American terror: On lynching, memory and the ISIS in us

Lynching In America

Good morning Austin:

Yesterday, there was big news in the history of lynching in America. Here is the top of Campbell Robertson’s report in the New York Times, datelined Dallas.

Lynching In America

Lynching In America

 DALLAS — A block from the tourist-swarmed headquarters of the former Texas School Book Depository sits the old county courthouse, now a museum. In 1910, a group of men rushed into the courthouse, threw a rope around the neck of a black man accused of sexually assaulting a 3-year-old white girl, and threw the other end of the rope out a window. A mob outside yanked the man, Allen Brooks, to the ground and strung him up at a ceremonial arch a few blocks down Main Street.

South of the city, past the Trinity River bottoms, a black man named W. R. Taylor was hanged by a mob in 1889. Farther south still is the community of Streetman, where 25-year-old George Gay was hanged from a tree and shot hundreds of times in 1922.

And just beyond that is Kirvin, where three black men, two of them almost certainly innocent, were accused of killing a white woman and, under the gaze of hundreds of soda-drinking spectators, were castrated, stabbed, beaten, tied to a plow and set afire in the spring of 1922.

The killing of Mr. Brooks is noted in the museum. The sites of the other killings, like those of nearly every lynching in the United States, are not marked. Bryan Stevenson believes this should change.

On Tuesday, the organization he founded and runs, the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., released a report on the history of lynchings in the United States, the result of five years of research and 160 visits to sites around the South. The authors of the report compiled an inventory of 3,959 victims of “racial terror lynchings” in 12 Southern states from 1877 to 1950.

Next comes the process of selecting lynching sites where the organization plans to erect markers and memorials, which will involve significant fund-raising, negotiations with distrustful landowners and, almost undoubtedly, intense controversy.

This from the press release from the Equal Justice Initiative:

Lynching in America makes the case that lynching of African Americans was terrorism, a widely supported phenomenon used to enforce racial subordination and segregation. Lynchings were violent and public events that traumatized black people throughout the country and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials. This was not “frontier justice” carried out by a few marginalized vigilantes or extremists. Instead, many African Americans who were never accused of any crime were tortured and murdered in front of picnicking spectators (including elected officials and prominent citizens) for bumping into a white person, or wearing their military uniforms after World War I, or not using the appropriate title when addressing a white person. People who participated in lynchings were celebrated and acted with impunity. Not a single white person was convicted of murder for lynching a black person in America during this period.

And, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, that largely unmarked history, has everything to do with what’s going on today.

Mass incarceration, racially biased capital punishment, excessive sentencing, disproportionate sentencing of racial minorities, and police abuse of people of color reveal problems in American society that were shaped by the terror era.

No prominent public memorial or monument commemorates the thousands of African Americans who were lynched in America.

At the end of January, the Texas Historical Commission approved an historical marker for the 1910 Slocum Massacre. As I wrote in the Statesman:

For most of the last century, the sudden rampage of deadly white-on-black racial violence in July 1910 in and around the quiet little patch of East Texas known as Slocum was the stuff of family lore and hushed talk, passed down from one generation to the next, but rarely broached in mixed racial company in Anderson County and all but lost to Texas history.

But on Thursday, that changed. The Texas Historical Commission unanimously approved placing a marker along a rural byway a dozen miles southeast of Palestine acknowledging what has come to be called the Slocum Massacre.

“The state of Texas already has markers devoted to massacres, cataclysms, hanging trees and great hangings,” Constance Hollie-Jawaid, a Dallas educator whose family lost blood and treasure in what blacks in Anderson County came to call “Bad Saturday,” told the commission before their vote.

“Texans aren’t afraid to face the past. Texans aren’t afraid to acknowledge unpleasant historical events and recover or learn from them, and that’s what a Slocum historical marker will do.”

But, even as she said that, Hollie-Jawaid, who has made the marker her personal crusade, was surprised and moved to tears when the commission, after a brief discussion, approved the Slocum marker as one of 159 new markers that will be added to the more than 16,000 markers that dot the Texas landscape.

“History’s bad and history’s good, but it’s all history, and we’ve to tell the complete history of Texas,” said Commissioner Steven L. Highlander, who made a motion for approval of the markers — Slocum included — after reporting to the rest of the commission that he had been satisfied by the commission staff that there was sufficient sound historical evidence to warrant the Slocum designation

Anderson County, according to Lynching in America, had the most lynchings of any county in Texas, with 22. I don’t know if that counts the Slocum Massacre or not. McLennan County was second among Texas counties, with 20.

