Terry Gross recently did a show on the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, a museum that honors the “victims of lynching and racial terrorism in the U.S.” The hideous subject of gruesome, racially motivated murders, usually involving prolonged torture, is little discussed and even less often analyzed here in the land where it was long practiced. The highly uncomfortable subject of lynching is usually treated, by those whose family members were never lynched, with the famous Obama formula of “looking forward, not back” on horrific American practices, though, of course, that is unfair to the first African-American (literally) president.
Stalin, a man not known for his wit, is credited with the witty formulation: the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of a million men, a statistic. Thousands were lynched during a long reign of terror against the previously enslaved citizens of these great United States, but a look at just one lynching should suffice to drive the nature of this vicious tragedy home.
Then consider the pompous blowhard fuckheads (racist fuckheads, by the way) who decade after decade thwarted any and all attempts to make lynching a federal crime. The strutting, braying racists of today, men like America’s former Sheriff Joe “I Know the Law Better Than You, Fuckface, er, your Honor” Arpaio, are just an echo of those walking turds who considered themselves good men, American patriots.
I don’t mean to get all emotional about this subject, a subject which I have thought about many times over the last few years. My feelings on the subject have been stirred in recent days by America’s collective nonchalance about our extensive, secret torture program directed against suspected Islamic terrorists, with the confirmation of a zealous, stonewalling torture advocate hanging by the votes of a few spineless politicians. (See this one for more on Gina Haspel, the reality TV president’s pick for America’s Top Spook).
I recall my father telling me that not all lynchings were secret backwoods murders. Some of them happened in broad daylight, before a cheering crowd of average Americans who brought a picnic lunch, and the kids, and afterwards bought souvenirs of the event, photos, dismembered body parts taken from the screaming victim. Imagine that, if you can.
Google Jesse Washington (or simply click here), if you want to feel sick to your stomach about Making America Great Again. A glance at the photo of his charred, mutilated corpse, toward the top of the linked entry, should suffice. A glimpse of the photo of the vast crowd, pressing in from every direction to get a close look at the torture, will make your skin crawl.
Jesse Washington was an illiterate teenaged farm hand, a black kid, accused of… whatever… probably making advances toward a white woman, nay, raping her, with his eyes if not his body– yeah, that’s it– he raped her — and then he murdered her! Justice followed swiftly. Within a week, after full due process as guaranteed by our Constitution, Jesse Washington was a burnt, mutilated husk of a corpse, on display for the roaring crowd.
The record shows he was convicted of the rape and murder of the white woman he worked for, seven days after the white woman’s bludgeoned body was found. He was convicted after a no doubt scrupulously fair hour long trial, found guilty of both crimes by a jury of his peers in Waco, Texas, 1916. The jury deliberated for four minutes. Washington apparently had confessed to the crimes and his inexperienced court-appointed lawyers attempted no defense. In any event, there clearly would not be time for an appeal.
I note here that just as in the cases when police shoot unarmed blacks who later turn out to have criminal records of some kind, the fact of their record does not begin to justify the extrajudicial death sentence. You will hear gas bags argue that point, but… you know. Even if Jesse Washington was guilty of the crimes he was convicted for, the punishment should never be left up to a lynch mob. Although in Waco that day it was, with the law and order mayor, up for re-election, and police chief, standing aside.
An example was made of him as he was immediately dragged from the courthouse and thousands of righteous white people, up to half the population of the Texas town, pressed forward in front of Waco City Hall, good Christians, their children on their shoulders, to watch him be publicly tortured to death over the course of two hours. His death by torture lasted twice as long as the trial, imagine that.
Jesse Washington’s fingers and genitals were chopped off. The lack of fingers thwarted his attempts to climb the chains to get out of the bonfire he was lowered into. He was burned a bit, raised back over the bonfire by the chains, lowered, burned slowly, piece by piece, dismembered, burned some more, hung like a large strip of beef jerky, eventually dead. His charred, armless body was chained to a wagon and dragged a few miles, to be hung up on display in the small town where the murder had taken place, as a lesson to everybody.
What is hard to understand about this terrorist act we blandly refer to as “lynching”? It is unthinkable social barbarity of an unspeakably medieval variety. The larger horror is that lynching is performed to keep the status quo humming along, to strengthen desired social norms. It is a public demonstration, or equally effective as a private one people can wink about, of the prerogative of a group with the power to torture and kill anyone they target in a group without the power to do anything about it.
How much real power did the white barber from Waco, Texas, his wife and three kids have as they stood in the sun among the 10,000 to 15,000 good citizens watching men roast, cut and hang Jesse Washington to death, children pry his teeth out to keep as souvenirs? Not much. But, goddamn, they sure had more power than that boy they were taking to pieces up front. The satisfied face on one of the spectators, looking at the charred remains of Jesse Washington, says it all. You can see the picture on the linked Wikipedia page.
Here in America when we talk about terrorism it’s always the same one note samba: Al Queda, ISIS, fanatical militant Islamists who hate our freedom. It is not a brave stand for me to point out that those motherfuckers have nothing on our home grown haters. We just don’t talk about our history of violent racism and the legally winked at terrorism that long supported it. We don’t talk about the many harms that flow from institutionally protected violence, like the epigenetic changes passed on among the descendants of the victims.
I am glad that museum is open in Alabama, I’d like to visit it some day, unlikely as that may be. It is past time for Americans to begin confronting, understanding and addressing America’s shameful, ongoing, long-repressed history of racialized fear, rage, hatred and deadly violence.
Since I always try to end even the most depressing of these posts on an uplifting note, here you go: