Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Endless American Horror

The Endless American Horror: Lynching and Police

Author's Note: Please note that this article contains graphic descriptions of lynchings. Discretion is advised.

This article was originally published on AHTribune.com.

In 1918 Brook County, Georgia, a local plantation owner was killed by Sidney Johnson, a black man who had been leased out to the plantation via the convict lease system, in a dispute over unpaid wages. Upon hearing this, the white community went on a rampage and lynched not only Johnson, but anyone they thought to even be remotely involved in Johnson’s decision. One of these men was Hayes Turner. Not only was he lynched, but also castrated.

Turner’s wife, Mary, who was eight months pregnant at the time, began to speak out against her husband’s lynching; unfortunately, she too, became a victim. A white mob “hanged her by her feet, set her on fire, sliced her stomach open, and pulled out her baby, which was still alive.” They stomped on the child’s head, killing it. Then the mob “[took] the time to sew two cats in Mrs. Turner's stomach and making bets as to which one would climb out first.” [1]

This can be described as nothing short of demonic. In many ways, even that fails to fully encompass the horror and pure wickedness of this event. Though, the only thing more horrid is that in a way, lynchings continue in the form of police murder.

Before delving into the connections between the aforementioned violence, it is imperative to first understand lynching. The origins of lynching truly lie in slavery where “there were numerous public punishments of slaves, none of which were preceded by trials or any other semblance of civil or judicial processes. Justice depended solely upon the slaveholder.” [2] Punishment ranged from lashings to family separation to mutilation and branding. The overall idea behind these actions were that black people were not human beings, in a way, they weren’t even property, they were just things, lesser than both humans and animals. This mindset continued in the post chattel slavery era, where slavery took on the form of both the convict leasing and sharecropping systems respectively. Yet, it also took place in the form of mob violence against blacks.

There have been many explorations as to the reasoning behind lynching. E.M. Beck, a professor of sociology at the University of Georgia, posited the argument that lynching was linked to the cotton markets. He argued that lynchings “[increased] during times of sparse cotton revenues, and declining with increasing cotton profits.” The lack of profit from cotton led unemployed whites to want to replace black workers and that “Mob violence was a form of intimidation to facilitate this labor substitution.” [3] While further studies have shown that fluctuations in cotton pricing don’t explain lynching [4], it should be noted that white elites would have an interest in fueling white angst into hatred against blacks, effectively utilizing poor whites as foot soldiers in their mission to maintain the current racial and economic hierarchy.

The cause of lynching was first and foremost the culture of white supremacy that had existed for the past two centuries or so. Blacks became scapegoats for many of the problems that were going on and thus a subculture of violence that had arguably already taken root in the days of slavery, took on new form. “The existence of a subculture presupposes a complex pattern of norms, attitudes and actions” which “reflects 'a potent theme of violence current in the cluster of values that make up the life-style, the socialization process, [and] the interpersonal relationships of individuals living in similar conditions.” [5] Effectively, violence becomes normalized and is used as a tool of to socialize and condition people as to how the society operates.

This normalization and conditioning can be seen in the form of the lynching. Lynchings were very much a community affair in which legal authorities seldom if ever got involved as “the judge, prosecutor, jurors and witnesses—all white—were usually in sympathy with the lynchers” and “local police and sheriffs rarely did anything to defend Negro citizens and often supported lynchings.” [6]

Newspapers as well were extremely biased in covering lynchings. “Southern editors often used sympathetic language in describing lynch mobs while reserving callous damnation for lynch victims. The southern press was extremely creative when it came to providing moral, if not legal, justification for the action of lynch mobs.” We can see the affect that journalists had on the public’s view of lynching in the case of the murder of the Hodges family in Statesboro, Georgia. [7]

Henry and Claudia Hodges lived on a remote farm, near a black community, some of whom were the employees of the Hodges. Late on the night of July 28, 1904, two men saw the Hodges home aflame. They went to investigate and found the mutilated, charred remains of the entire family. The suspected motive was robbery as it was known that Hodges was better off than most farmers and it was even rumored that he possibly had several hundred dollars stashed away on his property.