There are some Texas historical markers for lynchings.

In Throckmorton, midway between Abilene and Wichita Falls, there is this marker:


In October 1886, 19-year-old Tom Farrar was one of several African American cowboys working on area ranches. On his way to the Buchanan Ranch, he stopped at a sheepherder’s dugout. The bodies of a father and daughter were discovered there the next day. Deputy Tom McCarver recognized a unique horseshoe print at the crime scene. Farrar was arrested and brought to the calaboose, where he confessed to the killings and sent a note to his family. During the night, a mob of dozens of men broke into the jail, put a rope around Farrar’s neck, dragged him behind a horse, then hung his body from an elm tree on the creek near this site. This act of vigilantism affected generations, with African Americans virtually disappearing from Throckmorton County.

The 1997 book, Under Sentence of Death: Lynching in the South, begins with a quote from psychologist John Dollard, who, in 1937 ,wrote Caste and Class in a Southern Town.

Every Negro in the South knows that he is under a kind of sentence of death; he does not know when his turn will come, it may never come, but it may also be any time.

It’s what Rosa Parks wrote about in a letter just released by the Library of Congress:

 Treading the tightrope of Jim Crow from birth to death, from almost our first knowledge of life to our last conscious thought from the cradle to the grave is a major mental acrobatic feat. It takes a noble soul to plumb this line. There is always a line of some kind—color line, hanging rope, tight rope. To me it seems that we are puppets on string in the white man’s hands. They say we must be segregated from them by the color line, yet they pull the strings and we perform to their satisfaction or suffer the consequences if we get out of line.

The way they think about it at the Equal Justice Initiative, John Dalton, a staff attorney, told me yesterday,
“slavery didn’t end with the elimination of slavery, slavery evolved.”

It went from slavery to a long reign of racial control by terrorism, Dalton said, “which all just feeds into our current problem of mass incarceration in our mind.”

Lynchings were all about sending a message. From the EJI report:

Public Spectacle Lynchings. Large crowds of white people, often numbering in the thousands and including elected officials and prominent citizens, gathered to witness pre-planned, heinous killings that featured prolonged torture, mutilation, dismemberment, and/or burning of the victim. White press justified and promoted these carnival-like events, with vendors selling food, printers producing postcards featuring photographs of the lynching and corpse, and the victim’s body parts collected as souvenirs. These killings were bold, public acts that implicated the entire community and sent a message that African Americans were sub-human, their subjugation was to be achieved through any means necessary, and whites who carried out lynchings would face no legal repercussions. In 1904, after Luther Holbert allegedly killed a local white landowner, he and a black woman believed to be his wife were captured by a mob and taken to Doddsville, Mississippi, to be lynched before hundreds of white spectators. Both victims were tied to a tree and forced to hold out their hands while members of the mob methodically chopped off their fingers and distributed them as souvenirs. Next, their ears were cut off. Mr. Holbert was then beaten so severely that his skull was fractured and one of his eyes was left hanging from its socket. Members of the mob used a large corkscrew to bore holes into the victims’ bodies and pull out large chunks of “quivering flesh,” after which both victims were thrown onto a raging fire and burned. The white men, women, and children present watched the horrific murders while enjoying deviled eggs, lemonade, and whiskey in a picnic-like atmosphere.

Days before the report came out, Bill Moyers wrote this on his blog:

After listening to one newscast after another rightly condemn the barbaric killing of that Jordanian air force pilot at the bloody hands of ISIS, I couldn’t sleep. My mind kept roaming the past trying to retrieve a vaguely remembered photograph that I had seen long ago in the archives of a college library in Texas.

Suddenly, around two in the morning, the image materialized in my head. I made my way down the hall to my computer and typed in: “Waco, Texas. Lynching.”

Sure enough, there it was: the charred corpse of a young black man, tied to a blistered tree in the heart of the Texas Bible Belt. Next to the burned body, young white men can be seen smiling and grinning, seemingly jubilant at their front-row seats in a carnival of death. One of them sent a picture postcard home: “This is the barbeque we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your son, Joe.”

