Today, I am writing about history. Or, specifically, as the Wikipedia page would have it, “Racially motivated violence against African Americans,” a list that does not yet have listed paged for Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, or Jordan Davis.
After the Jordan Davis story broke, I went digging for some context. Context for this violence that apparently is not talked about, or not enough, or not in a way that keeps it from happening. I found so many pieces, and I am not sure how they all fit together. What they make.
In 1946, after a solid 50 years of racially-motivated lynching, a Floridian named Tom Crews was the first man actually convicted of lynching a black man. He was fined $1,000 and spent a year in prison.
In 2014, a white man shot at a car full of black teenagers who would not turn their rap music down. He was convicted on three counts of attempted murder for the three teenagers he shot at. The jury was unable to come to a verdict about the teen he killed, Jordan Davis. A mistrial was declared.
I read a newspaper opinion column from the Southwestern Christian Advocate in 1912. The columnist was railing against lynch mobs, calling them a perversion and a mockery of the American justice system. No replacement for a trial in a courtroom. A travesty.
In 2013, George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin on the grounds of self defense, using Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law. A trial in a courtroom.
In 1955, a 14-year-old black boy in Chicago named Emmett Till was beaten, shot, and thrown into a river with a cotton gin fan tied to his neck. Why? He wolf-whistled at a white woman. There was a trial of a defendant, who was acquitted.
In 1964–the year of increased Apartheid in South Africa, the year of Kitty Genovese’s murder, the year the Beatles first toured the US, the year that Doctor Who first aired–1964 was also the year that three civil rights workers, two white men and a black man, were killed by a lynch mob in Mississippi. They were part of a movement called “Freedom Summer” that was a program to register more black voters.
Some of the literacy tests given to voters before registering them in the 1960s had ambiguous and difficult questions that could easily be declared wrong regardless of the answer given.
One of the Freedom Summer murderers, Edgar Ray Killen, was re-tried in 2005, and at the age of 80, given 60 years in prison. Seven men of the original mob got convictions in 1967; none of them served more than six years in prison.
2005 also brought the first official apology by the Senate for not passing federal anti-lynching laws at a time when they could have saved lives. “The U.S. Senate last night approved a resolution apologizing for its failure to enact federal anti-lynching legislation decades ago, marking the first time the body has apologized for the nation’s treatment of African Americans,” the Washinton Post reports. 2005, the first time the Senate apologized for anti-black legislation. 2005, the year I stood in Colorado Springs counter-protesting the Westboro Baptist Church who were protesting a GSA forming at the local high school. 2005, the year of continued numb overseas war, the year of Green Day’s album American Idiot and 50 Cent’s album The Massacre, the year of the Doctor Who reboot. 2005, the year of the Senate’s first apology about lynching, Resolution 39, which passed with 80 out of 100 senators co-sponsoring.
I know that all this news must have come across my internet browser in 2005–I was a junior in college–I remember hearing the bit about Edgar Ray Killen’s re-trial. But somehow none of it sank in; I didn’t have the context. I cannot wrap my brain or my heart around the enormity of the past history of racial violence in our country. People want to cast it far, far back, like it happened not only to someone else but to some other country far away. Resolution 39 “expresses the deepest sympathies and most solemn regrets of the Senate to the descendants of victims of lynching, the ancestors of whom were deprived of life, human dignity and the constitutional protections accorded all citizens of the United States.” Descendants, they say, and ancestors. As if it were a long time ago.
My father was twelve during the Freedom Summer lynchings, my mother fifteen. My aunt was eleven when Emmett Till was murdered. During my grandfather’s lifetime, 477 black people were lynched, and 43 white people. During my grandfather’s lifetime, over a hundred anti-lynching bills were introduced on the federal level. None were accepted. This was apologized about in 2005.
I want to know why there have been so many racially motivated shootings in the past five years. I want to know why it is considered remotely controversial to declare them racially motivated. I want to know why Travyon Martin, Renisha McBride, and Jordan Davis are not listed on the Wikipedia page “Racially Motivated Violence Against African-Americans.”
I’ve been thinking about white bystanders a lot lately. I want to know what the white people who were writing anti-lynching editorials for papers like The Montgomery Advertiser in the 1920s did with the rest of their time. I want to know what the white people who might have read opinion columns in 1912 thought about lynching, and if The Southwestern Christian Advocate was on their radar. I want to know what it was like for the friends of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, who were the three men killed in the Freedom Summer murders. I’m curious about their white friends in particular. What did they do with that experience? How did seeing friends get killed affect their commitment to, or aversion to, civil rights?
Emmett Till’s mother insisted on him being buried in an open casket so that the world could see the brutality that had been enacted upon her son.
What got me most about the Zimmerman acquittal was not the media coverage nor even the white people who thought justice had been served; what really got me was my black friends on Facebook, fearing for their sons’ lives.
Between the 1860s and the 1960s, according to the Tuskagee institute, about 4,745 folk were lynched: 1,299 white and 3,446 black. Most of the white people were lynched as a punishment for cattle rustling or some other crime. (This is what we mean when we say “Wild West.”) Most of the black people were lynched for looking at white women, or being black, or…
…for carrying iced tea and Skittles
…for wearing a hoodie
…for seeking help after a car accident
…for not turning the music down
the list goes on. None of it makes any sense. And I don’t think I can fix racism by writing about it. But I wanted to look at this history, to see how the new patterns repeat the old. I wanted to have some context.