Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Rope That Must Be Cut

I believe that the failure of America to address "truth and reconciliation" on historic issues of racial relations has a direct link to why we see so many unjust killings of black people today. The nation of South Africa knew that the racial hatred and bitterness of its citizens would not simply disappear with the elimination of apartheid and the election of a black President. The implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa in 1995 was key in bringing together all South Africans to share a common understanding of the true facts of their violent history of racial relations.   
 "... a commission is a necessary exercise to enable South Africans to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation.Mr Dullah Omar, former Minister of Justice    

In the United States there were efforts to provide "legal" solutions to slavery and inequality of black people: President Lincoln's Executive Order in 1963 called the  Emancipation Proclamation, the states' ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment and the laws passed during the Reconstruction Era post-Civil War.   The Reconstruction Era was a largely botched effort that impoverished and humiliated white southerners.  There was no commission to enable white and black alike "to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation." The result was the creation of the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizen Councils and a reign of organized white terror using violence and lynching to keep black people "in their place".  

Today's New York Times article on the history of lynchings in the south brings back a horrifying history of racial injustice and brutality 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."

Although Mr. Brooks' lynching is marked in that Dallas museum, thousands of lynchings are not remembered except in the shared history of families who lived in that period between 1877 and 1950 when 12 Southern states had nearly 4,000 “racial terror lynchings” according to a  comprehensive report of the Equal Justice Initiative published recently.  The key findings of the report all lead to a final conclusion: 
"...the Equal Justice Initiative believes that our nation must fully address our history of racial terror and the legacy of racial inequality it has created. This report explores the power of “truth and reconciliation” or transitional justice to address oppressive histories by urging communities to honestly and soberly recognize the pain of the past. Only when we concretize the experience through discourse, memorials, monuments, and other acts of reconciliation can we overcome the shadows cast by these grievous events."

Map of 73 Years of Lynchings

The Report points out that the Southern states where most of the lynchings occurred have done little, if anything, to memorialize those events while grandly celebrating the history of those political leaders who supported racial segregation and white supremacy:
"... in all of the subject states, we observed that there is an astonishing absence of any effort to acknowledge, discuss, or address lynching. Many of the communities where lynchings took place have gone to great lengths to erect markers and monuments that memorialize the Civil War, the Confederacy, and historical events during which local power was violently reclaimed by white Southerners. These communities celebrate and honor the architects of racial subordination and political leaders known for their belief in white supremacy. There are very few monuments or memorials that address the history and legacy of lynching in particular or the struggle for racial equality more generally. Most communities do not actively or visibly recognize how their race relations were shaped by terror lynching."
By the mid-twentieth century,  many southern black people moved to the northern and western states for survival and, as the fear began to subside, they began to speak out against the lynchings and racial acts of terror.  One particularly heinous and highly publicized killing,  the torture and murder of 14 year old Emmett Till in 1955 in Mississippi, helped to spark a multi-racial Civil Rights Movement against the terrible injustice for black people in the South.

2/22/15 Postscript:
NPR recently printed on-line the complete speech Judge Carlton Reeves, a black Mississippi District Judge, delivered during his sentencing of 3 young white Mississippi men who brutally murdered a black man in Jackson, MS in 2012.  It is a moving condemnation of the senseless acts that he ties to the history of Mississippi racial injustice.  It's worth reading because Mississippi indeed still suffers today from its bloody and hateful past .  My husband and I visited Vicksburg, Mississippi in 2008 and went out to a local dining establishment where we joined a large table of local white citizens.  Upon finding we were from out of state, one older gent asked what we thought of Mississippi?  Did we believe all the terrible stories about the state's racial history?  Did we think they were racists?  I can't remember our response to this man's concerns but I do remember his story well.  He explained that Mississippi was "misunderstood" and that the black people were ignorant and did not value education. He especially mentioned that giving black people anything of value like "a better education was lost on them."   He said they were lazy and lacked moral values and that outsiders didn't understand that.  It was clear to me from what he shared about his own life that this man was well-educated and wealthy and probably a "pillar" in his community.  I shuttered at what kind of society had such individuals making the laws and setting such examples for their children and other young people to follow.  Judge Reeves, a native Mississipian himself, spoke exactly on the fallout of such beliefs.


  1. I saw much evidence in simple things such as street names in Alabama & Florida of well known arch segregationists from earlier times.... A few token MLK boulevards though. Thoughtful & well written post, Vicki.....

  2. Thanks for this one, Vicki. So much of the current noise about killings ignores your historical perspective. As we ignore that, we accept the killings.