As New Lynching Memorial Opens, A Look Back On America's History Of Racial Terrorism

May 4, 2018
Originally published on May 7, 2018 2:51 pm
Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Last Thursday, a memorial dedicated to thousands of victims of American lynchings opened in Montgomery, Ala. The national memorial for peace and justice sits on a 6-acre site overlooking the Alabama state Capitol. It features 800 weathered steel columns hanging from a roof, each one etched with the name of an American county and victims of racial violence who died there - some simply recorded as unknown.

The memorial and a companion museum are the work of the Equal Justice Initiative whose founder and executive director, Bryan Stevenson, is a public interest lawyer who led a team that spent years combing through records to document more than 4,000 cases of lynchings.

We're devoting most of today's show to this dark period in American history. We begin with a story from the great jazz bassist Milt Hinton, known as the dean of bassists, whose career spanned the history of jazz. He died in 2000 at the age of 90. Hinton played with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman and Dizzy Gillespie just to name a few. He spoke with WHYY's Marty Moss-Coane in 1988 when Marty was filling in for Terry on FRESH AIR. Milt Hinton was born in 1910 in Vicksburg, Miss.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MARTY MOSS-COANE, BYLINE: What kind of a place was Vicksburg?

MILT HINTON: Well, for a black guy like me, it wasn't too easy. It wasn't too good. I don't remember too many bad things about it except one lynching that I really saw once that was very frightening to me.

MOSS-COANE: When you were about 7 or 8 years ago.

HINTON: Seven years old - yeah, I saw this and...

MOSS-COANE: What did you see?

HINTON: I saw this great mob of people there. And they were carrying - a lot of noise. And there was guns shooting. And being inquisitive like any little boy, I just walked up to it. My aunt was trying to pull me away. And there was this black man hung up on a tree, and they put a drum of gasoline under him. And the gasoline - the fire was burning. He was running like a piece of bacon. But the guy had long been dead because he had been accused of looking in some window or something at somebody undressing. And...

MOSS-COANE: What kind of impression did that leave on you?

HINTON: Well, I couldn't really understand it. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. It didn't leave me with the impression that this was a human being. It was just a body here. But the sad part - when I got home, my grandmother and all of the black ladies in the neighborhood were getting their children - their boy children together, and they would put black pepper in the socks of the children...

MOSS-COANE: Why?

HINTON: ...In the boys. So that if a dog came to smell them, the dog wouldn't - would go away. So they would be - in case the dog came and barked or whatever. But if they had black pepper in their socks, that dog wouldn't come near them.

DAVIES: Milt Hinton speaking with Marty Moss-Coane in 1988. Many lynchings were actually commemorated at the time with picture postcards, showing black men and women hanging from trees, lampposts and bridges while white spectators watched in approval. More than a hundred of those postcards were collected by James Allen and reprinted in his book "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography In America." Terry interviewed James Allen in 2000. He told her about one of the postcards he found particularly disturbing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JAMES ALLEN: One of the postcards that - and the incident - that has really disturbed me with time is the image of Jesse Washington of Waco, Texas. Particularly disturbing is the mass of people - 15,000 people - that came to relish the torture that day. Some of the photos were taken from the mayor's office window. A particular image is Jesse Washington hanging from a recently raised telephone pole. This is after he was tortured and burned alive at the stake.

They dragged him six miles to Robinson, Texas, and hung him up for a crowd to see. They put a loincloth around him. And a man by the name of Joe Myers purchased this card, put an X over his head, sent it home to his mother and wrote on the back, this is the barbecue we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your son, Joe. Another thing about this card, which I forgot to mention, is that it was used as an advertisement for - the photographer has a stamp on the back called Katy Electric Studio. Temple, Texas. H. Lippe Proprietor.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: So you're supposed to call him and ask him to do your family photos after seeing this lynching?

ALLEN: Exactly. Fifteen thousand people would have been a tremendous amount - percentage of the population of that county to be there at that incident. The mayor's main concern during the incident was that the tree - the central oak tree that they used to chain him to and to raise him in and out of the fire so they could prolong his death - would not be harmed.

GROSS: What was the function of these lynching postcards? Was this supposed to, like, commemorate the hanging that you attended?

ALLEN: They were - besides the obvious function of sensationalism and the profitable nature of these images for photographers - many of them were sold on the streets in drug stores, through the mail - they served to bond the white community together in supremacy. They also were news events that were highly covered by the press. So these images were small newspapers that people posted through the mail and sent to their relatives to say, this is what happened in our hometown.

