Legacy of Violence

By Wendy Johnson

Vol. 24, No. 1-2, 2002 p. 3

Between 1882 and 1968, 4,743 Americans are known to have been victims of the terrible and violent crime of lynching. A recent article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution defined the word lynching as "an illegal death at the hands of a group acting under pretense of service, race or tradition." More than 70 percent of those who lost their lives to a violent and unchecked mob in the name of preserving "tradition" were black. The allegations for which lynchings were carried out include such shockingly innocent acts as "being obnoxious," "insolence," "trying to vote," "suing a white man," "frightening a white woman," and "acting suspiciously." The very word--lynching--was a feared and hateful term and it continues to strike fear in many African Americans who can clearly remember acts of racial violence committed for breaches of "tradition."

This brand of terrorism enjoyed a perverse popularity especially in the seat of the former confederacy where four out of five lynchings occurred. Mississippi and Georgia sowed the most violence, recording more than five hundred lynchings each. Nearly 93 percent of lynchings in these two states were committed against African Americans. Texas ranks third with 493 lynchings.

While many Ku Klux Klan branches helped perpetrate racialized violent crimes against blacks that went unpunished, community members colluded in ways incomprehensible. Elected officials, newspaper editors, and law enforcement officials were involved in many of these vigilante murders. Look carefully at the photograph on page 6. Countless community members and entire families bear peculiar witness to the lynch mobs' offering--not in horror but in mutinous resentment and triumph. They push forward, some perched on friends shoulders or in trees, to better view the mentally retarded seventeen-year-old Jesse Washington as his executioners repeatedly lowered him into the flames and lifted him out again. A postcard of white boys slouched around Washington's grotesquely charred and hanging corpse bears the chilling note, "This was the barbeque we had last night....your son, Joe."

Emory University and the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site are showing several images of Jesse Washington's lynching as part of a collection entitled, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, a rare exhibition of photographs, postcards, and artifacts documenting the history of lynching in America. These brutal images are being seen for the first time in the South.

Deeply disturbing, these images communicate immediately with the viewer: you find yourself holding your breath and flinching involuntarily. As your body physically reacts, your heart and mind reflexively ask "why such an exhibit?" James Jordan, curator for Without Sanctuary offers a response. "I want this exhibit to challenge the sense of safety that comes with denial. I want it to trouble the waters.....so that the virulent and growing racism, nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment of today will be understood to be a dangerous vestige of the recent past."

In his article, "Return to Sender," author Mark Auslander adds his explanation. He describes the process leading up to the exhibit, including public forums that debated exhibit intent and how to exhibit this violent phenomenon without wielding irreparable harm.

Several communities devastated by white mob violence over the past century have begun to confront these painful legacies of shared suffering and destruction and are designing actions for healing and reconciliation. "Lifting the Veil of Silence," a workshop held in Atlanta last fall, brought nine of these communities together to liberate the truth about lynching. They feel an urgent need to "confront these atrocities against primarily African-American citizens, resurrect and record this history, remember the dead, and begin to heal these long neglected but still festering wounds." The stories of several of these communities are offered in this issue.

Confronting a "dangerous memory" is an appeal for community remembrance and reconciliation. The challenge offered by the Without Sanctuary exhibit and these nine communities is a challenge we should all be willing to accept.

Wendy Johnson is executive director of the Southern Regional Council.