Ecclesiastes 04 – Do Not Turn a Blind Eye to Modern Lynchings

I saw the tears of the oppressed—
    and they have no comforter;
power was on the side of their oppressors—
    and they have no comforter.
And I declared that the dead,
    who had already died,
are happier than the living,
    who are still alive.
But better than both
    is the one who has never been born,
who has not seen the evil
    that is done under the sun.
(Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

There is so much to write about in this chapter, so much I was hoping to share with you today.  But given the recent arrests of Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers, I don’t want us to think our work on that subject is done. We need to sit with some hard truths instead, and I want to share some powerful words from an anonymous source, republished with their permission:

 

Ahmaud Arbery was lynched on February 23, while out jogging on the outskirts of Brunswick, GA. Today, to celebrate what would’ve been his 26th birthday, #IRunWithMaud.

And yes, I said lynched. Maybe some of y’all thought lynchings had gone the way of Jim Crow laws. They have not.

Merriam-Webster defines “lynching” as “to put to death (as by hanging) by mob action without legal approval or permission,” with the following usage example: The accused killer was lynched by an angry mob.

That’s what happened here. The two men arrested for Arbery’s murder, 64-year old Gregory McMichael and his son 34-year old Travis, claimed they believed he was a robbery suspect. That the father was once a police officer doesn’t add support to their claimed justification for stalking and gunning down Arbery; as any student of American history knows, in many if not most lynchings of black people, law enforcement was complicit, either as participants in the lynching or observers who prevented the victim from being saved. And in nearly all instances, accusations of crime, nearly always against whites and nearly always either overblown or entirely baseless, were the predicate for the lynching.

Between 1877 and 1950, only Mississippi saw more lynchings than Georgia. During that time period, 589 people were lynched in Georgia–that we know of. The vast majority were black, and nearly every person complicit in those lynchings was white. Again, many had ties to law enforcement.

Georgia was the scene of some of the most gruesome lynchings on record. Take, for example, the April 23, 1899 lynching of Sam Hose near Newnan, GA. In his remarkable book “At the Hands of Persons Unknown,” Philip Dray reconstructs from contemporary reports the chaotic scene, a festival of death to which crowds of Georgians traveled by horse, by train, and on foot from as far away as Atlanta. Here’s Dray’s description of the lynch mob’s treatment of Hose; those with weak stomachs may want to skip it:

“The torture of the victim lasted almost half an hour. It began when a man stepped forward and very matter-of-factly sliced off Hose’s ears. Then several men grabbed Hose’s arms and held them forward so his fingers could be severed one by one and shown to the crowd. Finally, a blade was passed between his thighs, Hose cried in agony, and a moment later his genitals were held aloft.”

After being so mutilated, Hose was soaked in kerosene and set on fire while still alive. His last words were reportedly “Sweet Jesus.” His charred remains, photos of which survive, were then set upon by the crowd, who fought to wrench free pieces of his body as souvenirs. Civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois, who visited the town soon after the event, was shocked to learn that Hose’s knuckles were for sale at a local grocer’s shop.

Hose’s alleged crime? Murdering his white employer during an argument over wages, and allegedly raping his wife. The rape allegation was added later, when the mob needed justification to deny Hose his right to a fair trial for the killing. Rape and attempted rape would be a frequent justification for lynching over the years.

The Hose lynching wasn’t even the most vile and disturbing one to happen in Georgia. That dishonor would go to either the Mary Turner lynching in Lowndes County, or the Mae Murray Dorsey lynching in Walton County.

On July 25, 1946, Dorsey, her husband, and another couple were stopped by a white mob, beaten, tied to an oak tree near the Moore’s Ford Bridge, and shot numerous times. Dorsey was seven months pregnant at the time. After the smoke had cleared from the shooting, one of the mob cut the fetus from Dorsey’s body.

Somehow that’s not even the most revolting, disturbing lynching of a pregnant woman in Georgia. That would be the Mary Turner lynching. On May 16, 1918, a 25-year old white farmer named Hampton Smith was murdered in Brooks County. Over the following weeks, at least thirteen black citizens were murdered by white mobs seeking revenge for Smith’s death. One of those victims was a man named Hayes Turner, who had threatened Smith after Smith struck Hayes’s wife, Mary.