GROSS: You feel really awful looking at these lynching photographs because they're so brutal. They're so grotesque. It's the ultimate violation of the victims. Why do you want them on exhibit?

ALLEN: Well, to begin with - to respond to your question, you hit it right on the head. It isn't just the ultimate violation. It was every violation possible. There wasn't any way that was ignored. They were as creative as possible in just - in torture and in domination of African-Americans.

GROSS: Do you think that we can learn a lot about the history of lynchings - who was lynched, who was responsible for the lynchings - by looking at these photographs?

ALLEN: Oh, absolutely. The people who were ashamed of these lynchings left. The people who were disgusted with the theater and the painful torture, brutality - they're not in these photos. The people who are left are the people who were proud. They gloried in the event, just like a dog that rolls around in dirt. They wanted to be there, and they wanted people to see them. They are very informative because Americans - white and black - have never had an opportunity to see these images.

So we don't have a visual vocabulary of what this type of hate and violence really is. It's not something we see in ourselves as a nation. We promote ourselves on a higher plane - moral plane. So this is a reality check and also a new chance to think things over - to stop discounting African-Americans' complaints and consider the fact that - yes, racial profiling does happen.

Yes, there is a disparity of black and white people - men and women on death row. And that - those things are a direct outcome of this period where the law in the communities sanctioned violence against African-Americans. It wasn't just a few people. This would not have happened without the participation of all branches of government.

GROSS: There's one photograph from January of 1916, the lynching of John Richards. And Richards is hanging from a tree with his pants pulled down. And several of the guys responsible for the lynching are smiling over an open coffin that is waiting for Richards. And this is a photograph from Goldsboro, N.C. There's pictures of victims who have been burned or shot before or after the hanging. In fact, you say, I think, that shooting the dead body was a common sport.

ALLEN: Absolutely. Some of the bodies were so full of lead that they were difficult to move. Everyone wanted to participate. In one lynching in Kentucky, they actually sold tickets. I can't remember. It was 5 cents or 50 cents a ticket, and that got you a seat in a theater and a shot of the victim.

GROSS: Most of the pictures of lynchings are pictures of men being lynched.

ALLEN: Mm-hmm (ph).

GROSS: But there are a couple of women. One of them is a picture of Laura Nelson and her son hung side by side from a bridge over a river and the spectators are all lined up on top of the bridge looking down at the swinging bodies. This is from May of 1911 in Okemah, Okla. I'm not sure if I'm pronouncing that right.

ALLEN: That's right, Okemah.

GROSS: What do you know about this particular lynching?

ALLEN: Lauren Nelson and her son and her husband had a little farm outside of Okemah. A sheriff's posse came to their cabin. The sheriff, the deputy sheriff, went inside and - looking for stolen meat. And somehow during this process, the son shot the deputy sheriff with a squirrel rifle. He crawled outside the cabin. A gun battle ensued in which Laura and her son kept the posse away for a couple hours. And the deputy sheriff died outside because the posse couldn't reach to help him.

They took Laura and her son to jail. Laura claimed that she did the shooting. She desperately tried to protect her son. She begged them to kill her in the prison. He was only 14 years old. They came in the middle of the night and took them by wagon, 40 men, and wagon them 12 miles over this shiny new bridge over the Canadian River and raped Laura Nelson and hung them from this bridge.

The saddest thing - and this is really what motivated us to go out and really seek out these images - is that what Laura Nelson represented was the finest qualities that we would look for in a person. And the white community, the majority, turned those into the worst qualities. They called her a small, very black, vicious woman, and her son they called yellow and cowardly.

GROSS: How did you find out this story? Was it reported in a newspaper? Were you able to find it there?

ALLEN: In this case we were lucky because the card had Okemah, Okla., on it, so we could do the research easily. These were widely reported in the press. They sold a lot of newspapers.

GROSS: What do you know about what happened to the bodies of the people who were lynched after they were cut down?

ALLEN: We've tried to find evidence of this. It seems at the present that many of these victims can be found in unmarked graves with some effort by the communities. Several communities in the United States have sought out the grave sites now and are trying to build memorials for those victims. In one case, the victim's body - The New York Times wrote that the victim's body was a pink elephant on the hands of the townspeople because nobody would come to claim it. People were scared.