The following morning, Bulloch County sheriff John Kendrick formed a group to hunt down the killers. After discovering strands of hair, a knife, a shoe, and tracks of mud, they were led to a small shack occupied by Paul Reed, a black laborer. While Paul denied involvement, he, along with his wife Harriet, were arrested and taken to jail. When being interrogated, Harriet broke down and revealed that her husband and another black man, Paul Cato, had planned to rob the Hodges. The shoe matched the one found on the Hodges farm and blood stains on his clothing seemed to seal the deal with regards to Paul Reed’s guilt, however, no money was found. The sheriff also arrested thirteen other blacks who lived in the general vicinity.

Despite the lack of hard evidence in the form of money, newspapers assumed Reed’s guilt. The Macon Telegraph wrote “The wholesale butchery . . . of the Hodges family near Statesboro by dehumanized brutes adds another to the long list of horrors perpetrated in this state since the emancipation of the African slaves in 1865” and noted that “the people of [Statesboro] ... displayed great moral courage and forbearance in permitting the perpetrators to escape summary punishment without the forms of law,” [8] a statement clearly hinting that lynching was on the table as an option.

Others went even further in their demonization of the alleged perpetrators, such as the editor of Statesboro News who penned “Good farmers awoke to the fact that they are living in constant danger, and that human vampires live in their midst, only awaiting the opportunity to blot out their lives.” [9] Language such as this only served to heighten white anxiety and fears that a black uprising had occurred in response to white mistreatment, something that had been the in the backs of their minds since the institution of slavery began.

The media actively went and pushed erroneous and misleading evidence, such as was with Morning News which stated that Reed had made a ‘partial confession’ to the murders, despite there being a lack of legal evidence to support the assertion. The Statesboro News continued to utilize inflammatory language, publishing an article which said in part “Their guilt has been established beyond a doubt - every chain has been traced and all lead to their door.” [10] Additional stories argued that the rape of both Mrs. Hodges and their daughter Katy, where the real motives for the motive for the murders, again without the slightest shred of evidence.

Newspapers also noted that Reeds and Cato belonged to a distinct subset of blacks who were lazy and shiftless. This contrasts with the blacks who ‘know their place’ in society and often work on white farms. The only reason this was even discussed was because there were rumors floating around that the Hodges family may have been killed due to Mr. Hodges being too friendly with blacks, something that only aided to reinforce the region’s racial caste system and conjure images of murderous black people who would attack whites were they to let their guard down.

An Atlanta News editorial minced few words in its character analysis: “It is true that the negroes in the turpentine campus of south Georgia are in the main a lot of irresponsible and half-savage vagabonds, apparently hopeless to the redeeming efforts of civilization, and that their presence makes a continual menace and threat to the peace and safety of the people.” [11]
On August 15, the court case finally got underway. Superior Court Judge Alexander Daley was forbidden by Georgia law to request a change in court venue, despite his wanting to as to possibly give people time to ‘cool off.’ This was actually dangerous in some ways as such changes were often used by mobs as an excuse to lynch blacks on the grounds that they may have a chance to ‘escape justice.’

When the trial began, the press continued to present rumor as fact. The Statesboro News reported that Reed had admitted to being part of a gang of blacks who were roaming the Bulloch County countryside, robbing, raping, and killing whites. Once again this increased the amount of fear in whites and put them more dead-set on lynching. It didn’t help that throngs of whites were milling about outside the courthouse.

The actual trial was incredibly brief, lasting less than a day and a half, with Reed’s and Cato’s respective defenses lasting barely eight minutes, both men plead innocent. Still, the court sentenced them to hanging. As soon as this was done, the white mobs that had been surrounding the courthouse burst in and took both men, making no effort to hide their identities, despite the fact that soldiers (without any ammunition) had been dispatched to protect the men. Both men were beaten and eventually doused in kerosene and set ablaze and dead by 3:30 pm.

