Friday, April 01, 2016

It's Confederate Heritage Month! Day 1

'Lynched': This was a popular postcard in the 1920s, as were other photographs of lynched African Americans, and were frequently kept as memorabilia.

 Some of you may recall that today, April 1, is more than just April Fools Day -- it's also the first day of Confederate Heritage Month, as recently declared by Mississippi's governor. 

Now, I know a lot of Southerners like Gov. Bryant would just as soon we mostly devoted our excursions in Confederate history and its lingering heritage to sipping mint juleps and treating ourselves to multiple viewings of Gone With the Wind and other similar renditions of history -- you know, the kind that promote the old "Lost Cause" mythology and which has been widely adopted in the decades since the war by Confederate apologists who successfully revised the history of the Civil War. It's also worth noting that Mississippi rather pointedly does not celebrate Black History Month.

So it seems to me that we should indeed begin celebrating Confederate Heritage Month, broadly, as a national project, so that we can finally begin teaching all of our children, inside the South and out, its REAL heritage: the heritage of slavery and why it was maintained, the heritage of a treasonous Civil War fought not for abstractions such as "states rights" but truly for the maintenance of slavery, the heritage of night-riding Ku Klux Klansmen, of thousands of lynchings of black people, of Jim Crow rule, and public-institution segregration, and of the vicious, desperate and cruel campaign to maintain all of that during the Civil Rights struggle.

For starters, let's review the history of lynching in the old Confederacy, that consummate "pastoral scene from the gallant South," as Billie Holliday sang.

Lynching (the word was even in Southern in its origins, having derived from a Virginia judge who endorsed extralegal violence against Loyalists during the Revolutionary War) was the central linchpin, as it were, in the post-Civil War suppression of African Americans. The extreme terrorization of the black community was essential to preventing them from ever working to overturn Jim Crow voter-disenfranchisement law, or the legal segregation of all public institutions (including washrooms, drinking fountains, and swimming pools, as well as schools).

The lynching of six African Americans
in Lee County, Georgia, in 1916
Sexual paranoia was central to the lynching phenomenon. In the years following black emancipation -- during which time a previously tiny class of black criminals became swelled by the ranks of impoverished former slaves -- a vast mythology arose surrounding black men’s supposed voracious lust for white women, a legend for which in truth there was scant evidence, and one that stands in stark contrast to (and perhaps has its psychological roots in) the reality of white men’s longtime sexual domination of black women, particularly during the slavery era. In any event, the omnipresence of the threat of rape of white women by black men came to be almost universally believed by American whites. Likewise, conventional wisdom held that lynchings were a natural response to this threat: "The mob stands today as the most potential bulwark between the women of the South and such a carnival of crime as would infuriate the world and precipitate the annihilation of the Negro race," warned John Temple Graves, editor of the Atlanta Constitution. Such views were common not merely in the South, but among Northerners as well. The New York Herald, for instance, lectured its readers: "[T]he difference between bad citizens who believe in lynch law, and good citizens who abhor lynch law, is largely in the fact that the good citizens live where their wives and daughters are perfectly safe."

The cries of rape, for many whites in both South and North, raised fears not merely of sexual violence but of racial mixing, known commonly as "miscegenation," which was specifically outlawed in some 30 states. White supremacy was not only commonplace, it was in fact the dominant worldview of Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries; most Caucasians believed they represented Nature’s premier creation (having been informed this by a broad range of social scientists of the period, whose views eventually coalesced into the pseudo-science known as eugenics), and that any "dilution" of those strains represented a gross violation of the natural order. Thus it was not surprising that a number of lynching incidents actually resulted from the discovery of consensual relations between a black man and a white woman.

Underlying the stated fear of black rape, moreover, was a broad fear of economic and cultural domination of white Americans by blacks and various other "outsiders," including Jews. These fears were acute in the South, where blacks became a convenient scapegoat for the mesh of poverty that lingered in the decades following the Civil War. Lynching in fact was frequently inspired not by criminality, but by any signs of economic and social advancement by blacks who, in the view of whites, had become too "uppity."

A classic instance of this occurred in the little East Texas town of Center, about sixty miles due north of Jasper, in 1920. The victim was a black teenager named Lige Daniels, who was accused of killing an elderly white woman who lived in Center. When word reached the governor that mob violence was imminent, he wired the captain of the Seventh Cavalry stationed nearby to protect the prisoner. The cavalry, however, never showed. The captain later explained that he had been unable to "find any members of his company in time for mobilization."

So at about noon on August 3, 1920, a mob of about one thousand men stormed the Center jail, knocked down the steel doors, and dragged Daniels outside, where they proceeded to beat him severely. A rope was thrown over a nearby oak tree, and Daniels was then hanged.

The lynching of Lige Daniels,
Center, Texas, 1920

A photo postcard that was available for many years afterward, mostly in the backwaters of trinket shops, recorded the event. It is a remarkable photo, and not only for the warm glow of the sun peering through the oak tree and bathing Lige Daniels' corpse, hanging from the bough, in an almost angelic light. What makes the portrait unforgettable instead is the crowd gathered below—stern-faced fathers and laborers, all looking quite proud of themselves; and a handful of children. One young boy (he appears to be about ten), dressed in his Sunday shirt and tie, is beaming beatifically. He probably remembered that day till he died.