DAVIES: James Allen spoke with Terry Gross in 2000. After a short break, we'll hear more about the dark history of lynching in America with historian Philip Dray. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOLLAR BRAND AND ARCHIE SHEPP'S "FORTUNATO")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened last week in Montgomery, Ala., honors the victims of lynchings and documents this period of racial terror. Today on FRESH AIR we're listening back to interviews about this dark chapter of American history. Historian Philip Dray is the author of "At The Hands Of Persons Unknown: The Lynching Of Black America." Terry Gross interviewed Philip Dray in 2002.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: What do you think is the importance of understanding the place of lynching in American history?

PHILIP DRAY: I had suspected of course that it was a very powerful influence on black Americans in the years after the Civil War and into the 20th century. But what I found was that it was not only a very intense psychological influence on black families - for instance, the way they would raise their children. You wouldn't want to raise your son to be particularly ambitious or bold for fear that he would attract the attention of a lynch mob.

Secondly, it forced families to migrate. Lynching was so endemic in various parts of the South around the turn of the century that it contributed to the northward migration of about 1 1/2 to 2 million blacks. Of course that's a famous thing in American history, the great migration.

It also created a lot of reform efforts that things that are very familiar to us like the NAACP, which was for many years of course the largest and really only black civil rights organization in America, really got off to a start because of lynching. It was in reaction to a riot in Springfield, Ill., in 1908 that was - had started because of a lynching that progressive whites and blacks came together and said, we have to get together and do something about this. And indeed the NAACP made fighting lynching one of their top priorities for many years well into the 1940s.

GROSS: What were the justifications that white people in the South used for hanging black men? I mean, it's not only taking justice into your own hands, but it's doing it in an incredibly cruel and hideous way.

DRAY: Right. And it wasn't only hanging. It was - some of the more spectacular lynchings were actually immolations. But of course hanging was also common, as was just shooting. The chief justification or the most sensational one was the rape of white women. In other words, this was a very - obviously a very hot-button sort of issue, and it was one that would never fail to inspire a lynch mob to form. That reason was often given as to why the men of the South had to protect white women and, you know, therefore protect the white race, really. It had to do with a kind of destabilizing atmosphere that came in the 1890s.

It's a little mysterious because it was - lynching was a kind of a mass hysteria, really. And so it's hard to really point to the reasons, except it was a period in which the first generation of blacks who had not been slaves or born in slavery were coming of age. And the white South was under assault, really, in many ways from not really knowing how to deal with this minority population in its midst.

At the same time, white women were entering the workforce, working in textile mills and that sort of thing. And so there was a kind of pressure placed on white men to kind of hold onto the status quo. And many scholars feel that that is what triggered this kind of hysteria of seeing black rapists lurking behind every tree, basically.

GROSS: What have you found out about who participated in lynchings, who organized them?

DRAY: That's a very difficult thing to say. As the title of my book, "At The Hands Of Persons Unknown," implies, at the hands of persons unknown was almost invariably the coroner's verdict when a lynching victim was found. It was a euphemism that basically meant to suggest that no persons had really committed the crime of lynching, but rather it had been an expression of the community's will.

So this researching who the perpetrators of lynchings were is very difficult because the purpose of lynching was to obfuscate things that ordinarily in a trial would come out, say in a trial transcript or lawyers' arguments or an interrogation that was recorded, that sort of thing. So you're left really with a lot of just kind of reading the tea leaves. Generally, from just anecdotal evidence mostly provided by newspapers, most lynchings you get the sense that it was - they were led by a - sort of a inner circle of firebrands who were rousing everyone up. There were usually many, many young men involved, boys from the age of 10 up.

And then beyond that you had sort of the rest of the community that might not really approve but didn't want to miss out on it. So really - they really were like community events. It's not uncommon to read newspaper accounts of lynchings in small towns where it's reported that every citizen in the town was there.

DAVIES: Philip Dray is the author of "At The Hands Of Persons Unknown: The Lynching Of Black America." He spoke with Terry in 2002. We'll continue their conversation after a break, and writer Mat Johnson will tell us how his great-grandfather narrowly escaped being lynched. I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT")

BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) Southern trees bear a strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root. Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. Pastoral scene of the gallant South, the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth. Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh, then the sudden smell of burning flesh. Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck, for the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, for the sun to rot, for the tree to drop. Here is a strange and bitter crop.

