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Lynching and Racial Violence
Between the end of Reconstruction (mid-1870s) and World War II, there were some 3,500 documented incidents of lynching and mob violence against African Americans, most of them in the South. The victims, mostly men, were not only hung, but often also tortured, their bodies displayed publicly and/or dismembered for grisly souvenirs. Sometimes these men had been convicted of a crime, sometimes only accused, and sometimes even acquitted, but the real point was to terrorize the communities in which African Americans lived. Although the participants in the mob rarely hid their identities, few were ever arrested, let alone punished for their crimes; according to police reports, grand jury investigations, and newspaper accounts, the African American victims met their fates at the hands of parties unknown.
Starting in the 1890s, African Americans in the North and South, and their white allies, built an anti-lynching movement, which used diverse strategies to confront these outrages. They used not only petitions, letter-writing, marches, and rallies, but also plays, songs, visual art, films, and cartoons to assert the humanity of the victims, educate the public about the scope of the problem, and pressure politicians to pass a federal anti-lynching law. While this movement ebbed and flowed and never did achieve its legislative goal, it became an important current within the river, as historian Vincent Harding has called the freedom struggle.
The anti-lynching movement confronted not only the violent acts that became known as lynching, but also images of those acts, which sought to lionize the mob and dehumanize their victims. Often, an enterprising photographer or, as time went on and technology allowed, an amateur in possession of a camera, documented the events. Photographs of lynching parties reveal that members of the mob or audience often posed with the corpses of their victims, in a sort of trophy shot akin to those of successful hunters. In some cases, these macabre photographs were hawked from home to home and town to town, a way for the photographers to make money and for whites who could not be present to participate vicariously in the expression of power the pictures represented.
On occasion, the photos were turned into postcards, which could be mailed to friends and relatives in distant locations. In these ways, lynching photographs helped maintain a racial hierarchy that asserted that all whites deserved to stand above all blacks. After viewing one such photograph in 1935, composer and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson remarked that lynching was a problem of saving black Americas body and white Americas soul.
In the 1980s, James Allen, a white southerner sympathetic to the struggle against racism, began to collect these photographs and postcards while making his rounds of antique and junk shops, flea markets, and private dealers across the South. The images captured the horrible history of lynchings in trees, bridges, towers, and atop bonfires. He also purchased posed shots of the mobs, their members staring unabashedly into the cameras lens. As Allens collection grew, the idea of exhibiting the images publicly occurred to him, and, in 1999, they made their first appearance in a small museum in New York City30-odd worn snapshots and postcards, collectively titled Without Sanctuary.
The exhibit eventually transferred to the New York Historical Society, where a collection of anti-lynching movement tracts, posters, and materials from the 1890s through the 1930s were added, with notebooks provided for viewers to record their thoughts and emotions. With supplementary essays by Allen, Congress- person John Lewis, cultural critic Hilton Als, and historian Leon Litwack, a bookWithout Sanctuary: Lynching Photography In Americawas published using Allens collection.
The photographs have been as controversial as the exhibit has been popular. Some critics warned of the risk of victimizing the victims once again, this time by showing their painful images, and of the danger of creating a new pornography of violence and torture. Other critics suggested that the photographs encouraged viewers to adopt the gaze of mob participants, to identify with the evil-doers.
There was also the possibility that white supremacist groups would celebrate the lynchings and appropriate the images to post on their websites (they have done so). Then there were people who argued that the images were too horrific to be viewed or that their display might generate racial hostilities where progress had been made. On the other hand, there were also scholars, activists, and curators who were interested in displaying the exhibit and they called for it to tour museums and universities.
James Allen, scholars at Emory University in Atlanta, staff at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic Site in Atlanta, the U.S. National Park Service (which manages the King site), and Atlanta community leaders explored bringing the exhibit to that city, displaying it in the South for the first time. Under the direction of an African American curator, Joseph F. Jordan, the planning group engaged the local community in a series of forums that led to a well-rounded program based at the King Historic Site, located in Atlantas black community. A respectfulone might even say sacredspace was prepared for the display. Jordan posted names and details about the lives of the victims and limited the number of photos on display, so that viewers might remember the deaths and lives of individuals who had been murdered in this way. Jordan also chose to include additional materials from the anti-lynching movement in order to emphasize that African Americans had resisted white terror and to include images and stories of Jewish and Italian victims and northern as well as southern incidents. Notebooks were provided, as in New York, for viewers to express their thoughts and feelings. Of course, the core of the exhibit remained those damnable black and white pictures. They are still there, their power undiminished; 130,000 people have viewed them at the King Center.