The lynching of Jessie Washington, Waco, Texas, 1916
There were many such postcards. Perhaps the most notorious were those from the lynching of another black teenager, Jessie Washington, by a mob of several thousand residents of Waco, Texas, on May 16, 1916. Washington, who was retarded, had confessed to the murder of an elderly Waco resident. At the moment his conviction (with four minutes' deliberation by a white jury) was announced, the mob surged forward into the courtroom and dragged Washington outside, where he was stripped, beaten, stabbed, and wrapped with a chain, which was draped over a tree limb, just above a pyre of wooden crates. Washington was then jerked twice into the air, and his body lowered onto the pyre, where he was sprinkled with coal oil and set alight.

Afterward, mob members proudly strung the charred corpse back up for a brief public display, after which Washington's body was lassoed by a horseman and dragged around the town until the skull bounced loose. Some motorists then tossed his remains into a black bag, tied it to the back bumper of their car, and tooled around the countryside with it in tow. A constable finally retrieved the bag from a nearby town, where it was left hanging.

The lynchings of Daniels and Washington were mere drops in an ocean of bloodshed. Between 1882 and 1942, according to statistics compiled by the Tuskegee Institute, there were 4,713 lynchings in the United States, of which 3,420 involved black victims. Mississippi topped the list, with 520 blacks lynched during that time period, while Georgia was a close second with 480; Texas' 339 ranked third. And most scholars acknowledge that these numbers probably are well short of the actual total, since many lynchings (particularly in the early years of the phenomenon) were often backwoods affairs that went utterly unrecorded. In that era, it was not at all uncommon for a black man to simply disappear; sometimes his body might wash up in one of the local rivers, and sometimes not.

The violence reached a fever pitch in the years 1890-1902, when 1,322 lynchings of blacks (out of 1,785 total lynchings) were recorded at Tuskegee, which translates into an average of over 110 lynchings a year. The trend began to decline afterward, but continued well into the 1930s, leading some historians to refer to the years 1880-1930 as the "lynching period" of American culture.

The lynching of Rubin Stacy, Florida, 1935

There are many postcards that recorded these lynchings, because the participants were rather proud of their involvement. This is clear from the postcards themselves -- many of which can be seen at the Without Sanctuary site -- as they frequently showed not merely the corpse of the victim but many of the mob members, whose visages ranged from grim to grinning. Sometimes, as in the Lige Daniels case, children were intentionally given front-row views. A lynching postcard from Florida in 1935, of a migrant worker named Rubin Stacy who had allegedly "threatened and frightened a white woman," shows a cluster of young girls gathered round the tree trunk, the oldest of them about 12, with a beatific expression as she gazes on his distorted features and limp body, a few feet away.

Indeed, lynchings seemed to be cause for outright celebration in the community. Residents would dress up to come watch the proceedings, and the crowds of spectators frequently grew into the thousands. Afterwards, memento-seekers would take home parts of the corpse or the rope with which the victim was hanged. Sometimes body parts -- knuckles, or genitals, or the like -- would be preserved and put on public display as a warning to would-be black criminals.

That was the purported moral purpose of these demonstrations, at least in the South: Not only to utterly wipe out any black person merely accused of a crimes against whites, but to do it in a fashion intended to warn off future perpetrators. This was reflected in contemporary press accounts, which described the lynchings in almost uniformly laudatory terms, with the victim's guilt unquestioned, and the mob identified only as "determined men." Not surprisingly, local officials (especially local police forces) not only were complicit in many cases, but they acted in concert to keep the mob leaders anonymous; thousands of coroners’ reports from lynchings merely described the victims’ deaths occurring "at the hands of persons unknown." Lynchings were broadly viewed as simply a crude, but understandable and even necessary, expression of community will. This was particularly true in the South, where blacks were viewed as symbolic of the region's continuing economic and cultural oppression by the North. As an 1899 editorial in the Newnan, Georgia, Herald and Advertiser explained it: "It would be as easy to check the rise and fall of the ocean's tide as to stem the wrath of Southern men when the sacredness of our firesides and the virtue of our women are ruthlessly trodden under foot."

Thus the numbers of deaths produced by the lynching phenomenon only hint at their impact, which broadly affected literally millions of more Americans, effectively keeping them in the thrall of terror that their white neighbors might, with the least provocation, murder them horribly.

Of course, the threat of the rape of white women and other pretenses for lynching presented handy pretexts for these horrors. As always, the violence was predicated on a fear of future violence; lynching was excused as a preemptive act.

Yet in reality a black person could be lynched for literally no reason at all -- in some cases, simply for defending himself from physical assault, or for just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Lynching laughed at the notion of blacks advancing through hard work; moderately prosperous blacks who managed to do so were often the first targets of angry lynch mobs intent on dealing with "uppity" blacks.

Lynchings unquestionably had the short-term desired effect of suppressing blacks' civil rights; the majority of African Americans in the South during that era led lives of quiet submission in the hope of escaping that horrific fate, and relatively few aspired beyond their established station in life. Those who did often migrated northward, where lynchings were hardly unknown (some of the most notorious occurred in places like Indiana and Minnesota, and they in fact were recorded in nearly every state in the Union), but were not as endemic. However, the awfulness of the mobs' brutality, often reported and photographed in gruesome detail, ultimately also inspired a reaction that gave birth to the Civil Rights movement and eventually the demise of the racial caste system lynching was intended to enforce.  

Next: The origins of the Confederacy.