From a young age, I knew that racism was wrong, as my parents helped me learn that important lesson.
When I was a child, I saw a photograph of a lynching that took place somewhere in the Deep South. My parents had a variety of leftist books and periodicals in our home, and as a precocious child, I frequently perused them, and that’s how I came to see this photograph.
In it, a black man was hanging by the neck from a rope while all around him, white people stood on the ground and appeared to be entertained, as many of them were smiling. There were men, women and children. I am curious by nature and didn’t flinch from looking at this, but it was certainly a horrible thing to see. I never forgot it. From a young age, I knew that racism was wrong, as my parents helped me learn that important lesson in a nation where racism has been a powerful negative force.
I am now 80 years old and when I hear something in the news, experiences from the past come into my consciousness–such as my viewing of this lynching photo. What I heard that provoked the memory was the fact that President Biden just signed a Federal anti-lynching law.
The Death Penalty Information Center reported on the signing of the bill as follows:
After more than a century of efforts by civil rights leaders to make lynching a federal crime, President Joe Biden on March 29, 2022, signed into law historic anti-lynching legislation.
Flanked by the bill’s sponsors, Vice President Kamala Harris, and family members of the late Ida B. Wells and Emmett Till in a ceremony on the White House lawn, Biden signed the Emmett Till Antilynchin , officially denominating lynching a federal hate crime. The law allows for crimes–such as kidnappings, aggravated sexual abuse, or attempts to kill–to be prosecuted as lynchings in federal court when a conspiracy to commit a hate crime results in death or serious bodily injury. Individuals convicted of lynching face punishment of up to 30 years in prison.
“Lynching was pure terror to enforce the lie that not everyone belongs in America, not everyone is created equal,” Biden said after signing the bill. Citing recent high-profile incidents of racist violence, he warned that racism remains “a persistent problem” across the United States.
“From the bullets in the back of Ahmaud Arbery to countless other acts of violence–countless victims known and unknown–the same racial hatred that drove the mob to hang a noose brought that mob carrying torches out of the fields of Charlottesville just a few years go,” Biden said. “Racial hate isn’t an old problem; it’s a persistent problem. A persistent problem. And I know many of the civil rights leaders here know, and you heard me say it a hundred times: Hate never goes away; it only hides. It hides under the rocks. And given just a little bit of oxygen, it comes roaring back out, screaming. But what stops it is all of us, not a few. All of us have to stop it.”
The bill is named for Emmett Till, a teenager from Chicago who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955. Till, who was 14 at the time, was visiting relatives when a white woman accused him of whistling at her. He was kidnapped, beaten, and brutally killed. His assailants threw his body into a river, weighed down by a metal fan tied to his neck. Two men were charged with his murder, but were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury. At Till’s funeral, his mother, Mami Till, insisted on an open casket to publicly expose the violence inflicted on her son.
The Encyclopedia Britannica defines lynching this way: “Lynching, a form of violence in which a mob, under the pretext of administering justice without trial, executes a presumed offender, often after inflicting torture and corporal mutilation. The term ‘lynch law’ refers to a self-constituted court that imposes sentence on a person without due process of law. Both terms are derived from the name of Charles Lynch (1736–96), a Virginia planter and justice of the peace who, during the American Revolution, headed an irregular court formed to punish loyalists.”
There is more in Wikipedia.
One could say that lynching is a form of vigilante justice, and I don’t like vigilante justice of any kind, causing me to reject narratives in which it is projected as a good thing. An example of this is a popular 1996 movie entitled Sling Blade, in which the likeable hero, played by Billy Bob Thornton, uses violence to end his mistreatment, and the viewer is supposed to welcome it. Another movie in which vigilante justice prevails and presumably is welcomed by the viewer is In the Bedroom, (2001) starring Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek.
The signing of the Federal anti-lynching law came around the same time as the release of a new book, White Lies. Author A.J. Baime tells the story of Walter White, a light-skinned Black man whose ancestors had been enslaved. For years White risked his life investigating racial violence in the South and he served as executive director of the National Association of Colored People (NAACP) from 1931-55. Dave Davies of the National Public Radio show Fresh Air reviews the book.
I first learned about Walter White in the context of his efforts to have Congress pass an anti-lynching law in the 1930s. That history lesson came as I was reading Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume Two, 1933-1938, by
Blanche Weisen Cook, published a decade ago.
As first lady during the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eleanor was a politically astute and active woman who had a friendship with Walter White. She supported the NAACP’s effort to have the United States adopt an anti-lynching law but could not convince her husband to support it. He needed the votes of southern Democrats and he assumed (probably correctly) that his support for such a law would damage him politically. FDR served four terms as president of the U S. and that was during a time when Southern states were dominated by the Democratic Party.
Lynching in the “style” of the photograph I saw as a child has not occurred recently, as far as I know, but the concept of the noose as a racist symbol endures. MSNBC recently reported that “Nooses, which are associated with acts of lynching in the United States, are one of the prevailing symbols of hate, violence and white supremacy. “ More is available here.
Biden linked the new law to the recent Ahmaud Arbery shooting, and since The Rag Blog is published in Texas, it is appropriate for me to also recall the case of the horrible and violent death of James Byrd Jr. as a lynching. Some of the details of that 1998 murder case can be found here.
We don’t have much to celebrate when it comes to action by the U.S. Congress in 2022, but the passage of this anti-lynching law is a welcome exception. With so much bad news overwhelming us, let’s spend a few minutes to appreciate this good news. It won’t end racism, but every little bit helps. That’s what the word “progressive’ implies, I believe.
[Allen Young has lived in rural North Central Massachusetts since 1973 and is an active member of several local environmental organizations. Young worked for Liberation News Service in Washington, D.C., and New York City, from 1967 to 1970. He has been an activist-writer in the New Left and gay liberation movements, including numerous items published in The Rag Blog. Retired since 1999, he was a reporter and assistant editor of the Athol (Mass.) Daily News, and director of community relations for the Athol Memorial Hospital. He is author or editor of 15 books, including his 2018 autobiography, Left, Gay & Green; A Writer’s Life–and a review of this book can be found in the Rag Blog archives.]