Many newspapers actively defended the lynching. The Forest Blade published an editorial which argued “While we will not say we are in favor of lynching principles, there are crimes - and this is one of them - that fully justified the act,” similarly another editorial in the Sparta Ishmelite wrote “What society does not do for them [Georgia’s whites], efficiently, they do for themselves.” [12] The press played a major role in increasing tensions and outright encouraging lynchings, a serious act which helped to normalize the very act itself.

The normalization of lynching was rampant in Southern society. In 1893 in Paris, Texas, a black man by the name of Henry Smith was lynched for allegedly killing and raping the sheriff’s daughter. Smith’s lynching was in that a spectacle was made of it. It was the first “blatantly public, actively promoted lynching of a southern Black by a large crowd of southern whites with features such as ‘the specially chartered excursion train, the publicly sold photographs, and the wide circulated, unabashed retelling of the event by one of the lynchers.’” [13] It should be examined in detail that there were a number of “event-like themes, such as a float, carnival, and parade” all of which indicates “that within the act of justice, the structures of entertainment were organized. […] In addition, the souvenir scrambling for burnt remains as well as promotional materials for acquisition or purchase provides a similar semblance to paraphernalia purchased at modern-day sporting events.” [14]

Thus, what we see is within the context of lynching, there was also an aspect of entertainment and even revelry, as if it was something to be celebrated and loved. The squabbling over Smith’s remains reinforces the unbroken idea from slavery that black people aren’t human beings, but rather just things, in this case a trophy.

The situation went even further in the case of Jesse Washington, a 17 year old mentally disabled boy who was accused of murdering a white woman and subject to a kangaroo court. Children were even bought to view his horrific lynching:

Fifteen thousand men, women and children packed the square. They climbed up poles and onto the tops of cars. . . . Children were lifted up by their parents in the air. Washington was castrated, and his ears were cut off. A tree supported the iron chain that lifted him above the fire of boxes and sticks. Wailing, the boy attempted to climb the skillet hot chain. For this the men cut off his fingers. The executioners repeatedly lowered the boy into the flames and hoisted him out again. With each repetition, a mighty shout [from the crowd] was raised. [15]
It is in acts such as this, with the involvement of children and, as with Smith’s lynching, the selling of Washington’s remains as if they were memorabilia, that the murder of black people becomes normalized and something beyond a source of maintaining racial hierarchy, something akin to a form of entertainment. Among this murderfest, though, there were those who fought back such as Ida B. Wells.

Wells was a black woman who was mainly focused on battling racial discrimination and penning articles. This changed in 1892, “when a close childhood friend of hers, Thomas Moss, was lynched” in Memphis [16] Wells was of the mindset that lynching was an overreaction by whites against rapists, however, her views quickly changed given the fact that Moss was lynched for defending his grocery store from armed whites and being lynched for the simple act of self-defense. On top of this, Memphis law enforcement didn’t even bother to lift a finger to arrest the lynchers, who were publicly known.

Wells took a bit of an academic-esque approach to the situation, thinking that if lynching were exposed as the incarnation of racial hatred it was, it would no longer be socially acceptable. For three months, she traveled around the South investigating lynchings and interviewing witnesses. She found that not only were Black men lynched for having consensual relationships with white women, but also virtually all lynchings became about rape after the lynching went public.

She took her information and published a pamphlet entitled Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. Eventually due to threats on her life, she fled Memphis and moved to Chicago, where she continued to write and speak out against lynching. Still, there were others who took a more hands on, self-defense approach to lynching as took place in Decatur, IL.