(SOUNDBITE OF WYNTON MARSALIS' "ELVEEN")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Last Thursday, a national memorial honoring the victims of American lynchings opened in Montgomery, Ala. We're focusing most of today's show on this troubled period of American history. Let's get back to Terry's 2002 interview with historian Philip Dray, author of "At The Hands Of Persons Unknown: The Lynching Of Black America."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Is there anything like this that you can find in American history? Like the kind of lynchings that became public spectacles and public events where everybody showed up, maybe brought a picnic lunch and, you know, watched it like it was a movie or a theater event.

DRAY: I can't really think of anything. Probably the closest thing is a religious revival, you know, an outdoor religious revival in the South. For instance, you know, we've all seen these kind of things depicted in films where, you know, the families show up, and it's a daylong event and people get very carried away. It's a very emotional experience. I mean, that's - it's important to point out to that lynching itself was, in many - essentially with spectacle lynchings, was a kind of quasi-religious experience because it was so ritualized. And it seemed to suggest a kind of expiation on the part of the lynch mob.

In other words, often lynchings would follow a period in which white and black relations in a particular community were - had become very tense. And so the lynching served as almost a kind of a release - like a sacrifice. Meanwhile, of course you had the Southern white population still sort of reeling from the Civil War and lashing out at the people, namely blacks, who they saw as the cause of this dilemma. So it was a kind of catharsis, a sense of release.

And it was important to completely destroy the victim because it was believed that if you completely destroyed a person and left really no part of them extant, they wouldn't go to heaven. And so you'll find that in most lynchings, not only was the person killed or immolated, but then what remained of them was cut up and handed out as souvenirs.

GROSS: Let's look at some of the opposition to lynching. You write a lot about Ida B. Wells and how she became an anti-lynching activist. And you quote something very eloquent that she said. (Reading) No other nation, civilized or savage, burns its criminals. Only under the stars and stripes is the human Holocaust possible. What was her approach to trying to stop lynching?

DRAY: Just as the quote you read suggested, she was outraged about lynching. And she was really the first anti-lynching crusader to appear. She got involved in 1892. She was a journalist in Memphis. And three of her friends who ran a grocery store were lynched because their business was threatening the business of a competing white grocery store. And so when that occurred, she realized that the rationale about the black rapists threatening white women was really just that. It was just, like, a rationale or an excuse because these friends of hers had been perfectly legitimate businessmen.

She began editorializing about lynching and researching lynchings herself in the South. And for her trouble, she was driven away. Basically, a mob trashed her newspaper office and warned that if she ever came back, she herself would be lynched. So she moved to New York and went on a - kind of a - about a 15 or 20-year international crusade both in Britain and the United States lecturing and writing about lynching. All she could do, really, was try to bring it to people's attention.

In other words, at that time, many of these events occurred in the South where news of these events didn't necessarily always come out. Or by the time it did, it was so shaded against the person who had been lynched that there wasn't a great deal of sympathy in America for the victims. So what Ida Wells was trying to do was basically call attention to what an outrage this was and get some coverage of it, get people alarmed about it, and try to sort of change the dynamic so that the lynchers were the criminals, not the victims.

GROSS: The NAACP began an anti-lynching campaign in 1909, shortly after it was founded. You write that James Weldon Johnson, the writer, led their anti-lynching legislative effort. How did the NAACP decide that they should try to get federal legislation that would outlaw lynching?

DRAY: I believe it was probably inspired to a certain degree by the success of both the women's suffrage movement and also Prohibition, both of which came in around 18 - I'm sorry - 1919, 1920. And so James Weldon Johnson and the NAACP believed that if the federal government could get involved in people's lives to the extent that they would tell them what they could drink, that they could surely get involved to stop people from burning other human beings alive. So they went ahead with the help of a white congressman named Dyer from St. Louis. And both in the '20s and the '30s, the NAACP mounted several very powerful campaigns in Congress to get a federal anti-lynching law passed.

GROSS: Now, what approach did Congressman Dyer take in his bill to defining and trying to prevent lynching?

DRAY: The - well, as I said, before the sense was that this was not murder. In other words, there was a constitutional issue in that the Southern states pointed out that - first of all, the federal government had no right to involve itself in criminal - local criminal affairs in the South. And that these were just murders, and that the states were perfectly able to take care of them. The federal government, those advocating the federal bill, insisted that this was a different type of crime. That it wasn't just murder but rather a form of anarchy in which laws were ignored.

