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Citizens Union Speakers

An Overdue Answer to Terror Lynchings and the Racial Psychopathy of ‘White Supremacy’

lynching protest 2

An anti-lynching protest in front of the White House (Library of Congress)

This guest column is part of Citizens Union Speakers, a regular series of op-eds written by members of the Citizens Union Foundation community in Gotham Gazette, CUF's flagship public education program. The opinions expressed in these Citizens Union Speakers columns are those of the authors alone, not Citizens Union Foundation, Gotham Gazette, or any other entity.

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Warning: this article contains graphic descriptions of racist violence.

For more than 300 years, major segments of our nation—oftentimes with the full support and backing of our government, including federal, state, and local governments and law enforcement—have advanced the corrosive and twisted cause of white supremacy. These efforts have taken many forms, far too numerous to document here. But, unmistakably, these efforts have included systemic and institutionalized violence against the Black community to assert white superiority and Black inferiority. No campaign was more evil, nor more cruelly effective, than terror lynchings between 1887 and 1950. 

Even well-meaning white people reflect on this history of lynchings, slavery, Jim Crow-ism, and segregation with the misguided belief that things are much different now. Yet, legions of Black men and women have been murdered by the police, and even more lives and families have been destroyed by mass incarceration of Black Americans. Recently in Rochester, New York—in the heartland of the allegedly enlightened North—a gang of racists tore down a statue of Frederick Douglass and threw it in a gully. Our Congress cannot even seem to pass an anti-lynching law after more than 100 years of trying. Against this background, we have a president whose administration panders to, and foments, violent and emergent white supremacist groups, including its former Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon, who infamously told a crowd in 2018, “Let them call you racist…wear it as a badge of honor.”

“The way to right wrongs,” as so eloquently put by anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells, “is to shine the light of truth upon them.” But, the truth of terror lynchings is very hard to read. In public discourse, there should always be a reason for the graphic tellings of violence, lest we succumb to exploitation and the pornography of atrocity. Here, the purpose of horrific accounts is in service of an important point, which is often missed in our public debate over race and equality in America: white supremacy is a demonstrable form of clinical psychopathy. Three stories animate, with brutal clarity, the psychopathy of white supremacy, and the racial poison it infused into our culture.

On August 6, 1930, in Marion, Indiana, three young Black men, Tom Shipp, 19, Abe Smith, 18, and James Cameron, 16, had been arrested for the murder of a white man and the rape of a white woman (who later recanted and denied being raped). A mob gathered at the jailhouse, where the police chief had hung the bloody shirt of the murdered man on the façade of the building, drawing a crowd that swelled to more than 5,000 people. The mob—which included local sheriff’s deputies— broke through the front door of the jail with sledgehammers and pulled the boys out into the street, savagely beating them with clubs, bricks and crowbars. One white man thrust a crowbar through Shipp’s stomach over and over, and then put a noose around his neck and hung him from the bars over the jail’s windows. Other members of the mob beat Smith mercilessly as he fought for his life amid the public spectacle. As the mob hauled him to a maple tree in the courthouse square, Smith tried to remove the rope. Undaunted, members of the mob stabbed him and broke his arms. A frenzied crowd of men, women and children cheered as Smith fought on, trying to free himself until the mob finally killed him. The youngest victim, Cameron, who looked too slight and young to be even 16, was spared the rope when a single onlooker protested his innocence. The crowd took Shipp’s body from the front of the jail and hung him next to Smith’s lifeless cadaver. The event took on a carnival-like atmosphere, with white school kids on lunch break joining the crowd. A photographer chronicled the event and later sold the photographs as souvenirs. Despite efforts from the NAACP and the State’s Attorney General to bring charges against members of the mob—who were readily identifiable in the photographs—no one was ever prosecuted for these brutal, public murders.

