Imagine what would happen if all the people in five small Southern towns just disappeared? Slowly, over the course of 70 – 80 years. I think someone would notice the trend. Someone would conduct a study. The NYT would write about that study when it came out. If you didn’t know it was happening as it happened, you’d be asking some follow-up questions. If you did know, you might ask why, even advocate to stop whatever was ‘disappearing’ them. Evntually, someone would give the phenomenon a name and it would find its way into history books.
Guess what? Something like that did happen. From the late 1800s to the late 1960s, thousands of people disappeared as the result of one thing. More than the entire populations of Enterprise, MS; Ideal, GA; Adler, TX; Dodson, LA; and Carolina, AL. People knew it was happening because newspapers wrote about it. There were postcards with pictures. Some people advocated against it, but, since it could be contagious, only a hardy few risked those follow-up questions. Studies have been done, the NYT has written about it, and it wasn’t actually outlawed until 2005. But you won’t find it in most history books and only a few know much about it. Why is that? Because the people who disappeared overwhelmingly are Black, and Black lives don’t matter. What was it? Lynching.
Estimates of the number of Black people lynched vary. 3,446 between 1882 and 1968. 3,959 between 1877 and 1950, according to a study released earlier this year, which includes 700 people not named in previous studies, some conducted while lynching was still a thing.
Mind you, the number assuredly is higher than that. The recent study used the the NAACP’s definition, thereby accounting only for those events where three or more people did the lynching and somebody wrote about it. Trust and believe, the newspapers didn’t get all of them. Granted, there were picnics, photo ops and postcards at many of the lynchings, which were actually quite the social event in places and among people who didn’t know the difference between a pig pickin’ and a “coon cooking“.
If you’ve ever seen my library or my bulletin board, you know
lynching is a study of mine. I just can’t fathom that so many people could die in such gruesome ways for so long with thousands of witnesses at the “hands of persons unknown”. Imagine if they had been White. And before anyone says it, I know White people were lynched, many for coming to the aid of a Black victim or speaking out against the practice. But in SC, of the 160 recorded lynchings, 156 were of Black people. Let’s be real about where the real issue rests.
So, here are a few things you might not know about lynching:
- Lynchings were festive occasions — for racists. People came from miles around for a lynching. Lynchings were announced and photographed for postcards. Sometimes thousands of adults and children attended.
- For lynching victims, the noose usually was the best part. Lynching of Black people — especially men — was not like what you see in movies. More often than not, Black men were castrated, dismembered, set afire and shot before they were hung. Women often were raped. Why? Because a core tenet of racism is a belief in the moral inferiority — immorality — of Black people. Black men are brutal beasts intent on raping White women, whose purity must be protected at all times, by any means. Black women are oversexed, doing their best to tempt White men anyway, so it isn’t really rape. And these perceptions exist. They’ve morphed into the myth of the scary, Black man who makes cops feel their lives are in danger and incites racist vigilantes to stand their ground — even if the only ‘weapon’ a Black man has is tea and Skittles, a toy gun or loud music. Or even if he’s still a child. Black women are exotic reductions of T&A — lots of A — appropriated by White girls like Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Lily Allen and Taylor Swift.
- Lynching — as an idea — is great creative fodder. SAEs Need a frat ditty? Lynching works. San Francisco cops need to bond over email? Nothing says brotherhood like lynching. Looking for an interesting way to invite your friends to hang out? Use a noose! Or, do something creative with one on a presidential poster. Even Black people use lynching as creative inspiration. Just not the same way. Ask Billie Holliday.
- At least three men share the dubious honor of being the source of the term ‘lynching’: First, there was Charles Lynch, a planter, politician, and American revolutionary from Virginia who led a kangaroo court where “Lynch’s Law” — organized but unauthorized punishment of criminals — was used on British Loyalists. Next, came William Lynch (not to be confused with Willie Lynch), who actually laid claim to the term, “Lynch’s Law”, saying it came from a 1780 agreement he signed with his Pittsylvania County, VA neighbors, to handle things outside of the law. Finally, there was Willie Lynch, who gave a speech in 1712 about his special methods for “The Making of a Slave“. My money is on Charles.
- Lynching has been a legal issue since…two weeks ago. Earlier this month, in an ironic legal twist, at least two Black activists in Los Angeles were charged with felony lynching during Black Lives Matter protests. Gov. Brown had to fix that mess. But hey, just 10 years ago, you might actually get away with lynch murder. Not until 2005 did the U.S. Senate apologize for not passing anti-lynching laws long before, admitting it had failed — repeatedly — to make lynching a federal offense.
- There are still folks around who know about lynching – firsthand. The last mass lynching in America happened on July 25, 1946 when two young Black couples – George and Mae Murray Dorsey, and Roger and Dorothy Malcom — were murdered in Walton County, Ga. People still living know what happened, saw what happened and the case has been reopened. But nobody’s been convicted. Laura Wexler wrote a great book about it, Fire in a Canebrake. Filmaker Jacqueline Olive, is working on a documentary, Always in Season, which introduces you to relatives of both the perpetrators and victims of lynchings in four communities. You can see clips on indiegogo, where she’s crowdsourcing funding for it; I was happy to help.
- Lynching monuments are rare. Some spots local folks know all about, like the Chickasawhay River bridge, where at least six Black people — two brothers, Major and Andrew Clark and two pregnant sisters, Maggie and Alma Howze in 1918; 14 year old Ernest Green and 15 year old Charlie Lang in 1942 — were lynched. The locals refer to it as “the hanging bridge”. As for finding monuments to the victims? Good luck with that. Bryan Stevens, head of the Equal Justice Alliance, is working to get memorials erected, but many people in most towns would rather just not talk about it.
- Women were lynched, too. Maybe this was a surprise only to me. But when I saw this picture of Laura Nelson, lynched with her son, JD Nelson, on March 25, 1911, I had to be quiet in myself for a long time.
Hers is the picture that hangs on my bulletin board. Hers is the picture that started me on a journey to write the story of Marie Scott, another woman lynched, then forgotten. One day, I’ll actually get it written. But, according to records, at least 150 women were lynched between 1886 and 1957. I’ve decided to do a pilgrimage, and visit every known site where a Black woman was lynched. I’ll write about it when I do.