After her husband was lynched on May 18, 1918, Mary publicly denounced the lynch mob and swore that she would have them arrested for their crime. So the mob came for her next, despite the fact that she was eight months pregnant. Again I’ll rely on the description of the scene given by Philip Dray, based on contemporary reporting and eyewitness interviews–and again I warn those of you with weak stomachs:

“[B]efore a crowd that included women and children,” Dray writes, “Mary was stripped, hung upside down by the ankles, soaked with gasoline, and roasted to death. In the midst of this torment, a white man opened her swollen belly with a hunting knife and her infant fell to the ground, gave a cry, and was stomped to death.”

Why am I sharing all this gruesome history? Simple. Because what happened to Ahmaud Arbery was the same thing that happened to Sam Hose, and Mary Turner, and Mae Murray Dorsey, and hundreds of other black people in Georgia. Groups of angry white people deemed a black life to have no value, and decided they would end it. Just like the murderers of Hose, Dorsey, and Turner, Arbery’s killers probably figured they’d get away with it. And for a while, they were right; the Glynn County District Attorney directed police officers on the scene not to arrest the McMichaels, even though they believed they had probable cause to do so. 589th verse, same as the first. And Georgia’s not the only state with such a hate-filled history; I’m writing this about a two-hour drive south of where Jesse Washington was tortured, castrated, and slowly roasted to death near Waco City Hall while the mayor and chief of police looked on.

Facts like these are the reason groups had to be formed to remind us white people that black lives do, in fact, matter. Facts like the ones I’ve laid out above are the reason Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid knelt during the National Anthem of a nation where such acts of evil were permitted, and not punished, and where numerous attempts to make lynching a federal crime were defeated. (In fact, one can easily argue that none of the perpetrators of the acts I’ve described above suffered a fraction of the consequences Kaepernick has suffered.) Facts like the ones I’ve laid out above are the reason so many of us need only look to Donald Trump calling the racists who marched on Charlottesville “very fine people” as the final proof, if such were needed, that a racist sits in the White House.

I’ve said it before and will say it again: America has a race problem, and it could end up being the death of us. If you don’t believe me, go read Dray’s book. Go read Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow.” Go read Ibram X. Kendi’s “Stamped From The Beginning.” Go read Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law.” Go read any collection of writings by Dr. King, or Du Bois, or Wells-Barnett. I could recommend countless books to enlighten y’all who need the enlightening.

Again, America has a race problem, and it could be the death of us. As Kendi points out, it’s not enough for us to not be racist. We need to be anti-racist. That means knowing our history, and understanding where we are now. It means calling lynching by its name when we see it. It means demanding accountability for such awful crimes against humanity. It means understanding why Kaepernick knelt, and understanding that he’s far from alone in his sentiments. And it means standing with people like Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin and Philando Castile and Eric Garner and Sandra Bland and the thousands of other black men and women who’ve met violent, early ends for the sole reason that they were black in America.

 

If you have been moved by what you have read, I encourage you to consider donating to support a Legal Aid society near you (this link takes you to the one in DC), which helps those most at-risk in the legal system receive effective representation.  I also encourage you to support the Black voices speaking their truth right now.  There are many, but some that I follow are Rachel Cargle (and the Loveland Foundation), D. Danyelle Thomas of Unfit Christian, and Christena Cleveland – who is included in the upcoming anthology A Measure of Belonging: Writers of Color on the New American South, which can be pre-ordered at the link.  My wonderful husband Chris Newman of @sylvanaquafarms also writes incisive prose about the intersection of race, farming, food, and privilege.  There is a crowdfunding page published by Crowdpac for Ahmaud Arbery’s family, but at the time of publishing they have yet to be personally affiliated with it, so I am watching to see it receives their stamp of approval before donating to it. And as always, God vs. The Patriarchy can be supported via several options at the Support tab, to the left.