On May 15, 1916, an angry mob in Waco, Texas lynched a 17-year-old farmhand named Jesse Washington. Like so many other lynching victims, Washington had been accused of raping and murdering a white woman. Illiterate and mentally disabled, Washington was forced to place his mark on a confession he could not read. An all-white jury found him guilty in four minutes.  After the conviction, a mob dragged him out of the courthouse by a chain fastened around his neck. On the way to a tree in the public square, the crowd beat and stabbed him as he gripped the chain to relieve the pressure on his neck. At the foot of the tree, the crowd held him down while one member castrated him with a large knife, and then hauled him up on a branch and lit a fire under his feet. As the mob raised and lowered him over the fire, Washington struggled to pull his body up in the chain. The mob lowered him down and cut off his fingers. They burned him alive over the fire for more than an hour as the large crowd, with thousands of spectators, cheered and hollered. The mob lowered his body and cut off parts for souvenirs. A photographer snapped pictures of the gruesome and gory scene, which he later sold as postcards.

In mid-May 1918, in Lowndes County, Georgia, gangs of white men lynched more than a dozen Black victims on suspicion of murdering a white sharecropper. One of the victims was Hazel “Hayes” Turner. Arrested based on no evidence whatsoever, a mob appeared at Valdosta jail and demanded that the sheriff surrender him for a lynching. The sheriff refused and, instead, snuck Hayes into a patrol car to transfer him to a jail in a neighboring county. The car never made it.  A mob of more than 40 white men stopped the car, seized Hayes, pulled his body into the woods along the roadside and hung him. His then-pregnant wife, Mary Graham Turner, devastated by the murder of her innocent husband, a father of one child, publicly called for the arrest and prosecution of his murderers. The psychopathic mob would not stand for any such call for justice, and, on Sunday, May 19, they seized Mary after she fled her home and beat her mercilessly. A gang of no less than 100 took her to an area adjacent to Folsom’s Bridge. There, they tied her hands and feet and doused her with gasoline and motor oil syphoned from their idling cars. They hoisted her by her ankles on the branch of a tree on the banks of the Little River. The mob set her ablaze. While her hair, skin and clothing burned to a char, one mob member stepped forward with a jagged knife. He cut Mary’s unborn baby from her womb, and then crushed its skull with the heel of his boot. For the next two hours, the crowd used her for target practice, blasting more than 200 bullets into her lifeless body. The mob cut what was left of her broken, charred, bullet-ridden remains down and buried her in a shallow grave. They used an empty whiskey bottle to mark the grave where she laid with her baby. Without reporting the graphic details of the murders, including the murder of Mary’s baby, the Atlanta Constitution reported that the mob reacted to Mary’s “unwise remarks...the people were angered by her remarks, as well as her attitude.”

These are three among thousands of similar stories. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, more than 4,000 Black people—mostly men—were lynched in this period. While most of the lynching occurred in the South, hundreds occurred in places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana. Some editorials denounced the savagery, as the Georgia Exhibition did after a mob burned Sam Holt alive on a stake in 1899, saying, “The best that the devilish ingenuity of man has ever been able to do, in any age or among any people, to make the ordeal of death as excruciating and awful as it could possibly be made, was equaled in [Holt’s] torture and mutilation.” More often, the coverage was supportive of the savagery, and even extolled the perpetrators, as the Springfield Weekly Republican did in 1896, when, after an attempted lynching, the editor wrote: “The noble and valiant Anglo-Saxons of Manatee county, Fla., are engaged now in demonstrating the superiority of the race.”

With its inherent attributes—extreme anger, brutal violence and torture, extreme lack of empathy, and delusions of superiority—it is hardly difficult to see white supremacy as a psychotic disorder.  But the wide-spread acceptance of lynching among racist whites also shows the deep traditions of corruption now sew into the fabric of our criminal justice system.  These brutal accounts of murder, torture, kidnapping beating, stabbing, lynching, burning, dismemberment, and the photographing of mutilated bodies for souvenirs—often with the help of complicit jailers or police, and often with perpetrators being celebrated not prosecuted—tell the story of a criminal justice system that shielded psychopathic murderers before the law as official policy.

