Thursday, June 28, 2007

Truth & Reconciliation, Part I: Reconciling the Wounds of Lynching

--by Sara

Unitarians are so deeply concerned with racism that my aunt, who spent eight years on the church's national board, calls it "our version of Original Sin." That concern expressed itself in a number of venues over the five days of General Assembly. Three of the talks, given by civil rights attorney Sherrilyn Ifill and author James Loewen, spotlighted several things that white liberals grappling with America's racist legacy would do well to understand better. (This post presents the points of Ifill's talk. My take on Loewen's two talks will follow.)

Ifill, who is a professor at the University of Maryland law school, has a new book out called "On The Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-First Century." (The book was published by Beacon Press, the UUA's own publishing arm, which is how Ifill came to be at GA.)

The first thing whites need to know about the legacy of lynching, Ifill told us, is that Americans -- both black and white -- are still carrying deep scars, which are clinging to us through the generations. Working for many years on voting rights cases throughout the South, she noticed that people in the towns she visited had never really let go of these events. "Everywhere I worked, I heard from my clients about lynchings. Invariably, they'd tell me about some horrific act of racial terrorism that had happened in the past." The practice of lynching ended decades ago; but even today, Ifill found that the memories are still as fresh as if they'd happened yesterday.

The next thing Ifill noticed is that whites and blacks in a community talk about lynching differently -- and have very different memories of what happened in their towns so long ago. "When I spoke with my [African-American] clients, I deliberately used the word "memories" -- even though my clients often weren't even alive when these lynchings happened. Still, I discovered that they 'remembered' details of the lynchings in great detail. They'd heard the stories directly from their parents as tales of how to survive life in the towns they lived in." Ifill was struck that "memories" were invariably extremely vivid, recalled with such specificity -- where the bodies were found, how the corpses looked -- that even people born years after the event thought they'd been there themselves, even though they knew it wasn't possible.

White people in the same towns, on the other hand, usually had very vague memories, even if they or their parents had been witnesses to the lynching. " The difference was striking between the two communities," she marveled. Nobody knew anybody involved. Usually, the lynch mob comprised "people from the next county" or "over the state line" -- people not from around here. (The people from the next county would usually point the finger right back.) Even when photos were available -- and, as Dave has noted, photos were very often available -- nobody recognized anybody. "They closed ranks, and never opened them," explained Ifill. "The lynching was not really about their community, so there was nothing to talk about."

Ifill noted that she'd seen this same denial mechanism in action in the late 1990s, when she was in South Africa as part of the UN Truth & Reconciliation commissions holding hearings to catalog the crimes of apartheid. "I couldn't find anyone who'd supported the regime," she recalled. "Either they didn't remember, or they didn't know -- it was just all very vague. Whites were living in a fantasy that they didn't know." Still, the truth and reconciliation process in Africa involved a level of candor she hasn't yet seen in the US -- but she believes it is necessary if healing is to occur.

Third, Ifill stresses: the work of reconciling ourselves to this history isn't something the government can do for us. We need to do it for ourselves -- town by town, person by person. These were local crimes committed by specific individuals: diffusing the responsibility will not heal the wounds. "I don't think we can have a national conversation on race," she mused. "But we can have lots of local ones."

The healing, she insists, will happen one town at a time. "In any town you recall with some nostalgia, there's most likely some alternative story about your town you haven't heard." As an example, she cites Hope, Arkansas -- Bill Clinton's home town. "Hope was the lynching capital of the entire south. I wonder if Bill Clinton's mother knew that?" Ifill pointed out that the glowing stories of "A Town Called Hope" that accompanied the cultivation of Bill Clinton's personal legend never included this fact. "I have to wonder: when do we start talking about this?"

The title of Ifill's book reflects the odd fact that throughout the South, lynchings more often than not happened on the courthouse lawn. It wasn't unusual for victims to be brought from jails many miles away to the county seat for the occasion. According to Ifill, "This was a deliberate choice of venue -- a statement that 'we are in charge of justice; we decide who is guilty and not guilty.'" Lynchings, like all other forms of terrorism, are message crimes; the choice of venue sent a clear message to black communities across the south that the only justice that mattered was mob justice; and appeals to law would be fruitless. (One of the lynchings she describes in her book occurred in the front yard of the judge's house: another message sent, this time to the judiciary, about who was really in control.)

Ifill then turned to the particulars of her book, which details her research into two particular lynchings in her home state of Maryland -- the 1931 execution of 23-year-old Matthew Williams in Salisbury, MD; and the 1933 lynching of George Armwood on the Maryland shore. She notes that silence within and between the white and black communities is one of the central themes of her book -- and breaking that silence is the first and hardest step in creating reconciliation. " A curtain of silence fell between the two communities after these lynchings -- a curtain of fear and shame. And that's the part that has to be broached in the 21st century, because it continues to live on."

