23 2 / 2012

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'If it is necessary, every Negro in the state will be lynched,' James K. Vardaman, the white supremacy candidate in the 1903 Mississippi governor's race, declared. He saw no reason for blacks to go to school. 'The only effect of Negro education,' he said, 'is to spoil a good field hand and make an insolent cook.'

Mississippi voted Vardaman into the governor’s office and later sent him to the U.S. Senate.

All the while, newspapers were giving black violence top billing, the most breathless outrage reserved for any rumor of black male indiscretion toward a white woman, all but guaranteeing a lynching. Sheriff’s deputies mysteriously found themselves unable to prevent the abduction of a black suspect from a jailhouse cell. Newspapers alerted readers to the time and place of an upcoming lynching. In spectacles that often went on for hours, black men and women were routinely tortured and mutilated, then hanged or burned alive, all before festive crowds of as many as several thousand white citizens, children in tow, hoisted on their fathers’ shoulders to get a better view.

Fifteen thousand men, women, and children gathered to watch eighteen-year-old Jesse Washington as he was burned alive in Waco, Texas, in May 1916. The crowd chanted, ‘Burn, burn, burn!’ as Washington was lowered into the flames. One father holding his son on his shoulders wanted to make sure his toddler saw it.

'My son can't learn too young,' the father said.

Across the South, someone was hanged or burned alive every four days from 1889 to 1929, according to the 1933 book The Tragedy of Lynching, for such alleged crimes as ‘stealing hogs, horse-stealing, poisoning mules, jumping labor contract, suspected of killing cattle, boastful remarks’ or ‘trying to act like a white person.’ Sixty-six were killed after being accused of ‘insult to a white person.’ One was killed stealing seventy-five cents.

Like the cotton growing in the field, violence had become so much a part of the landscape that ‘perhaps most of the southern black population had witnessed a lynching in their own communities or knew people who had,’ wrote the historian Herbert Shapiro. ‘All blacks lived with the reality that no black individual was completely safe from lynching.’

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pg 39, The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson
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