Mixing Metaphors and Diluting Memory: Lynching – The Reality

Against the Current, No. 120, January/February 2006

Gode Davis and Peter Ian Asen

ON OCTOBER 9, 2005, U.S. Senator Arlen Specter appeared on ABC’s “This Week” to defend Harriet Miers, President Bush’s confidante whose nomination to the Supreme Court had evoked howls of protest, particularly from the Christian Right.  Specter told George Stephanopoulos that Miers’ verbal critics made up “one of the toughest lynch mobs ever assembled in Washington, DC, and we assemble some tough lynch mobs.”  In claiming Washington’s penchant for “tough lynch mobs,” Senator Specter was not speaking literally—though he could have been.  It is unlikely that Specter meant to evoke the actual lynch mobs roaming the streets of Washington D.C. for four days during the “Red Summer” of 1919, attacking African-Americans in a frenzy whipped up by racism, anti-communism, fears of joblessness, and post-war jingoism.

On the night of July 19, 1919, an angry white crowd hundreds strong descended upon a Black neighborhood in Washington, fracturing skulls with bricks and violently harassing any African American it could find.  The fuse of the mob’s anger had been lit by rumors that a Black man had sexually assaulted a white woman, the wife of a Navy sailor.

These rumors came on the heels of weeks of articles in local papers highlighting a “Negro sex fiend” supposedly raping white women throughout the area, the reports substantiated in the minds of white readers by sensational headlines such as “NEGRO FIEND SOUGHT ANEW.”

From the first night, violence spread in sporadic incidents throughout the city, with perpetrators brazen enough to declare their lynching intentions.  On the third day, according to a 1999 historical account by Peter Perl in the Washington Post:

James Scott, a World War I veteran, boarded a streetcar at Seventh Street and Florida Avenue NW late Monday night and quickly noticed he was the only black man on board.  As he headed for a vacant seat, a white soldier barred his way and shouted, “Where are you going, nigger?”

“Lynch him!” yelled another white.  “Kill him! Throw him out the window,” others yelled.

“I was being grabbed from all sides.  I forced my way to the rear door and was hit by something as I stepped off, which cut my ear and bruised my head,” Scott recalled in a statement to the NAACP.  “As the car moved away, the conductor fired three shots at me.”

The violence flowed for four days, with African Americans reacting with their own mob violence, before President Woodrow Wilson finally called out the National Guard.  Senator Specter’s use of the phrase “lynch mob”—like the emotionally charged claim by Clarence Thomas in 1991 that he was the victim of an “electronic lynching”—suggests that lynching’s bloody history has been sufficiently diluted in the American imagination so as to become mere rhetoric for political discourse.

Fourteen years after Thomas transformed “lynching” into a personal metaphor dependent upon his black skin, a political “lynch mob” can be said to descend on an elite, white, Christian woman (a seemingly unlikely lynching victim) for the “crime” of not being far enough to the right.

No Apology

Collective memory of lynching has also been diluted to the extent that some of Specter’s Senate colleagues could brazenly refuse to add their own names to a June 13, 2005 resolution apologizing for their legislative body’s collective failure to ever pass Federal anti-lynching legislation.  The resolution—introduced by Senators Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and George Allen (R-Va.)—lacked the names of 11 Republican senators.

Even sponsorship of this non-binding apology, a goodwill gesture with no real implications for contemporary racism and hate crimes, was not exactly evidence of a commitment to seriously condemn America’s history of mob violence.  In fact, one of the original cosponsors (Allen) had recently received negative press for displaying a noose in his law office and a Confederate flag in his home.

Still, Sen. Lamar Alexander told Roll Call that he did not cosponsor the resolution because, “rather than begin to catalog and apologize for all those times that some Americans have failed to reach our goals, I prefer to look ahead.  I prefer to look to correct current injustices rather than to look to the past.”

Thankfully for Alexander, his fellow Tennessean and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist blocked a roll call vote on the resolution, preventing Alexander from having to go on the record as officially opposing or supporting the measure.  But the media reports of the resolution focused far more on the pomp and circumstance of the apology, and less on the political machinations that left supporters of the resolution with a tepid conclusion.  A sparsely attended voice vote at 7 p.m. on June 13 featured only a handful of Senators.

Haunting Memories

They got me up to the tree, they put the rope up around my neck, they threw the end of the rope round the limb of the tree.  I kept looking to the right and to the left and begging for help, telling people to help me, that I hadn’t done anything to deserve this.  And they were getting ready to pull me back up, when I prayed to God, said Lord, have mercy, forgive me my sins.  As soon as I prayed, a voice came out and said, ‘take this boy down, he had nothing to do with any killing or raping.’ And that voice came from far away, drifting down.  And…that mob, that had already killed two human beings, those hands became soft and kind and tender, and they took that rope off my neck, and allowed me to stumble back to the jail, which was just a half a block away. —H. James Cameron, in an interview for the in-progress documentary “American Lynching”

As the lynching resolution gave way to posturing and political maneuverings, any hope of new self-examination by America of its own sordid lynching record was quickly deflated.  Also left unchallenged was the prevailing impression that the only “other” victimized by American lynch mobs were African-Americans.  Historians William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb have documented that at least 605 Hispanic Americans were lynched in the United States between 1848 and 1928—and this number may well be conservative.

In fact, once vociferously targeted groups such as Mexican-Americans, Chinese laborers, Italians, anti-Capitalist and “unpatriotic” union activists, homosexuals, Jews, and Mormons were never emphasized throughout a spate of Capitol activities on June 13, 2005.  Attacks on American-Arabs, Moslems and Sikhs attacked by self-styled “patriots” in misplaced retribution for 2001’s horrific “9-11” events were unmentioned.

It was a bittersweet moment for the resolution’s major advocates, like H. James Cameron, now a 91-year old who had barely survived an August 7, 1930 lynching event in Marion, Indiana at the age of 16.

Cameron served several years in prison as an accessory before the fact in the murder of Claude Deeter—a crime committed by one of the two young Black men lynched on that fateful day. Nearly six decades later, Cameron founded America’s Black Holocaust Museum in 1988.  Haunting memories of August 7, 1930 still enable him to articulate his experience of lynching seventy-five years on.

Cameron’s eloquence, combined with his ancient presence, at a Hart Senate Building press conference prior to the historic vote led to many reminders, in media accounts surrounding the hoopla, of his status as “the only living survivor” of a lynching.  These emphatic proclamations of Cameron’s unique position, whatever their intentions, seemed to erase lynching as an American phenomenon even as reporters documented a supposed moment of remembrance—implying that such hateful violence was tucked deep in the past.

The same could be said for Lamar Alexander’s presumptuous decree that he “prefer[s] to look ahead”—as if more than 1000 incidents of anti-Arab, anti-Moslem, and anti-Sikh violence occurring in a vitriolic five-month window after September 11, 2001 had never been conceived, let alone perpetrated.

Left unsaid, almost too obvious to point out and yet still somehow ignored, was the real reason there is only one known survivor of lynching.  It is not that so much time has passed since lynchings have occurred, but rather the simple fact that in most lynchings, the victim is killed.  Even H. James Cameron was spared that ignominious fate by an unknown voice audible at the last minute as if in a dark and twisted fairy tale.

Forgotten too is the reality that two other young African-American men were summarily hanged—if only to satisfy the self-righteous lust of a lynch mob.

Absent History, Mob Hysteria

The history of lynching in the U.S. is an important part of our nation’s complex heritage, yet it remains largely absent from the American consciousness.  A desire to erase lynching is not simply disdain for history; it is also an aversion to “catalog [ing]” America’s “fail [ure] to reach its goals,” as Lamar Alexander would have it.

Lynching is so disturbing not just for its nasty brutality but for its stark exposure of what the banality of evil really is. The idea of entire families—including impressionable children—going out to a lynching after church on Sunday strikes at the core of this most uncomfortable aspect of the phenomenon.

In an interview for our in-progress documentary “American Lynching,” H. James Cameron was asked who made up a lynch mob. “Ordinary people—your neighbors.  People you wouldn’t think.  Good people, bad people, angry people, loving people, churchgoing people.  All of them get caught up in that mob hysteria.”

In a lynch mob, the individual becomes anonymous.  In a 1981 article for the scholarly journal Social Behavior and Personality, Peter Peretti and Deborah Singletary wrote of the lynch mob participant:

He is free from individual restraints and control during the deviant act… As a fragment of a faceless mob, the individual can say or do things that he would never dare say or do when facing society on his own. After the conclusion of the lynching, with the tension relieved and the mob dispersed, he can again become an ordinary member of society behaving according to its prescribed norms and restraints.

While hysteria was certainly an element of lynch mob behavior, and perhaps a persistent one, other aspects seemed more deliberate and conscious.  Many of these public displays of unimaginable brutality were ritualized affairs, carefully orchestrated.

History records a “Captain Pratt” whose macabre skill was much in demand throughout the Deep South and Southwest during the lynch-crazy 1890s.  A socially approved serial killer, he would travel to different communities in order to teach the practiced “art” of burning mob victims alive—as a means of earning his livelihood.

Under the post-9/11 rubric of the “war on terror,” certain aspects of the still unresolved lynch mob mentality have become permissible or at least judged more palatable.  Dora Apel, writing in a recent issue of Art Journal, has associated the black and white sepia prints culled from historic lynching events with recent color photos depicting torture and abuse of prisoners in facilities administered by American military and civilian personnel in Iraq.

“Both sets of perpetrators,” Apel writes, “in their loftiest rationalizations, believe they are committing their deeds for the good of the nation, or at least, their actions are sanctioned by a larger community and serve the interests of that community.” Senator Arlen Specter may have been reluctant to link one American event distant in time to atrocities more recent.  Rather, he was content to relegate lynching to the status of mere metaphor in the discussion about a beleaguered U.S. Supreme Court nominee.

While history is a product of memory, our memories are all too fleeting.  Remembering lynching as a phenomenon might provoke us to enact a fundamental shift in our thinking as a way to truly repudiate lynching’s legacy.  In the meantime, the essence of lynching’s malignant mindset keeps on keeping on.

ATC 120, January-February 2006