These horrors—which “were enough to make the devil gasp in astonishment,” as aptly stated by James Weldon Johnson—are evidence of the dark recesses of American institutional and systematic violence against Black people, for the deranged and psychotic purpose of establishing the superiority of the white murdering class.  But, to be sure, the smoldering psychosis of “white supremacy” continues to infect our nation and inflict grievous harm on black Americans.  While I penned this essay, on July 16, 2020, a group of white men assaulted and threatened to lynch a black man named Vauhxx Booker in Lake Monroe, Indiana.  The assault, partially recorded on a smart phone, makes the blood boil and lays bare the impact of this racial poison on modern day America.

What should we do now to identify and prohibit future lynchings, to atone as a society for these grievous wrongs, and the lasting damage the poison of racial hatred, which continues to seep through the veins of our nation? We must have the will and the integrity to face the truth and try to make amends.  

We must, as Ida Wells taught, shine the light of truth.

First, Congress should establish a “Truth and Reconciliation” commission to identify every victim of terror lynchings and every person who participated in these horrific acts of torture and murder, whether actively or as a bystander. We should know and remember the names of the victims and the names of their tormentors. We must listen to the stories of their families. A national monument should be built to preserve these stories in our national memory so that we may bear witness to the hate and brutality they suffered, and to learn from our ignoble history.

Second, it is imperative that we teach the truth about black history in America, including the horrors of slavery, Jim Crow-ism, segregation, and terror lynchings, to every child. The fact that we generally lack academically-robust and standardized Black history curricula in public schools only allows ignorance and bigotry to continue to thrive and flourish. If we teach children the truth, we can counteract the irrational hatred and fear that fuels white supremacy in our culture.

Third, Congress must pass the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, which enjoys broad bi-partisan support but continues to be stalled by the pathetic objections of a single Republican senator. Efforts to block the bill are part of a long lineage of institutionalized racism in our legislature, embodied in racist senators, who have blocked nearly 200 attempts in the last 50 years to introduce the law. This obstructionism precipitated a Senate apology to the victims of terror lynchings in 2005. “The Senate failed you and your ancestors and our nation,” said Senator Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana at an event with 200 descendants of lynching victims. Today’s Senate should pass this long-overdue bill. Congress should not fail the victims again.

These small acts should be easy. Rational, non- and anti-racist citizens could not object to teaching and facing our history, and to punishing lynchings in the year 2020. Other steps might be harder to achieve, but are just as important.

Congress should allocate monies to establish a reparations fund for the surviving family members of the victims of terror lynchings. Much of the work to identify these families has already been completed by the Equal Justice Initiative and the NAACP.  If we can bail out big banks and provide generous tax loopholes for corporations, this country can compensate the families of victims, ripped apart and feeling the enduring consequences of—what Phillip Dray in his seminal work, “At The Hands of Persons Unknown,” called—the Black holocaust. This would be a first step in the larger push towards just reparations for slavery.

Finally, we must recognize that racism against Black Americans continues in many forms—many blatant, and many more subtle—today. This is not as easy as it should be. Our nation as a whole must own the lasting impact of slavery and lynchings on African-American citizens and the legacy of that history in the form of systemic bias that pervades our institutions and daily life. Systemic bias is not easy to face or account for, but white Americans of conscience must do their part to raise up Black voices, and make whatever sacrifices as are required to allow Black Americans to achieve the American dream so long denied.

On May 15, 2010, nearly 100 years after the murders of Mary and Hayes Turner and their baby, a historical marker bearing witness to the Georgia Lynching Rampage of 1918, including the Turners’ lynchings, was placed alongside Fulsom’s Bridge. In 2013, an unknown racist shot through the marker five times, and those bullet holes remain to this day. The tragic psychopathy of white supremacy is alive and well in America. Our nation will continue to live in prolonged shame if we lack the will and vision to cure ourselves of this sickness.

Jim Walden is a former federal prosecutor and has brought extensive good-government litigation to vindicate the rights of citizens in the face of government misconduct. He is a member of the Board of Citizens Union.

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This guest column is part of Citizens Union Speakers, a regular series of op-eds written by members of the Citizens Union Foundation community in Gotham Gazette, CUF's flagship public education program. The opinions expressed in these Citizens Union Speakers columns are those of the authors alone, not Citizens Union Foundation, Gotham Gazette, or any other entity.

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

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