The victim’s name was Jesse Washington. The year was 1916. America would soon go to war in Europe “to make the world safe for democracy.” My father was twelve, my mother eight. I was born 18 years later, at a time, I would come to learn, when local white folks still talked about Washington’s execution as if it were only yesterday. This was not medieval Europe. Not the Inquisition. Not a heretic burned at the stake by some ecclesiastical authority in the Old World. This was Texas, and the white people in that photograph were farmers, laborers, shopkeepers, some of them respectable congregants from local churches in and around the growing town of Waco.

“This was by no means a one-off thing,” Rod Dreher writes at The American Conservative under the chilling headline, When ISIS Ran the American South.

ISIS filmed that poor Jordanian pilot burning to death as an act of revenge and terror. We call those Islamist fanatics animals. But white people did this often, and sometimes even made a public spectacle of it. “The white men, women, and children present watched the horrific murders while enjoying deviled eggs, lemonade, and whiskey in a picnic-like atmosphere.”

In the EJI report is a photo of a 1919 clipping from a Jackson, Miss., newspaper reporting on a planned lynching in Ellisville, one that the Mississippi governor absurdly claimed he was powerless to stop. The paper reported that the Rev. L.G. Gates, a Baptist pastor from Laurel, Miss., was headed to Ellisville “to entreat the mob to use discretion.”

Oh, for the days when leading Christian pastors entreated lynch mobs not to stop in the name of God, but instead, to use discretion.


That was not the Middle Ages. That was 99 years ago, in Texas. The killers were not berserker jihadis. They were the people of Waco, Texas, including the leadership of the city.


No, the American South (and other parts of America where racial terrorists ran rampant) was never run by fanatical theocrats who used grotesque public murders as a tool of terror. But if you were a black in the years 1877-1950, this was a distinction without much meaningful difference.

From Jamelle Bouie at Slate, under the headline,  Christian Soldiers: The lynching and torture of blacks in the Jim Crow South weren’t just acts of racism. They were religious rituals.

 For those still unaware, this debate comes after President Obama’s comments at the annual National Prayer Breakfast, where—after condemning Islamic radical group ISIS as a “death cult”—he offered a moderating thought. “Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ … So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.”

It’s a straightforward point—“no faith has a particular monopoly on religious arrogance”—that’s become a partisan flashpoint, as conservatives harangue the president for “equating” crusading Christians to Islamic radicals, accuse him of anti-Christian beliefs, and wonder why he would mention a centuries-old conflict, even if it has some analogies to the present day.

What we have missed in the argument over the Crusades, however, is Obama’s mention of slavery and Jim Crow. At the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates puts his focus on religious justifications for American bondage, and it’s worth doing the same for its post-bellum successor. And since we’re thinking in terms of religious violence, our eyes should turn toward the most brutal spectacle of Jim Crow’s reign, the lynching.


 These lynchings weren’t just vigilante punishments or, as the Equal Justice Initiative notes, “celebratory acts of racial control and domination.” They were rituals. And specifically, they were rituals of Southern evangelicalism and its then-dogma of purity, literalism, and white supremacy. “Christianity was the primary lens through which most southerners conceptualized and made sense of suffering and death of any sort,” writes historian Amy Louise Wood in Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890–1940. “It would be inconceivable that they could inflict pain and torment on the bodies of black men without imagining that violence as a religious act, laden with Christian symbolism and significance.”


 Still, we can’t deny that lynching—in all of its grotesque brutality—was an act of religious significance justified by the Christianity of the day. It was also political: an act of terror and social control, and the province of private citizens, public officials, and powerful lawmakers. Sen. Ben Tillman of South Carolina defended lynching on the floor of the U.S. Senate, and President Woodrow Wilson applauded a film that celebrated Judge Lynch and his disciples.

 Which is all to say that President Obama was right. The vastly different environments of pre–civil rights America and the modern-day Middle East belies the substantive similarities between the fairly recent religious violence of our white supremacist forebears and that of our contemporary enemies. And the present divide between moderate Muslims and their fanatical opponents has an analogue in our past divide between northern Christianity and its southern counterpart.

This isn’t relativism as much as it’s a clear-eyed view of our common vulnerability, of the truth that the seeds of violence and autocracy can sprout anywhere, and of the fact that our present position on the moral high ground isn’t evidence of some intrinsic superiority.

The EJI report is confined to black victims of lynching in a dozen Southern and border states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

But lynchings were not confined to the South. This, below, is about the Omaha, Nebraska, courthouse lynching of 1919.


