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Lynching, Past and Present

When history is looked at in its complexity, it plays havoc with the present moment.

“This wasn’t done by the Klan, or people who had to wear a mask. This was done by teachers and clergy and law enforcement officers.”

This is Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, talking to Oprah Winfrey on “60 Minutes” last week about the lynching 80 years ago of Wes Johnson, in an Alabama cotton field. It was one of multi-thousands of lynchings in the South and across the country in the wake of the Civil War — lynchings meant both as acts of terror to African-American communities and acts of public celebration and patriotism, with children present, dressed in their Sunday best. The lynchings were often commemorated as postcards . . . souvenirs.

The grotesque photographs of dangling corpses are American history, far more than the simplistic heritage represented by the statues of Confederate generals; and finally, finally, more than a century and a half after the end of slavery in the United States, the country is beginning to find the courage to look at its own shadow legacy.

Stevenson and his organization have created a memorial to American lynchings — the National Memorial for Peace and Justice — which opens this month in Montgomery.

“I don’t think we get to pretend that this stuff didn’t happen. I don’t think you can just play it off. This is like a disease. You have to treat it,” he said. The memorial contains 805 steel markers, one for each county in the country where lynchings took place. Each marker contains the names of those who were lynched.

“We want,” Stevenson said, “to call this community to repentance, to acknowledgement, to shame. We want to tell the truth, because we believe in truth and reconciliation but we know that truth and reconciliation are sequential. We can’t get to where we’re trying to go if we don’t tell the truth first.”

Oh, sweet land of liberty! To look at these horrific photographs — these postcards — of the national past, 98 of which are available in an extraordinary book compiled by James Allen called Without Sanctuary, which I call the coffee table book from hell.

I bought the book shortly after it came out in 2000 and wrote about it at the time:

“July 19, 1935. Rubin Stacy, lynched in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Stacy, a homeless black tenant farmer, had asked a white woman for food, frightening her. Mob justice converted this to the capital offense of rape.

“In the photo, the dead man’s pain is palpable. He hangs from a scrub pine in ghastly, almost prayerful repose. The noose around his neck cuts a deep gouge, pulling the flesh taut to the jaw line. The onlookers are mostly women and little girls. The other central figure in the picture is one of the latter, maybe 9, sweet-faced, in a sleeveless, wide-collared dress you could imagine her wearing to Sunday School. She stares almost beatifically at the dangling corpse.”

There is no easy or quick recovery from half an hour of this book, just as there’s no easy recovery from the “60 Minutes” show, especially when you realize that this buried history of power and dehumanization is still living, still present in our world, still killing African-Americans and others.

Consider the contemporary “lynching” of Kalief Browder, for instance, who had been arrested on the charge of stealing a backpack when we was 16 years old, then, my God, sent off to Rikers Island, New York City’s notorious jail complex, where he spent years without ever going to trial. He had always maintained his innocence and the case against him was eventually dropped, but before that happened, he endured abuse at the hands of inmates and guards and spent two years in solitary confinement. He never recovered emotionally from the hell he was put through and in 2015 he committed suicide — by hanging himself from the air-conditioning unit outside a bedroom window at his mother’s apartment.

And then there was Sandra Bland, who was arrested after a traffic stop — failure to use her turn signal — in Waller County, Texas, near Houston, in 2015, and three days later found hanged in her jail cell. Although the death was ruled a suicide, her family reached a $1.9 million wrongful death settlement with the Texas Department of Public Safety and Waller County.

Between 1877 and 1950, 3,959 African Americans were murdered in lynchings, Madison J. Gray wrote at Ebony, citing Equal Justice Initiative statistics. But in 2015 alone, 1,134 people were killed by police, according to a study published in the Guardian.

“We’re still talking about lynchings today. But this time rope and trees have nothing to do with it. Now it’s brought to us through the nervous truths dangled in front of our faces by social media and a culture that reacts with immediacy by recording American life in its rawest, ugliest fashion.

“But can we really say the lynchings that happen now are any different than in my grandmother’s day? . . . Alton Sterling and Philando Castile really only committed the offense of being Black in the wrong place at the wrong time. And it was enough to get them lynched by standard issue Glock 9mm wielded by police who will say their intention was to establish authority over a situation.”

We’re not who we think we are. We sanitize our past and call it heritage. We sanitize the present and call it justice. It’s time to start looking at the truth in all directions.

More articles by:

Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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