On June 3, 1893, in Decatur, IL, a black day labor by the name of Samuel L. Bush who had been accused of rape, was taken from the Macon County jail and lynched by a white mob after they had went on a rampage searching for him from March 31 to June 2. During this time, rather than meet with members of the black community to discuss Bush’s situation, “State's Attorney Isaac R. Mills, Decatur Mayor David Moffett, Deputy Sheriff Harry Midkiff, and Decatur Marshal William Mason were meeting with Charles B. Britton and Charles M. Fletcher, the leaders of the vigilantes.” They attempted to appease the leaders, with Mills stating that if Bush wasn’t sentenced to death, “it would then be time to resort to extreme measures.” [17]

Despite days of lynching rumors floating around, the authorities allowed for nearly one thousand people to gather across from the jail where Bush was being held and made no effort to move or in any way ensure Bush’s safety. Just before 2 AM, “a mob composed of some of the county's leading citizens broke Sam Bush out of jail and lynched him.” [18]

In response to the lynching, Wilson B. Woodford, the only black lawyer in town that Bush had hired, published an open letter to blacks living in Decatur, urging them to attend a mass meeting where a strategy for dealing with the lynching would be formed. At the meeting, Woodford advocated taking the legal route, pushing the state attorney, the same one who had been complicit in Bush’s lynching, to take action. Some, such as Edward Jacobs, rejected it and pushed for armed blacks to go themselves and arrest Bush’s murderers. The resolutions committee backed Woodford’s strategy and messages were sent to both the governor and state attorney.

Woodford and Jacobs were coming from two separate worlds. Woodford, having a legal background, “was predisposed to distinguish between the law and enforcers of the law. Woodford, like other liberal race men and women, believed that racial prejudice and contempt for law and order were the twin causes of lynching” whereas Jacobs questioned this method of thinking. Jacobs acknowledged the cozy relationship between lynchers and the police and knew that “knew the authorities had mobilized the vigilantes to help them in capturing Bush but had rejected African-American support either to protect Bush or to arrest his murderers.” [19]

Interestingly enough, the two strategies would merge as both Woodford and Jacobs were members of the National Afro-American League, an organization that push for black development and fight against white responses to said development. NAAL “combined the pre-eminent philosophy of self-help and racial solidarity with the protest tactics of legalism, direct action, and violent self-help.” [20]
A year later, James Jackson, a black male porter, was accused of raping a white woman under questionable circumstances. The father of the woman was pushing for Jackson’s lynching and stated that help was coming from Mt. Zion. This situation would turn out rather differently than Bush’s.

Blacks controlled the streets surrounding the jail. They could be seen in doorways, under stair wells and behind wagons, armed and ready for action. Other African-Americans patrolled the streets scrutinizing whites who happened to be out at that late hour. And unlike at the protest meeting, at least two black women participated. [21]
They continued to patrol the streets around the courthouse, the police didn’t attempt to intervene, and there were no attempts to lynch Jackson.

As the case with Bush shows, the police themselves were many times the very ones who were, at best, complicit (not that that truly matters), and at worst, active participants in lynchings. This shouldn’t be surprising as not only were the police entrenched in the same racial mindset as the lynchers, but also the purpose of the police was (and is) a tool of social control, especially against black people.

The police themselves came out of slavery as “slave patrols and night watches, which later became modern police departments, were both designed to control the behaviors of minorities.” [22] In fact, in 1871 Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act, “which prohibited state actors from violating the Civil Rights of all citizens in part because of law enforcements’ involvement with the infamous group.” [23] (emphasis added) The police themselves oftentimes were directly involved in lynchings such as with the case of Austin Callaway, a sixteen year old boy.

Callaway was shot and killed in LaGrange, Georgia on September 8, 1940, having just a day earlier been accused of assaulting a white woman. He was arrested and taken to the local jail. Later that night, six men, one of them armed, went into the jail, forced the jailer to open the door, and murdered Callaway. [24] Though the killers were never found, it is known that the police were personally involved. It was noted in 2017 by LaGrange’s police chief, Louis M. Dekmar, in an apology regarding Callaway’s murder. Specifically, Dekmar said “I sincerely regret and denounce the role our Police Department played in Austin’s lynching, both through our action and our inaction.” [25] Callaway’s story is just one in many [26] where police were directly or indirectly involved in lynchings. It is this historical backdrop in which police actively murder black people that today’s police murders continue.