The size of the crowd was estimated as between 5,000 and 15,000 people. By 8:00 p.m. the mob had begun firing on the courthouse with guns they looted from nearby stores. In that exchange of gunfire, one 16-year-old leader of the mob, and a 34-year-old businessman a block away were killed. By 8:30 the mob had set fire to the building and prevented fire fighters from extinguishing the flames. Inside, Will Brown moaned to Sheriff Mike Clark, “I am innocent, I never did it, my God I am innocent.”

Mayor Smith had been at the scene for several hours. He came out of the courthouse and tried to reason with the mob. He asked them to forget the prisoner and allow the firemen to put out the flames. At that point, the mayor was knocked down by a blow to his head, and the next thing he knew, he was on Harney Street. One end of a rope was being flung over a lamp post. The other end tightened around his neck. That was the last thing he remembered until he woke up in a hospital where he remained for several days in serious condition with severe head injuries.

Mayor Smith had been rescued, but there are several versions of how the rescue happened. Some reports say police detectives were responsible for saving Smith’s life. Others give the credit to a young man named Russell Norgaard. Whatever the true story, the mob lost interest in Smith and concentrated on getting Brown out of the courthouse.

Brown ended up in the hands of the crazed mob. He was beaten into unconsciousness. His clothes were torn off by the time he reached the building’s doors. Then he was dragged to a nearby lamp pole on the south side of the courthouse at 18th and Harney around 11:00 p.m. The mob roared when they saw Brown, and a rope was placed around his neck. Brown was hoisted in the air, his body spinning. He was riddled with bullets. His body was then brought down, tied behind a car, and towed to the intersection of 17th and Dodge. There the body was burned with fuel taken from nearby red danger lamps and fire truck lanterns. Later, pieces of the rope used to lynch Brown were sold for 10 cents each. Finally, Brown’s charred body was dragged through the city’s downtown streets.


Nebraska-born actor Henry Fonda was 14 years old when the lynching happened. His father owned a printing plant across the street from the courthouse. He watched the riot from the second floor window of his father’s shop.

“It was the most horrendous sight I’d ever seen . . . We locked the plant, went downstairs, and drove home in silence. My hands were wet and there were tears in my eyes. All I could think of was that young black man dangling at the end of a rope.”

During Fonda’s long career, at least two of his best movies — “Young Mister Lincoln” and “The Ox Bow Incident” — featured lynchings as major plot points.

William Carrigan, a historian at Rowan University in New Jersey, grew up in Chalk Bluff, Texas, just outside Waco. As an undergraduate at the University of Texas in Austin he took a history class taught by the historian George Wright, now president of Prairie View A & M Univesrity. It was a large lecture class – maybe 300 students – but he passed out photos from the Jesse Washington lynching, the famous photos focused on the faces in the crowd.

It set Carrigan on the path of trying to understand how those good, ordinary people could have been a party to such evil.

In his 2004 book, The Making of a Lynching Culture: Violence and Vigilantism in Central Texas 1836-1916, Carrigan writes:

Ironically, the moment of central Texas’s most brutal act of racial violence became a turning point in the region’s history of race relations. The local, national and global reaction to the murder of Jesse Washington prompted civic leaders to reconsider their tolerance of central Texas’s culture of violence. Although mob law did not end there overnight – indeed racial violence persists to this day in the region – the burning of Jesse Washington ended an era eight decades old. No longer would central Texas’s leaders publicly support, praise, and encourage the use of extralegal violence. Eventually, the cultural and intellectual change led to a decline in the size and frequency of the region’s lynch mobs. The struggle over the local memory of the region’s racial violence continues, a reminder that we are never completely free of the past.

Last year, Carrigan and co-author Clive Webb, published another book, Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence against Mexicans in the United States, 1848 – 1928, in which they recall that “in 1854, a vigilance committee in Austin expelled every landless Mexican `who is not vouched for by respectable citizens.'”

Per capita, Carrigan said, Mexicans in the United States were as likely to be lynched as blacks.

Carrigan said his next project with Webb is a book about “men and women who prevented lynchings, the people who stood mobs down.” There were many of them – of every race – and their story is largely untold and inspiring. And yet, he noted, a lynching averted, “isn’t that much less scary – it all added to a level of racial terror.”

