Black Americans have been fighting lynching for over a century.
In 1917, ten thousand African Americans organized by the NAACP marched in the Negro Silent Protest Parade to protest lynchings in Waco and Memphis. Leaders wrote up demands for anti-lynching legislation. Confronting the systematic killing of African Americans, however, wasn’t politically expedient in 1917. President Woodrow Wilson never enacted the legislation.
A bill making lynching a federal crime did not make its way through both the House and Senate until over a hundred years later, in February 2020 – just four months ago – in a piece of legislation which has still yet to be reconciled into one bill to be sent to the Oval Office.
Meanwhile, Black Americans continue to join the list of names of those killed by police and white supremacists: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Atatiana Jefferson, Dominique Clayton, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and too many others.
There have been marches after marches protesting police violence, but George Floyd’s videotaped killing literally under a policeman’s knee has sparked unprecedented levels of protest in every state in the U.S. by citizens who can no longer watch Black children terrorized, women brutalized and unarmed men killed.
Despite the past few weeks feeling like a turning point in the arc of the fight for justice, It seems protecting black and vulnerable lives against assault still isn’t politically expedient in 2020. One of the darkest chapters in American history echoes in the background.
Lynchings of the past were socially-sanctioned hate crimes predominantly wielded against black men and women who have been accosted by a white mob, a group or law enforcement officials, then sentenced without a hearing to a public burning or hanging. The Equal Justice Initiative has documented 4,084 such cases during America’s so-called “lynching era” lasting from 1877 to 1950.
It is frightening to contemplate the possibility that the lynching era isn’t a closed chapter – horrifying to formulate the very thought into a sentence. The word may bring to mind the 1937 Billie Holiday song “Strange Fruit,” with lines memorializing “strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” The song is dated. But evidence of modern-day lynchings shows up on our cell phones.
Recently, two Black men were found hanging from trees in the same area in California. Their deaths were initially ruled suicides, but their families insist neither of them were suicidal, and are pushing for further investigations. There have been other mysterious “ suicides” of people of color by hanging across the country. A noose was found in the garage stall of the only Black NASCAR driver after he successfully advocated to ban Confederate flags from NASCAR events.
This lawless act has always hidden behind a legalistic code of honor facade. It used to be euphemistically called vigilante justice, echoing the paper thin defenses still provided by gun-toting white supremacists and renegade police officers today.
The 1920’s press coverage regularly claimed lynchings were “necessary to maintain law and order,” and protect property. These narrow appeals to law and order let the ongoing massacre continue unchecked.
And today, the mainstream media gives ample airtime to a president who similarly defends police brutality by stereotyping Blacks and making light of police misconduct.
“When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, please don’t be too nice,” said Trump in 2017.
The media encourages Trump’s distorted world view by stereotyping Black Lives Matter protestors – emphasizing looting and rioting, or disruption protests, over the much larger and more common peaceful protests. Even when officers have been filmed brutalizing peaceful demonstrators and reporters on live television, the media engages in a false conversation around escalation and provocation.
Of all the lynchings committed after 1900, only 1 percent resulted in a lyncher being convicted of a criminal offense. In today’s America, since Jan. 1, 2015, 1,252 African Americans have been shot and killed during police encounters. The tally doesn’t include those who died in custody, or by other means. But only 35 police officers have been convicted of a crime related to an on-duty shooting in the last fifteen years.
Lynching is a poltergeist, still following us. We shamefully never repented by passing an anti-lynching law. The final passage of Congress’ 2020 anti-lynching bill is currently blocked by a lone senator – Rand Paul – offering improbable arguments, for example, that an anti-lynching law “may implicate people in a bar fight.”
Anyone who refuses to pass this bill remains trapped in a history of denials and excuses, hellbent on protecting a status quo public image that denies any complicity in systemic racism.
But we know the truth. In both a metaphorical and literal sense, Black Americans continue to be lynched by a system which repeatedly allows their abuse and protects the abusers. We will have blood on our hands until we pass an anti-lynching bill and re-imagine what public safety looks like for all of us.
Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a Communications Fellow at Community Change.