With lynchings, the body would hang for days as both a reminder to other blacks to ‘stay in their place’ but also a part of the aforementioned spectacle. This spectacle continues as can be seen with “the fact that Michael Brown’s body was left on the street for hours after he was killed by police officer Darren Wilson,” something “that points to just how little has changed in American race relations since the days of Jim Crow.” [27] Leaving Brown’s body out to languish was an illustration of the lack of concern and decency the Ferguson police department had for him and is reminiscent of leaving a lynch victim’s body out for all to see, to remind everyone where black people stood on the racial hierarchy: the bottom.

The media, too, plays a role in police killings as they did during lynchings. Once again, the Michael Brown case puts this in stark view. Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Brown, described him in disproportionate and even inhuman terms.

“When I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan,” Wilson, who is 6′ 4″ and 210 lbs., said of Brown, who was 6′ 4″ and 292 lbs. at the time of his death. […]He said Brown tried to get his fingers inside the trigger. “And then after he did that, he looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.” [28]
Not only are black people described in nonhuman terms, but there is a constant implication that they deserve to be shot due to past transgressions. In the case of Akai Gurley, “The New York Daily News ran a headline, Akai Gurley had criminal record, innocent when shot by cop, which they later switched out for ‘Protesters call for arrest of rookie cop who shot Akai Gurley as victim’s sister says he didn’t deserve to die.’” [29] There is also guilt by association. When twelve year old Tamir Rice was killed by the police, the media bought up the fact that the family’s lawyer had “also defended the boy's mother in a drug trafficking case” [30] and that Rice’s father had a history of domestic violence. [31] Regularly, the media brings up information that has nothing to do with the actual incident in question, but actively works to defame and sully the victim’s name.

Where there once were slave owners and slave catchers, the KKK, and lynch mobs, they have all now “become largely replaced by state agencies such as the criminal justice system, and local and federal police.” [32] In August 2016, the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent went on a mission to the United States. In their conclusion on their findings, they wrote: “Contemporary police killings and the trauma that they create are reminiscent of the past racial terror of lynching. Impunity for State violence has resulted in the current human rights crisis and must be addressed as a matter of urgency.” [33]

This assessment is quite correct, especially within the ideas of the spectacle and normalization. While there may not be a sports theme to current police murders, there is a spectacle in and of itself in the near constant sharing of videos of black people dying at the hands of police and the footage being played again and again on the nightly news.

While one shouldn’t discount that videos are being shared to raise awareness and may very well get people involved in activism, at the same time by the videos being shared and viewed over and over, it can very well create a situation where it the death of black people is normalized and an immunity of sorts built up to it. As writer Feliks Garcia notes:
To witness the final moments of someone’s life is not supposed to be a regular experience, yet it feels like every week, we’re presented with a new video of a different unarmed black man—or child—killed by police.

With the reach of social media, each of these videos is viewed ad nauseum, and you have to ask what purpose this serves. Who needs to see these videos at this point? [34]
Due to the constant viewing of black people dying at the hands of the police, coupled with the media’s twisted narratives, seeing black people die becomes a normal occurrence.

The ongoing police murders of black people draws strong parallels to lynchings: from the involvement of the police to the utter dearth of justice to the larger social implications. It is both a tragedy and a nightmare, an endless horror.