Reader Comments 0


I'm also for recognizing that brutal lynchings are ongoing present, not long past, in many countries around the world, and for insisting they stop. Why doesn't the US press publicize 4 suspected cattle rustlers burned alive in Kirinyaga, Kenya earlier this month? What about 543 "mob justice" killings in Kenya in 2011, according to that year's Kenya Police annual crime report? (BTW, that is, per capita, more than three-and-a-half times the number of lynchings of the worst year of recorded US lynching history.) Does the fact that none of these are interracial lynchings make them any less horrific or criminal? Do black lives matter only when white police kill them, whether or not according to police guidelines and law? Stop the lynchings everywhere they're happening and for whatever reason(s).


I'm all for the idea of markers and remembering, including for the June 2007 Juneteenth lynching in Austin. Please don't forget that Hispanic victim. Please, if need be, let the world's Spanish-language press inform all concerned that the murder in question was indeed a lynching.


So the Dumbocrats want to stir up their voters with stories going back more than a hundred years when black mobs have randomly killed hundreds of whites just during Obama's reign. Google "White Girl Bleed a lot" or Polar bear hunting or Knockout game. Let's focus on the present racism, which is black racism towards white people, churned up by the likes of Al Sharpton, Eric Holder and King Obama. 


I think Dems like to talk about ugly events in our past in an effort to ignore today.  So much more fun to talk about the past and try to use it as a political weapon, instead of solving today's problems.

Sadly today young black men kill 14 times more than young white men.  Blacks commit 50% of all murders.  In fact in the last decade they have killed more whites than all the blacks lynched in the last 200 years.  Plus they kill about the same numbers of their black neighbors every year as were hanged in those 200 years. We have progressed greatly from those bad old days.  But instead of talking about the old days, maybe we should concentrate on problems that actually exist today.   

Charles Shaffer
Charles Shaffer

It is hard to miss the correlation between the states where these hangings took place and current day red states.  The article states that these were just ordinary citizens and not religious terrorists like the current day terrorists in the middle east. I don't see the distinction. When I look at a picture of a hanging with the white faces smiling and proud of what was done, I see morally degenerate terrorists. It would be a mistake to think that those days are past. There are people like this walking the streets right now.Some of them are in politics and some of them are in media. America needs to stop running around the world bombing people into civilization. America needs to take an honest look at itself today and start living up to the ideals that we profess to believe in.    


This article will sooth most of the posters around here.  


@Charles Shaffer  I understand and agree with your argument that the persons who lynched citizens as described in this article were terrorists.  Your commentary unfortunately goes off the rails when you say that people today in politics and media are terrorists of the same ilk.  While there are people anywhere who are capable of doing these things, they are much like the criminal element that is always among us.  And just like these open displays of savagery were stopped, so must be the terrorism of today.  I don't see America "running around the world bombing people into civilization", I see America, as well as other countries, looking to find a way to stand up to the barbarity that is terrorism.  Liberals are quick to blame America for all the wrongs in the world and often highlight the horrible episodes in our history as evidence to support their opinions.  I agree that many parts of our history are reprehensible, but they are part of the struggle for freedom that goes on to this day.  By fighting terrorism around the world, America is living up to certain ideals that we believe in.  You seem to be with the crowd that either a) blames America for terrorism committed by others, or b) wants us to quit fighting terrorists around the world who are acting like the people in this article who approved of and participated in lynchings.  I want to see America stand for more than that.  America has not ever been perfect, but that shouldn't be a reason to allow terrorists to operate as they see fit.


@Charles Shaffer  Red states?  Trying to smear current residents with something that happened a hundred years ago?  I found it interesting that the word Democrat wasn't mentioned in any of these articles on lynching.  Maybe John was attempting to obliquely attack Republicans by not mentioning most of these happy people were Dems, much as Charles tried to use the hangings for his own political purposes having nothing to do with lynching. 


@Hardcore_Conservative  Obviously this liberal is trying to mislead folks by calling himself hardcoreconservative and it is apparent he has little belief in the truth.  Which is why his ID is a lie and so is his post.   Sadly he is another of those Christian haters that populate the Democrat Party and is using the murder of three to push his views.  Yes hardcore is sick.  I think that is one thing we can all agree on. 


@Hardcore_Conservative  You should check the content of the articles you post links to.  The shooter in the story claims to be an atheist. Don't worry, not expecting you to acknowledge your error and obvious bias.   You should have stuck to your "gun culture" crap this time.