By: Marlene Martin
“I saw them burn the nigger, didn’t I, Mama?”
“Yes, darling, you saw them burn the nigger.”
—Overheard conversation between an eight-year-old
and her mother after the lynching of Henry Smith
The screams of Henry Smith as he was tortured to death in 1893 were captured on gramophone and later sold. Photographs show a crowd of 10,000 gathered in Paris, Texas, arriving by train, in wagons and horses, and by foot to see the lynching. Postcards were made of the photos with the caption: “Wish You Were Here.”
Henry was placed on a scaffold, and for 50 minutes, red-hot irons were thrust into his body. His feet and legs were burned—then the irons were rolled up and down Smith’s stomach, back and arms. His eyes were then burned out, and irons were thrust down his throat.
Henry had been accused of molesting and killing a 4-year-old girl. Yet no evidence of sexual abuse was evident when the girl’s body was examined, and Henry, who was mentally impaired, didn’t attempt to leave town when the body of the girl was discovered—not behavior typical of someone who is guilty.
But as with a majority of the thousands of lynchings that took place in this country, the “justifications” often involved very thin accusations—for stealing, for talking back to a white person, or for no reason at all. The most prevalent—and most likely to be unfounded—accusation was against a Black man for raping or molesting a white woman.
Ida B. Wells, an African American woman active at the turn of the century when lynchings were at their height, spent her life crusading against the practice. She pioneered what we now call “investigative” journalism—traveling to the South to study the scene of the crime, interviewing witnesses and gathering evidence. She exposed the unfounded rape charges. In various publications and pamphlets, she wrote about the horror and injustice of lynchings, and she called on the federal government to pass anti-lynching legislation.
Although anti-lynching legislation came up and was debated three different times in Congress—1937, 1940 and 1949—each and every time, it failed to pass.
During one Senate debate on antilynching legislation, one Southern lawmaker argued against the bill, saying that lynching was “ a necessary custom to assure control of the Negro.” In fact, it wasn’t until 2005 that Congress issued an apology for not ever passing such legislation.
Why did the lynchings occur?
How can we understand lynchings? Why did they occur? What is the significance of this brutality? In order to understand the role that lynching played in society, we have to first look at the context in which they took place.
When the Civil War ended slavery in the U.S., there was a 12-year period following the war known as “Reconstruction.” This time, from 1865 to 1877, was an era of “reconstructing” the nation without slavery. But slavery had been the bedrock of the Southern way of life for hundreds of years.
What would it mean to no longer have free slaves to work the land? All kinds of questions were thrown up: Should Blacks have the same rights as whites? Should they be allowed to vote? To own land? The white planter class was not happy with the change in the Southern way of life. The planters resented and resisted this change.
During Reconstruction, Blacks made significant gains. The first public school system came into existence during this time, for both Blacks and whites. Literacy rates among Blacks soared (during slavery, it had been illegal for slaves to read and write). Blacks not only voted during Reconstruction, they ran for office and won various seats in government—both local and national positions.
But the project of Reconstruction came to an end in 1877—when the federal government abandoned the policy, allowing an ugly backlash of white supremacy to take hold in the South. While the old order in the South could not bring back slavery, it sought to do the next best thing. A strong force would be needed to reinpose white dominance, because Blacks were now free and beginning to act as free people. How, in this situation, could the gains that Blacks had made be pushed back? How could African Americans be forced back into an inferior, subjugated position?
To do this would require brutal violence—violence such as lynchings. As author Philip Dray points out in his book about lynching titled At the Hands of Persons Unknown, lynching “was for many decades an awesome destructive power, murderous to some, menacing to a great many, a constant source of intimidation to all Black Southerners, young and old, and a daily reminder of their defenselessness.”
Dray points out how every African American was affected by this: “Almost every Black family has a story in his history or an ancestor who ‘come up missing’ who vanished into the empty place—the rural crossroads or rail siding, the bayou or jail cell…Regardless of any statistics, it is a living memory to most Black Americans that their forebears were lynched and routinely subjected to violence and intimidation, and that they lived in almost constant fear of seeing a loved one lynched or of being targeted themselves.”
Of course, there was no recourse in the courts for families who had someone lynched. The “law” was either involved or complicit in most lynchings. In less than 1 percent of all lynchings was anyone ever charged, let alone convicted.
While there were brave instances of resistance and defiance to lynchings, ultimately, the attempt to reestablish white supremacy was successful after Reconstruction. Black Codes were enacted, and Jim Crow segregation took hold. It would take another 80 years and the struggle of the civil rights movement to break the back of Jim Crow.
There are parallels between lynching and our criminal justice system today that are more than coincidental. For example, more than 80 percent of all lynchings took place in the South. Today, more than 80 percent of all executions take place in the South.
Blacks, of course, were overwhelmingly the victims of lynchings. Today, although Blacks make up 12 percent of the population, they make up over 40 percent of those on death row.
Laws that are supposed to be neutral come down more forcefully against Blacks, especially poor Blacks. African Americans get harsher and longer sentences than whites, even when the crimes are similar. Why? You are much more likely to get the death penalty if you are accused of killing a white person than a Black person. So the cheapening of Black life continues.
During the time of lynching, African Americans had no recourse through the legal system. If any lynching case did go to court, those charged with doing the lynching would almost always be acquitted.
Today, we continue to see the law acting as a barrier to justice. Pennsylvania death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal continues to be denied a new trial even though there is overwhelming evidence that his original one was steeped in racism. Rodney Reed of Texas has been on death row for over a decade—his crime was to have had a relationship with a white woman who was engaged to a white police officer. And Troy Davis who has been fighting for over 19 years for the courts to allow him to present evidence of his innocence faced down three execution dates before finally being granted a hearing.
And let’s be clear—it was efforts outside the courtroom that forced officials to finally grant him this hearing. Plus, there is the seemingly endless parade of instances of police brutality. Not one of the officers or detectives who tortured nearly 200 African American and Latino men in Chicago interrogation rooms in the 1980s and 1990s have ever spent a day in jail.
The officers accused of beating Rodney King in Los Angeles were acquitted despite the fact that video of the assault was seen by millions. Also acquitted were the New York police officers who gunned down Sean Bell on the eve of his wedding day.
As Philip Dray writes, “Is it possible for white America to really understand Blacks’ distrust of the legal system, their fears of racial profiling and the police, without understanding how cheap a black life was for so long a time in our nation’s history?”
Building a fightback
“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”— Ida B. Wells
During the time of lynching, African Americans felt they had no recourse—no “rule of law” that would defend them. Unfortunately, many African Americans feel that way about our current criminal justice system. Today, we need to work to build a new social movement that can successfully push back against the repressive nature of our criminal justice system. As we fight to dismantle the death penalty, we also need to point out the problems with the entire criminal justice system that is bent on vengeance and punishment.
And like Ida B. Wells, who turned the light of truth on injustice, we need to do the same today. This year’s Campaign to End the Death Penalty speaking tour was an attempt to do just that—to delve into the historic links between the death penalty today and lynchings in the past, and to look at the role racism played in both, and still does.
Now, the CEDP national speaking tour—which was a resounding success—is coming to an end. The tour made more than 20 stops in cities across the country—from California to New York to Texas to North Carolina to Chicago to New Jersey—with hundreds of people coming out to these events. People were moved by them, inspired by them, and wanted to know how they could get involved. This is a wonderful step for the Campaign as we attempt to strengthen our fight.
As exonerated Illinois prisoner Marvin Reeves said on a tour stop in New York, “It wasn’t the big people that did anything for me, it was the little people that made all the noise.” And we’ll keep “making the noise” until our message is heard.