Jackson State University Lynching Exhibit
Jackson State University Lynching Exhibit
By Earnest McBride
First published in the Jackson Advocate in mid-January 2004
The textbook on lynching as a device for the psychological control of the black masses in the United States fits very neatly between the Fort Pillow Massacre of 1864 and the murder of Emmett Louis Till in Money, Mississippi, in August, 1955.
In data collected from NAACP and government files nationwide, the Historical American Lynching Data Collection Project reports:
Between 1882 and 1951 there were a reported 4,730 incidents of vigilante justice in the form of lynching. 2,806 (59.3%) of these occurred in ...10 southern states. The racial breakdown of these victims is White 289 (10.3%), Black 2,462 (87.7%), Unknown 50 (1.8%), and other 5 (0.2%).
The disproportionate use of the deadly rope against black victims had three functions, according to S.E.Tolnay & E.M.Beck co-authors of "A Festival of Violence," written in 1992:
- Maintain the social order over the black population through terrorism.
- Suppress or eliminate black competitors for economic, political, or social rewards.
- Stabilize the white class structure and to preserve the privileged status of the white aristocracy.
Graphic evidence of this horrible story comes to Jackson State University beginning January 30 and will remain there to drive the point home through July 4, our nation's 228th birthday. "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America" portrays a gruesome scab on the face of America that probably will never be excised, given the continuing use of racial threat as a tool of domination.
James Allen's collection of photographs is actually a series of postcards commercially sold and happily sent out by participants and witnesses to the hangings to friends and relatives across the nation. This is a gut-wrenching display and should not be ingested immediately before or after a hearty meal. But why display such doleful human misery?
Joseph Jordan, currently serving as the director of the Sonja Haynes Stone Black Cultural Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was the original curator of the exhibit at the Martin Luther King Historic Site in Atlanta debut in May 2002. He carefully explained to reporters that the photographs were not intended to subject the victims of the lynch mob and their survivors to any "further indignity," but sought rather to place the onus of the crimes on the murderers themselves.
"We have been the kind of society that studied the victims more than we've studied the perpetrators," Jordan told a National Public Radio reporter shortly before the Atlanta opening. "I think it's about time now that we go back to these and begin to look at some of the perpetrators and talk about motivations and also talk about the latter-day implications of what they did."
In an op-ed column written for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Jordan elaborated on his deeply-felt need to support the exhibit.
"I want the public to see those faces, and I want them to understand that, in these insane incidents, death had two faces," he says. "One covered those who had been hanged, burned, mutilated and shot. The other hung, through all of the years that have passed, on the heads of those who walked away from the lynch scene, confident that their communities, their friends, their pastors, and their political leaders would sanction their deeds and welcome them back into the fold. My intent is to deny those perpetrators the sanctuary of the faded page or the fading memory."
Jordan points out that the public support for the exhibition has been overwhelmingly favorable. "In three community forums, no one ever said to us that we should not do the exhibit," he tells CNN. "But they felt that we should do it with dignity and with some respect for the victims."
Monique Guillory, JSU's Deputy Chief of Staff and one of the Exhibit coordinators, speaks in terms of using the display as a device for "reconciliation" of the once vast gulf of conflict and hatred dividing the nation's two main racial groups. She thinks that the exhibit fills an important gap of giving an account of the lives of so many unknown or unnamed victims of extreme violence.
"We anticipate opening a dialogue on race relations in Mississippi," Guillory says. "The images are disturbing. It is impossible to look at them and not be moved by them. We feel that that movement, those feelings, that emotion is a part of the process of understanding the past and its relationship to the present and the future."
When questioned about the right of people living today to reconcile---rather than redress---the tragic and painful deaths of thousands of innocent people past and present, Guillory insists that it is a necessary act on the part of the living.
"We have a right and we have a responsibility," she says. "We are obligated to talk about reconciliation and to pursue it, because if we don't, we live in the past."
Many other deaths by cold, calculated and vengeful hanging took place before and after the suggested bookends of 1864 and 1955, perhaps several multiples of the commonly estimated 5,000. (Ida B. Wells reported 10,000 unpunished murders of black people at the hands of white mobs in the 30 years between 1865-1895 alone.). And these deaths affected men and women of all ethnic and racial stripes---white gamblers in Vicksburg in 1839, Chinese laborers in Los Angeles in 1871, Italians in New Orleans in 1891, Jews in Atlanta in 1913, and American Indians from the Pequot genocide of 1637 to the massacre of Wounded Knee in 1890 and beyond.
Although the act of lynching was equally heinous and hurtful to all its victims whenever and wherever it occurred, the tacit, collective approval of a race-conscious America was absent before Fort Pillow, 1864, and after Till, 1955. Till's murder evoked such a tide of international and domestic outrage so that lynching was no longer passively accepted as a means of black control.
Thanks to Confederate General Nathan B. Forrest---a human monster lauded in today's South second only to Robert E. Lee--- Fort Pillow etched in the minds of both black and white Unionists more than any other event the intent of the Southern white supremacists to use extreme and deadly violence to dehumanize all black men, women and children who dared join in the fight for their liberation. Forrest went on to found the Ku Klux Klan in Pulaski, Tennessee, in October 1865, five months after the end of the Civil War. Forrest's loosely defined Klan, however, soon ballooned into one of the largest and most recognizable forces for evil in the entire world, gaining entrée in government mansions and statehouses throughout the country, including the White House and the United States Supreme Court. The ultimate enshrinement of Forrest's rather meager invention came via Hollywood in 1915 in the film version of the novel "Birth of a Nation."