The exhibit planners opened the exhibits run in May 2002 with a religious ceremony, consecrating the memory of the victims and honoring their descendants. They organized a film and lecture series to bring additional information to the community and serve as the bases for more discussions. The planners held events in Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dr. King and his father had preached. They reached out to community groups in other cities where there had been lynchings and incidents of racial violenceRosewood, Florida; Moores Ford, Georgia; Wilmington, North Carolina; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Duluth, Minnesotain order to support efforts to identify and mark graves, establish public memorials, and influence school curricula in those locations.
The planners also collaborated with the Emory University Theater
Department and Professor Yvonne Singh to create a performance piece,
LynchP*n, which highlighted the mixed, complex, and
even contradictory emotions that swept viewers of the exhibit. This
production provided yet another opportunity for reflection and discussion.
In early October 2002, Emory University hosted a conference entitled Lynching and Racial Violence: Histories and Legacies, which attracted more than 200 scholars, from undergraduate and graduate students to young professors and senior scholars from every imaginable academic field and 121 institutions, community colleges, private liberal arts colleges, and public research universities. There were also many community activists, from Atlanta as well as communities around the country, who have made their top priority the memorialization of places of racial violence. The keynote speaker was Professor David Levering Lewis of Rutgers University, the author of nine books and the recipient of two Pulitzer prizes (for each volume of his biography of W.E.B. DuBois). Other prominent participants included: the former counsel to Anita Hill, Emma Coleman Jordan, now Professor of Law at Georgetown University; former associate editor of the Negro Digest, Dr. Richard Long, a member of the Emory faculty; former Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver, now a law professor at Emory; and former Black Panther Elaine Brown, now a community organizer and writer in California.
The conference organizers clustered the presenters into 25 panels, which met 3 or 4 at a time. Papers offered detailed accounts of more than 20 specific incidents, analysis of the role of the legal system and government authorities in tolerating if not facilitating lynchings, critical evaluations of the efforts of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Adam Clayton Powell, and other African American leaders to confront lynching, consideration of the roles played by music, drama, film, poetry, fiction, and painting in efforts to educate and influence public opinion, assessments of forms of African American resistance, including armed self-defense, civil disobedience, electoral politics, law suits, and migration out of the South, and complex interpretations of the photographs themselves as historical documents. Each session not only provided well-conceived presentations, but also provoked lively exchanges with the audiences.
Some ideas divided conference participants while others were expressed as critiques of long-standing historical assumptions. Yet others broke new ground altogether, calling attention to areas of analysis which had long been in the shadows. Enough soil was plowed to give participants new ideas about how to make use of those difficult photographs in classrooms, new questions to bring into research, and new inspiration to bring into community work.
There were sharp differences of opinion about what is meant by the term lynching. Some, including Professor Levering Lewis, argued that a lynching must involve a mob taking the law into their own hands, killing one or more victims, and often following a ritualized procedure. Proponents of this definition also contend that most lynchings occurred between the 1870s and the 1930s. Other conference participants countered that this definition and time frame were too narrow. They preferred to use the categories racial violence and domestic terrorism, and they argued that such practices began during slavery (the uses of violence, whipping, maiming, torture, rape, punitive sales, and the like), took on the forms of community-based violence called lynchings in the years of Jim Crow (1870s through the 1940s), and then were assumed by the government as police brutality and capital punishment.
These critics question the formal distinctions between legal and extra-legal violence, pointing to the presence of police officials in the lynching photos, taking note of the failure of local authorities to prosecute participants in lynchings, and the unwillingness, time and again, of all three branches of the federal government (executive, legislative, and judicial) to intervene to outlaw lynching, and citing statistics that reveal the disproportionate punishment of all people of color.
Few participants contested the notion that violence has been central to the construction and maintenance of racial hierarchies in the United States. This reflected a change in dominant historical interpretations, which had long emphasized economic and cultural factors. Professor Fitzhugh Brundage of the University of North Carolina told a plenary session that most historians had so downplayed violence that it would have been impossible to hold a conference like this even a decade ago. Not one scholarly book on lynching had been published between 1945 and 1975. But recent years have seen dissertations, books, and articles which probed lynchings, racial pogroms (attacks on black communities), and state- sanctioned violence, making possible a new narrative of the course of U.S. history.
Many presenters offered a wide range of stories about how African
Americans and their white allies resisted this terror. A variety
of organizationsthe NAACP, the Urban League, the Communist
Party and its International Labor Defense, labor, church, and community
organizations, African American newspapersall played important
roles in particular struggles in particular communities. Protests,
rallies, petitions, letters, pressure on politicians, marches, and
even armed self-defense were employed from time to time and from
place to place, and conference papers told these stories with the
passion and compelling details these efforts deserved. Many nails
were driven into the coffin of the old shibboleth that African Americans
had passively accommodated to racism.
Among the great revelations of the conference was the information provided about the ways that black and white activists had used the artsdrama, music, painting, sculpture, poetry, fiction, cartoonsto rally opposition to racial violence. African American women played particularly prominent roles in this work. In 1916, Angelina Weld-Grimkes play Rachel not only exposed the impact of lynching on black families, but also became the first black-written non-musical play professionally performed by black actors. Its success inspired W.E.B. DuBois to organize a drama committee within the NAACP and the Crisis and Opportunity magazines to offer annual playwriting contests. Three years later in Boston, Meta Fuller sculpted a statue of lynching victim Mary Turner as a compelling silent protest. Other women wrote plays, poems, and novels over the next decades, and they were joined by such men as Claude MacKay and Langston Hughes. In the mid-1930s, two art shows in New York City brought together a wide range of paintings to call public attention to efforts to pass a federal anti-lynching law. A couple of papers examined anti-lynching themes in recent African American art. Many of the presentations were accompanied by slides of photographs, paintings, fabrics, sculptures, and collages.
Some presenters also offered new skills for looking at visual materials. This was particularly the case in the viewing and interpretation of the lynching photographs. Viewers should not take them at face value as documents, several young scholars argued, but attempt to understand them as constructions, composed by photographers and mob participants to create certain perceptions.
One of the most important of these was white racial solidarity, performed and expressed across class lines (reflected in the clothing of the members of the mobs) as well as gender and generational lines. These constructions often mirrored other forms of photographsmiddle-class portraiture (again, the mob), criminal mug shots (the victims), and medical students (usually white) with cadavers (usually black) in dissecting rooms. Furthermore, the lynching photographs were often circulated along with photographs of the white victims of the black alleged criminals, constructing and reinforcing a narrative of white innocence and black guilt.
Other presenters argued for the presence of black agency in the construction of visual images as alternatives to the lynching photographs. There were African American photographers who provided pictures of the victims lives and families for their funerals, or of their funerals for their families afterwards, so that they might be remembered as they lived and were loved, and not just as they died. These photographs offered images of resurrection to replace the dominant ones of murder and dishonor.
Presenters reported on African American newspapers preference
for hand-drawn illustrations and cartoons rather than photographs,
because drawings seemed less disrespectful than photographs and
hand-drawn images could offer interpretations which directed viewers
seeing. One presenter showed several cartoons that suggested that
lynching was an expression of white insecurities about their own
masculinity. Less graphic than photographs, drawings also defended
against the danger of a voyeurism of victimized bodies. African
American photographers and illustrators helped provide responses
to the images of subjection conveyed in the lynching photographs.
Although the scholarship that informed the con- ference had valuable political implications and can be understood as political work, the conference ended on a particularly activist note. A conference presenter from St. Joseph, Missouri, informed a break-out session that the day before the conference opened, a young Kenyan man had been found hanging from a radio tower, in her city. This tower was located three blocks from the scene of a multiple lynching in 1906 from a tower, which had since been torn down. While it was hard to be- lieve our ears, we were suddenly confronted with the visual evidence of digital pictures of the young mans body. The air seemed to be sucked out of the room. The presenter explained that the local authorities had left his body hanging for more than 12 hours and that they had already ruled his death a suicide, over the objection of his mother. It was his mother who had encouraged the presenter to bring the pictures to us. St. Joseph, Missouri is the hometown of Attorney General John Ashcrofts hometownthe man now in charge of homeland security.
Participants in that break-out session, led by Emory faculty members and Elaine Brown, drafted a letter to Attorney General Ashcroft, calling for a federal investigation into this case of domestic terrorism. By 5:00 PM The entire conference assembly, after a constructive discussion, lined up to affix their names to the letter. There were also plans to release the letter to the media around the country.
These tragic events in Missouri had provided us with an opportunity to take what we had been learning and put it to immediate use. This conference about such a difficult and painful history had contributed to scholarly and activist efforts to shape a more hopeful future.
Peter Rachleff teaches labor and African American history at Macalester College. The photographs collected and exhibited as Without Sanctuary can be viewed at www.journale.com/withoutsanctuary/main.html.
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