I’ve been a student of American History for most of my life. The thing that draws me to history is the constant challenge it presents to one’s perception of reality. We all live in a comfort zone and make assumptions that everyone is experiencing what we are and that things have always been as they are. Studying history never stops pulling the rug out from under one’s feet. Just when I thought I couldn’t be shocked, bam!, I’m laying on the floor!
Yesterday I began watching a new DVD on the history of Chicago’s Maxwell Street. In the middle of explaining the black exodus from the South during WWI the front page of a Louisiana newspaper, the New Orleans States, popped up and shocked me.
For decades I’ve been aware of the frequent lynching of Black-Americans after the Civil War and well into the 20th century. Between 1882 and 1968 it’s estimated that 3446 blacks were lynched in America, mostly in the South. It was, in fact, so common that one of the first popular civil rights protest songs, Strange Fruit, was written and in the 1930s and made famous by Billie Holiday. While lynching was common and often done with full knowledge of the authorities I just assumed it was a spontaneous occurrence and not a planned and advertised event. The lynching of John Hartfield in Ellisville, Mississippi was anything but; it was a planned event, well publicized, with full knowledge of those in power, and in clear view of an expected crowd of 3,000 observers.
John Hartfield, a black man, had been accused of raping a white woman, pursued by dogs and a possy of men, discovered and shot several times, denied a trial, kept alive so he could be publicly hanged, and before a crowd estimated to be upwards to 10,000 he was hanged, his corpse riddled with bullets, set on fire, and pieces carried away by the crowd as souvenirs. Hilton Butler was present at the lynching of John Hartfield and wrote an account of what he witnessed that day in 1919. A recent book by Cameron McWhirter, Red Summer, identifies that year as being the worst as well as the year Black America awakened and began to push back.
That this horrible thing was a planned event and took place with the full knowledge of the public is bad enough, just as horrible was reading that the governor of Mississippi, along with local authorities, said that stopping it was beyond their abilities.
Much has changed in American since 1919 but such horrors do occasionally occur. Even more frequent are the signs that the underlying fears, hatreds, resentments, etc. are still with us. In the aftermath of Katrina I overheard too many White Americans resorting to centuries old epitaphs to justify what became of the black residents of New Orleans. The signs that were proudly displayed during recent Tea Party rallies depicting President Obama as a minstrel show clown or Adolph Hitler are equally indicative of the racial mood of too many Americans.
It is simply amazing how racist we Americans once were. It is to our credit that so many of us have tried to come to grips with our feelings and how much better things are today than just fifty-years ago. But it is to our shame if we don’t continue to fight against our biases and prejudices and adhere to the vision of Dr. King and judge each other by the content of our character rather than the color of our skin.
Editor’s Note: PBS has recently aired a documentary about this subject titled Slavery by Another Name. It is based on a book by the same title. Also, the following link is to a YouTube video of Nina Simone singing her version of Strange Fruit along with a slide show of very graphic images of lynchings.