In both of the Maryland lynchings, Ifill noticed, nobody in either community ever talked about the lynchings after they occurred. Blacks would not speak of it openly, even among themselves; only the whispered warnings to their children perpetuated the community's horrific memories. On the other side of town, silence gave whites safety from prosecution, and insulated them from a difficult truth -- that a Christian, civil town could also be beastly and lawless. Newspapers would refuse to report on these events: residents in the Armwood case were simply advised by their local paper to "return to normal" as soon as possible.

The silence continued into the churches. In both black and white congregations, nothing would be said on Sunday. White clergy would not challenge the immorality of lynching; usually, ministers were adamant about not mentioning events at all, especially if their own members had been involved. (They were often in denial about their members' participation.) Black ministers similarly refused to talk about it: Ifill recalled one black minister whose only comment the Sunday after one of the Maryland lynchings was a short acknowledgement that "the community has suffered a strain."

And the strain lingers far more strongly than most people realize. "Trying to talk about these events takes a lot of courage," said Ifill. "We need to realize that "conversations about race" are not always public. They are inter-racial, intra-racial, private, and public. They need to happen within families, within churches, as well as in communities."

But, she cautioned, it's important not to underestimate the hostility that's provoked when people attempt to begin these conversations. She recalled a trip to the county museum while researching the Williams lynching. The curator told her that a well-loved local professor had made a presentation on the Williams lynching to the historical society about 10 years earlier. The curator had attended the meeting -- and recalled that it was very hostile. The idea that whites should be blamed or feel responsible for the lynching "just wasn't going to go over with this group," Ifill quotes the curator as saying. He stuck to the usual storyline: the lynching was the work of a few disgruntled whites, most of them from out of town. She later found the professor's account of the same meeting, which matched the curator's verbatim. The professor was shattered by the rejection of her story: she never really forgave or forgot the outrage she felt at that meeting.

What does reconciliation look like? Ifill offered many concrete ideas in her talk -- and includes many more in her book. For one thing, she says, we need to commemorate these events. "This history has largely been erased," she notes. "There are markers for all kinds of things in small towns -- but never for these events. Reparation is about repairing the harm -- and one way to do that is to acknowledge in the public space that these things happened." Other commemorations might include annual rememberance days, community scholarships, and special exhibits in local museums.

Ifill was emphatic that the reconciliation process is hard, and participants need to be gentle with each other. "Sharing the stories means pulling the scabs off. You need to provide psychological support to help people deal with what gets stirred up. It complicates the process, but it's part of it."

Most importantly, she says, we need to recognize the ways in which these experiences made our grandparents -- both white and black -- the way they are. "Many small-town Americans harbor experiences they've had to swallow and get on with. Truth and reconciliation is largely about putting down those burdens." The process goes more easily if we start by respecting and acknowledging the courage of people who went through these horrible events and survived. Sometimes it helps to have outside facilitators to start and guide the conversation -- people who can take the heat, help people work through the emotions, and then leave town when it's over. Ifill cites the Alliance for Truth & Reconciliation as one group that's helping facilitate this process for interested communities.

Ifill's experiences in South Africa also brought home to her how important it is to include local institutions in this process. Churches and businesses, cops and prisons, lawyers and judges, and doctors and hospitals all supported the infrastructure of apartheid; healing was not possible until these institutions examined their role, and began to actively find ways to restore the trust they'd lost with the country's black population. African-Americans are similarly wary of both public and private institutions; reconciliation must involve them, and encourage them to open new pathways to greater trust in the future.

It's probably not a coincidence that the last lynchings in the US occurred in the 1950s -- and that two generations have passed in silence, leaving the third one to begin the process of uncovering the truth and cleansing the wounds. This pattern is a familiar one to people who work with adult children of alcoholic or abusive families; and also those who have worked with families who were victimized by the Holocaust or the Japanese internments. The first generation survives, often in silence; to speak of these things is simply too painful to endure. The second generation is often aware of the terrible things that happened; but respects their elders' silence, even as they strive to reassert the "normal" life of the family.

In all these cases, it typically falls to the third generation to break the silence, and begin the process of reconciliation. In the case of lynching, that third generation is us -- the current cohort of white and black Americans who are seeking to heal the wounds of long-ago terror that still create vast chasms between us, and limit our vision of what a shared America might look like. Our ability to create that America in the future depends, completely and utterly, on finding the courage to confront the past -- to open up our overwhelming load of shared baggage, examine its wretched contents with honesty and courage, and then agree on ways of putting these things in their proper historic place -- always remembered but never perpetuated -- so we can all move forward with a lighter load.

No comments: