaffold to allow maximum visibility. The mob ripped Smith’s clothes off and proceeded to torture him for the next hour. Red-hot iron brands were placed against Smith’s feet, then up his body until they reached his face where his eyes were burned out. The mob then poured kerosene on Smith and set him afire. Smith was burned alive.

It must be noted that Smith pleaded his innocence until the end according to the great anti-lynching crusader, Ida B. Wells. After these events, Wells hired Pinkerton detectives to investigate what happened. While Wells did not find evidence that exonerated Smith, she did discover that Smith was mentally imbalanced

Twenty-seven years later, Paris, Texas hosted a second lynching. Two brothers, Irving and Herman Arthur, decided to leave their jobs on a white-owned farm. They wanted better working conditions. The farm owner tried to stop them. The conflict resulted in the arrest of the brothers. Shortly after the arrests, local whites posted signs advertising an impending lynching.

On July 6, 1920, 3,000 people watched as both men were tied to a flagpole at the county fairgrounds, tortured and burned to death. After the lynching, the Arthurs’ corpses were chained to a car and driven through Paris’s black community.

Today there is no historical marker to document either lynching. However, there is a large Confederate memorial on the courthouse lawn in Paris. Equal Justice Initiative reports that of the 4,084 Southern lynchings they document, the overwhelming majority took place on sites that remain unmarked and unrecognized.

I do think the absence of a prominent public memorial acknowledging the brutal lynchings is a public statement that America does not think black lives matter. Equal Justice Initiative points out that the South is littered with statues, markers, and monuments celebrating Confederate leaders who perpetrated violent crimes against black citizens.

As a country, we still seem unable to face the dark side of our own history. There is a continuing culture of silence about our history with lynching. This is particularly true in the states where lynching occurred. There is an absence of acknowledgement.

While we cannot yet know exactly why the Claremont near-lynching happened, the context is concerning. The growth of white supremacist movements, the increase in vicious internet bullying by racists and anti-semites, and our past American history of lynching all situate it. We can only hope what happened in Claremont was a freakish aberration that could never happen again.

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