Twisted System

A photographic history of lynching

perpetrators; indeed, newspaper reporters noted the active participation of some of the region's most prominent citizens."

At their center was Sam Hose, an African-American. "After stripping Hose of his clothes and chaining him to a tree," Litwack writes, the crowd "stacked kerosene-soaked wood around him. Before saturating Hose with oil and applying the torch, they cut off his ears, fingers and genitals and skinned his face." Then they burned him alive. But the scene doesn't end there. "Before Hose's body had even cooled, his heart and liver were removed and cut into

several pieces, and his bones were crushed into small particles. The crowd fought over these souvenirs." One proud citizen took a slice of heart to present to the governor. Hose's severed knucklebones were prominently displayed in the front window of an Atlanta grocer.

Hose's story appeared in a remarkable collection of photographs titled Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. The book was one of the most important published in 1999, but its gruesome subject kept it from achieving wide recognition. Black History Month begs for its reconsideration.

Lynchings depicted in the movies—drunken rowdies impatient with the law, working in the dark of night—did occur, but most were prosaic. They originally served to bolster America's Southern elites from the end of Reconstruction in the mid-1870s to the dawn of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. But lynchings also caught on with average whites, who grew up believing that any significant change in the social order would deliver them into the hands of vengeful blacks. That was the stick. The carrot was the sense that no matter how miserable, a white man was superior to any black.

Lynchings were not just brutal warnings to blacks and white

malcontents but also celebrations of twisted community values. As Litwack writes, "To kill the victim was not enough; the execution became a public theater

. . . prolonged as long as possible (once for seven hours) for the benefit of the crowd." It was presented as a triumph of traditional moral values.

Between 1882 and 1968, an estimated 4,742 blacks met their deaths at the hands of lynch mobs. The guilt of the victim was unimportant. It was true that Hose had killed a man, but the dead man's wife told everyone who would listen that he had done so only in self-defense. That didn't matter: Sam was a black man who had killed a white man—a caricature of the worst among Southern blacks.

Many mobs didn't even bother to search for the guilty, writes a black observer quoted by Litwack, "knowing full well that one Negro swinging from a tree will serve as well as another to

terrorize the community."

It's a point the book underscores, and it's worth repeating: this kind of behavior was socially acceptable. A 1918 Little Rock newspaper editorial observed that lynching "may be 'Southern brutality' [to disapproving Northerners] . . . but in polite circles, we call it Southern chivalry."

How any definition of chivalry could include what happened to Mary Turner of Valdosta, Georgia, defies comfortable explanation. Her husband had been lynched, and despite being eight months pregnant, Mary was determined to see his killers brought to justice; such a challenge to chivalry demanded she be lynched as well. Litwack writes, "After tying her ankles together, they hung her from a tree, head downward. Dousing her clothes with gasoline, they burned them from her body. While she was still alive, someone used a knife ordinarily reserved for splitting hogs to cut open the woman's abdomen. The infant fell from her womb to the ground and cried briefly, whereupon a member of this mob crushed the baby's head beneath his heel. Hundreds of bullets were then fired into Mary Turner's body,

completing the work of the mob."

The photographs of the lynchings and the stories behind them did not have to be collected from law-enforcement reports or government investigations. Ordinary people collected them as mementos of an exciting civic event and wrote about the murders in diaries and in letters to friends, just as they would describe a parade or concert. And the vast majority of these people were otherwise perfectly nice. Historians have encountered this phenomenon—normally decent people behaving barbarously in service of a regime built on brutality—while studying German soldiers who served under the Nazis. But it is vital to realize that not only can it happen here—it did.

Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America by James Allen, et al.; Twin Palms Publishers. 209 pages, hardcover, $60.

« Previous Page
 |
 
1
 
2
 
All
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Anaheim Concert Tickets
Loading...