What Forrest and his heirs wrought in the birth of lynching violence as a tool of control over black people was eventually to be undone by an American Joan of Arc hailing from Holly Springs, Mississippi, in the person of self-taught journalist Ida B. Wells (1862-1931). Holly Springs is only a short drive from the scene of Emmett Till's murder in Tallahatchie County.
Wells---later known as Ida Wells Barnett after her marriage to a Chicago Attorney Ferdinand Barnett in 1895"learned the craft of journalism at age 25 and stayed on her task of holding corrupt black ministers to account, but finding a new cause in the fight against the lynch mob after three of her friends and business associates were lynched in Memphis in 1892. She continued to wage her crusade against the lynch mob in Europe, Canada and the United States until her death in 1931. More than anyone else, Ida B. Wells spurred the nation's white women into action, giving rise to a million-woman organization called the Anti-Lynching Crusaders in 1922. Although Jessie Ames Daniels is given credit for organizing the Southern white women in the fight against lynching, Wells was the true heroine who spurred the world's conscience in support of laws against lynching. Although the U. S. Congress avoided passing anti-lynching legislation until 1968, there had been major efforts before then, chief of which was the introduction of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Act in 1922.
Author Philip Dray, the highly respected chronicler of the1964 murder of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, both of New York, and James Chaney of Meridian, found buried near Philadelphia, MS, six months after their slaying, emphatically states in his 2002 book "At the Hands of Persons Unknown" that lynching was part of a "systematized reign of terror that was used to maintain the power whites had over blacks."
Dray reports that from 1882 until 1952 not a year went by without the hanging of a black man, woman or child---somewhere in the United States, most frequently in Mississippi, Georgia or Louisiana. Despite the many pictures sent out as postcards showing the murderers at work, the official reports listed the deaths as being "at the hands of persons unknown," thus reassuring the murderers that they might strike again without fear of punishment, either by law enforcement or the victims' families. Such a system of terrorism was an American invention, perfected over more than a century of practice.
The use of the threat of lynching as a tool of intimidation or control the behavior of black Americans still occurs more frequently than supposed. At many sites, such as college campuses and professional athletic team front offices tend to suppress rather than play up such threats. The threats are widespread, however.
In early December 2003, several black NFL football players were sent notes warning of their impending death by rope if they did not cease dating white women.
Black college athletes on campuses as diverse as Penn State and Ole Miss are the frequent objects of death threats"by rope. Quite often the threats come because of the athletes" association with white female students. But some of it is attributed to alumni and sports recruiters from rival schools seeking to divert top black athletes from enemy camps.
"The mailboxes of black athletes," Miami Herald Reporter Linda Robertson reported on December 6. "And the contents will show that sports are just as much about hate as they are about adoration. Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor is one of six NFL players to receive a letter so disturbing that the FBI is searching for the source. Investigators are examining about 30 letters to athletes, entertainers, politicians and civic leaders that include threats of castration, shooting or being set on fire if the men do not "stop establishing relations with white females." They are signed by "Angry White Women" or "Angry Caucasian Women.'
"Taylor's wife is white" Robertson adds. "So is his mother. He knows plenty about the prejudice against interracial couples. Asked about the letter, his bleak but accurate assessment was, 'It's society.'"
All Mississippi counties suffered from the vile work of the lynch mob. Of the 568 lynching deaths reported between 1882 and 1930, 14 took place in Hinds County.. Vicksburg reported 16 such murders for the same period. Yet in one day in 1874December 7-8--- over 26 black citizens of Vicksburg were slaughtered by whites seeking to push black elected officials from office.
In today's climate, many of 40 the jailhouse and prison hanging deaths over the past 20 years, though declared self-inflicted, are suspected to have been lynchings at the hands of law enforcement officers. Investigations into the deaths, however, generally remain inconclusive. Like the victims in the upcoming JSU exhibit, without a present-day demand to redress the thousands of criminal acts of lynching, neither the victims nor the souls of the survivors will attain sanctuary of any kind.
"These were people who were supposed to die very ignoble deaths," says Monique Guillory, "people who were supposed to die anonymously under the most horrific circumstances, where they had no sanctuary. No one was there to offer solace or comfort or refuge. And here through these images, we have an opportunity to grieve for these people and feel the loss of this life and how senseless and tragic it was. So I appreciate the opportunity to recognize the humanity in these people, even though the crowds around them didn't.
A number of related events will coincide with the exhibit beginning with an interfaith commemoration January 29 and an opening reception scheduled of January 30 and a film on the 1891 murder of 11 Italian-American immigrants, one of the largest instances of mass murder to take place in the United States before Oklahoma 1997 or New York's September 11, 2001 blow out of the World Trade Center.
Smith Robertson Museum offers an Emmett Till commemoration February 7 and "Strange Fruit" on March 14. On April 10, survivors' session will take place.
Contact Jean Frazier at JSU for further information.