[1] This American Life, Suitable For Children, https://www.thisamericanlife.org/627/transcript

[2] Robert L. Zangrando, About Lynching, http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/lynching/lynching.htm

[3]E. M. Beck, “The Killing Fields of the Deep South: The Market For Cotton and the Lynching of Blacks, 1882-1930,” American Sociological Review 55:4 (August 1990), pg 526

[4] James W. Clarke, “Without Fear or Shame: Lynching, Capital Punishment and the Subculture of Violence in the American South,” British Journal of Political Science 28:2 (April 1998), pg 272

[5] Clarke, pg 275

[6] Robert A. Gibson, The Negro Holocaust: Lynching and Race Riots in the United States, 1880-1950, Yale-New Haven Teacher’s Institute, http://teachersinstitute.yale.edu/curriculum/units/1979/2/79.02.04.x.html

[7] Richard M. Perloff, “The Press and Lynchings of African Americans,” Journal of Black Studies 30:3 (January 2000), pg 320

[8] Reed W. Smith, “Southern Journalists and Lynching: The Statesboro Case Study,” Journalism and Communication Monographs 7:2 (2005), pg 63

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid, pg 64

[11] Ibid, pg 65

[12] Ibid, pg 70

[13] Rasul A. Mowatt, “Lynching as Leisure: Broadening Notions of a Field,” American Behavioral Scientist 56:10 (August 2012), pg 1371

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid, pg 1376

[16] Amii Larkin Barnard, “The Application of Critical Race Feminism to the Anti-Lynching Movement: Black Women's Fight against Race and Gender Ideology, 1892-1920,” UCLA Women’s Law Journal 3:1 (January 1993), pg 15

[17] Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua, “A Warlike Demonstration,’ Legalism, Armed Resistance, and Black Political Mobilization in Decatur, Illinois, 1894-1898,” The Journal of Negro History 83:1 (Winter 1998), pg 54

[18] Ibid

[19] Cha-Jua, pg 57

[20] Ibid

[21] Cha-Jua, pg 59

[22] Victor E. Kappeler, A Brief History of  Slavery and the Origins of American Policing, http://plsonline.eku.edu/insidelook/brief-history-slavery-and-origins-american-policing

[23] Ibid

[24] Northeastern University Law School, Austin Callaway, https://web.archive.org/web/20150217140734/http://nuweb9.neu.edu/civilrights/georgia/austincallaway/

[25] Alan Binder, Richard Fausset, “Nearly 8 Decades Later, an Apology for a Lynching in Georgia,” New York Times, January 26, 2017 (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/26/us/lagrange-georgia-lynching-apology.html)

[26] State Sanctioned, Police and State Involvement with Lynching, https://statesanctioned.com/police-and-state-involvement-with-lynching/

[27] David G. Embrick, “Two Nations, Revisited: The Lynching of Black and Brown Bodies, Police Brutality, and Racial Control in ‘Post-Racial’ Amerikkka,” Critical Sociology 41:6 (June 2015), pg 837

[28] Josh Sanburn, “All The Ways Darren Wilson Described Being Afraid of Michael Brown,” Time, November 25, 2014 (http://time.com/3605346/darren-wilson-michael-brown-demon/)

[29] Simple Justice, The Outrage of the Victim’s Rap Sheet Must End, http://blog.simplejustice.us/2014/11/23/the-outrage-of-the-victims-rap-sheet-must-end/ (November 23, 2014)

[30] Brandon Blackwell, “Lawyer representing Tamir Rice’s family defended boy’s mom in drug trafficking case,” Cleveland, November 24, 2014 (http://www.cleveland.com/metro/index.ssf/2014/11/lawyer_representing_tamir_rice.html)

[31] Brandon Blackwell, “Tamir Rice’s father has history of domestic violence,” Cleveland, November 26, 2014 (http://www.cleveland.com/metro/index.ssf/2014/11/tamir_rices_father_has_history.html)

[32] Embrick, pg 838

[33] United Nations General Assembly, Report on the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent on its mission to the United States of America, https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G16/183/30/PDF/G1618330.pdf?OpenElement (August 18, 2016)

[34] Feliks Garcia, “Police brutality is modern lynching- and you may be a part of it,” Daily Dot, April 20, 2015 (https://www.dailydot.com/via/black-men-police-violence-lynching-internet/)