And so that was really the basis that they used. They felt - it really boiled down to this age-old argument in this country between federal and states' rights. In other words, that - were Americans federal citizens who were entitled to protection from the federal government, or were they citizens of the states and thus criminals were to be dealt with on a local level?

GROSS: This - I think this is interesting. You write that one of the reasons why Congress was finally ready to really listen to this anti-lynching bill was that there was a lot of fear in the North that lynching would follow the black migration to the North and that the North would have trouble.

DRAY: Yes, that's right. There was a very famous case in 1911 in a town called Coatesville, Pa. Coatesville was a very typical northern mill town in that it had sent agents into the South to recruit black workers, telling them conditions are much better in Pennsylvania; we have electric lights on the street; and there's no Jim Crow and et cetera. What happened, though, is that one of these workers got in a fight with a policeman in Coatesville one night and shot and killed him.

What happened basically was that the town of Coatesville behaved just like any other - any Southern town. This man was taken to a field, set afire. A large crowd watched. Afterward, the North - you know, New York, Washington, Baltimore - were outraged because this had happened so close by. And there - you know, there was a flood of editorials and demands that, at least here, justice will be done. We're not going to be like the South.

Well, instead the exact same thing happened, which was the locals all stuck together, wouldn't inform on one another. And basically, the case was never - they were never able to prosecute it. So it was very shameful and very - kind of a wake-up call for the North, really, that this form of violence would follow the migration north. And there were other instances, too. There was a famous lynching in Duluth, Minn., actually at one time, one of the northernmost cities in the country.

GROSS: So what legislation - what federal legislation was finally passed?

DRAY: There never was an anti-lynching law passed, actually. They tried many times through the '20s, '30s. The last attempt was during the Second World War. What basically happened is that efforts in Congress eventually just ran out. The Southern bloc was just too strong, and on several occasions they filibustered bills to death. One of the most well-known instances is during the '30s, when Franklin Roosevelt, who, of course - he and Eleanor Roosevelt both were very sympathetic to the work of the NAACP and about lynching - but basically wound up telling the NAACP that they just could not put the important congressional agenda at risk for this one issue because the Southerners would just block all other movement. So that was pretty much the end of it.

After the - during the Second World War, what you see is the federal judiciary kind of picking up the battle. And indeed, that's where it eventually really made more progress. They call that the Due Process Revolution, the - all during the 20th century, a series of Supreme Court decisions that incrementally restored to the federal government the right to mandate what constituted a criminal trial and what levels of due process were owed to citizens.

GROSS: So we can't really credit federal legislation with stopping lynching. What were the main factors that brought that to an end?

DRAY: Well, lynching was diminishing slowly all along, partly, I believe through pressure. The NAACP was very successful, really, in the - from 1911 or so on. They were publicizing lynchings. They would always do a very thorough job of investigating lynchings so as to get out what they believed was the actual story. In other words, their effort was meant to correct the myths that would surround a lynching, typically, and try to put out a story that made the victim seem at least somewhat sympathetic and to make the lynch mob appear gross and, you know, out of control, essentially - and irresponsible. So this did take effect on popular opinion. You also see in the '20s, for instance, after the First World War, a sense that - in other words, like, world events were casting lynching in a different light after what people felt was this barbaric foreign war and, you know, the Bolshevik Revolution.

The idea of anarchy was a really - meant a lot to people in America then. The idea that lynch mobs represented anarchy was this thing that could get people very excited. Similarly, in the '30s, you had with the rise of fascism in Europe - you could place lynching sort of in that context. And so people naturally had this reaction to it that, well, that's not us, that's something that's going on over there. And, of course, this was accentuated by the fact that the Nazis would publish pictures of U.S. lynchings and distribute them to kind of - to show, like, well here, you know, what are you talking about? Basically, you know, this is what you're up to.

So you have this kind of larger world influence. Other things, too. In the '30s - a big hot-button crime in the '30s was kidnapping after the famous Lindbergh kidnapping. There was a sense of unease on the part of people that criminals had become mobile, that - you know, that there were these gangster syndicates and people being abducted. And so in that context, too, lynching then became seen as this kind of atrocious event that just could not be allowed to continue.

DAVIES: Philip Dray is the author of "At The Hands Of Persons Unknown: The Lynching Of Black America." Terry spoke to him in 2002. Coming up, FRESH AIR commentator Mat Johnson recounts a story from his own family's experience with racial terror. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILLIE HOLIDAY SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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