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A legacy of fear: confronting the history of lynching

A legacy of fear: confronting the history of lynching

Jon Fasman visits Alabama, where a memorial has been erected to the victims of America’s racist past

Jon Fasman visits Alabama, where a memorial has been erected to the victims of America’s racist past

Jon Fasman | March 20th 2019

According to William Thornton, a writer from eastern Alabama, the story goes like this. Late at night on July 15th 1905, Sarah Jane Smith, a tough, middle-aged woman, was walking along Loney Road in Gadsden, a city of around 10,000 people just west of Alabama’s border with Georgia. She was looking for her two sons, who she had heard were out drinking. At some point that night, she was murdered.

Early the next morning Vance Garner, a 23-year-old black man, happened upon Smith’s body by the side of the road, bruised and shoeless, her clothes torn. He went and told a group of workers at a nearby distillery. It emerged at their trial that Garner and his friend, Bunk Richardson, were walking down the railroad tracks together on the night of the murder when they heard Smith’s screams. Garner went to investigate; Richardson, perhaps aware that no good could come of a black man even getting near the scene of a crime, stayed back.

There were not many good places to be black in early-20th-century America, but few were worse than Alabama. Four years before Smith’s murder, Alabama adopted a constitution “to establish white supremacy in this state”, in the words of John Knox, the constitutional convention’s president. It made black Alabamans second-class citizens, effectively denying them any sort of refuge under law.

It was not uncommon for lynch mobs to storm jails and murder black men being held there – particularly those accused of harming a white person. After Garner and several other black men, including Bunk Richardson, were arrested (on scant evidence) for Smith’s murder, they were transferred to a jail in Birmingham, Alabama’s biggest city, around 60 miles away. Jack Hunter, one of those arrested, confessed to the crime and was hanged – along with Garner. Alabama’s governor doubted the guilt of a third man, Will Johnson, but at the time freeing a convicted black man would have been political suicide for any white politician (which meant all of them). Instead, the governor commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. He remained imprisoned, and died of tuberculosis six years later.

The decision to commute Johnson’s sentence sparked fury back in Gadsden. Richardson remained in custody there, though he had never been charged with any crime. A mob of some 25 men massed on the prison, forcing the jailer and his wife out the back door at gunpoint. They had been drinking, according to the county sheriff; they wanted blood, not justice. Richardson was huddled in a corner when they arrived, mute, barefoot and dressed only in his nightshirt. They seized him and dragged him through town, beating him all the way to a railroad bridge that spanned the Coosa River. They shot him several times. Then they hung him from the bridge and left his body dangling over the roaring river.

A photograph taken just afterwards shows Richardson’s body, lifeless and limp, his legs tucked under him, his eyes shut and his mouth hanging open. Two men flank him: one, wearing a broad-brimmed hat and rustic clothes, holds a handkerchief over his nose and mouth; the other, in a natty overcoat and bowler hat – it was Sunday morning; perhaps he was on his way to church – is smirking as he looks down at the body. The lynching was a public event. But nobody has ever been convicted for Bunk Richardson’s murder.

The memory of Richardson’s lynching – and the hate that drove it – still haunts the black community of Gadsden. Vanessa Croft, a former television-news anchor who grew up in the town, believes that her grandfather was among those who witnessed the killing. A bloodthirsty mob of dozens dragging someone through town would have made a lot of noise (this was 1906 – before the cacophony of cars, television and radio). Croft’s grandfather lived on the other side of the bridge from which Richardson was hanged.

Even had he not seen the murder, he would have understood the omnipresent threat of racist violence. When his son (Croft’s uncle) Fred, was 15, sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s – Croft isn’t exactly sure – a group of white men came to her grandfather’s house. A young, white girl said that someone had pushed her off a porch. The men thought Fred had done it though there was no evidence to suggest that he had. Her grandfather told them that Fred wasn’t at home. They left, warning him they would be back.

Having grown up in Alabama and heard about the lynching of Buck Richardson, Croft’s grandfather knew what it meant when white men hungry for revenge warned that they would return. Fred was immediately sent off to Chattanooga, around 90 miles away in Tennessee, at the farthest end of the train line that ran out of Gadsden. He moved from there to Harlem, New York. He did not see his brother again for more than a decade – and only then because each of their ships docked at Pearl Harbour at the same time during the second world war.

In 1877 President Rutherford Hayes withdrew the last federal troops from the South, where they had been stationed since the conclusion of the American civil war 11 years earlier. While they were there, emancipated black Americans voted, went to school and served as judges, senators and congressmen. After they left, the southern states that had seceded from the Union to preserve slavery systematically restored de facto and de jure white supremacy.

Between 1877 and 1950, more than 4,000 African-American men, women and children were lynched: summarily murdered, often in broad daylight. Some were killed on remote rural byways. Many were strung up on courthouse lawns in front of hundreds of white spectators. Sometimes the lynchers overwhelmed local law enforcement. Yet often police acquiesced; sometimes even helping the murderers. The perpetrators were not outlaws. They were often pillars of their communities: wealthy planters and business owners, employers, neighbours.

The murders they committed were not centrally planned, as were more recent atrocities in Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia. But they were certainly state-sanctioned. Judges rarely convicted lynchers; Southern segregationists in the senate repeatedly blocked anti-lynching legislation.

Lynchings – and the threat of them – were designed both to terrify African-Americans and display collective white-American power. I mentioned to an older, conservative white man from a western state that I was writing about lynching. “Stringin’ ‘em up” was part of frontier justice, he replied, and it was. In places with little or no formal law enforcement, sometimes criminals were hanged. But lynching black men, women and children was not a method of delivering rough justice. It was a means to perpetuate injustice.

Among the excuses for murdering African-American men were false accusations of rape, “alleged well poisoning”, “insulting whites”, “stealing hogs”, or being “saucy to white people”, wrote Ida Wells-Barnett, an African-American journalist who led a campaign against lynching in the late 19th century. In Blakely, Georgia in 1919, a veteran returning from the first world war was beaten to death for refusing to remove his uniform. Two years later near Memphis, Tennessee a black man accused of murder was burned to death in front of his family. It took 40 minutes; twice the lynch mob stopped him from hastening his own death by swallowing hot coals. In many cases African-Americans were lynched for no recorded offence at all. “Lynch Law has become so common in the United States,” wrote Wells-Barnett, “that the finding of a dead body of a Negro, suspended between heaven and earth to the limb of a tree, is of so slight importance that neither the civil authorities nor press agencies consider the matter worth investigating.”

Lynching took a long time to die out. In Alabama in 1981 Michael Donald, a 19-year-old who had the misfortune to cross paths with two Klansmen upset that a black defendant had been acquitted, was hanged from a tree. Croft says that she grew up in Alabama in the 1960s and 1970s, surrounded by a warm and protective family: “I had everything I needed”. Yet the shadow of racial hatred was never distant. After the father of one of her friends moved into a white neighbourhood, Ku Klux Klan members walked up to his front door one night, rang the bell and shot him.

She recalls parading with her school’s band and seeing a grown man spit on her friend – an 11-year-old girl. When she and other students marched for civil rights, the Klan marched right behind them. As late as the 1990s, when her mother conducted voter-registration drives, Croft says that the registrar insisted she pronounce every name on her list of voters in a manner he deemed correct before he would process the forms. Just recently, Croft says, she was followed home by two men flying a huge Confederate flag off the back of their truck.

The legacy of fear has had profound consequences that persist today. Jhacova Williams, an economist at Louisiana State University, has shown that Southern counties with high lynching rates between 1882 and 1930 still have lower black-voter registration rates today, and individual African-Americans who live in counties with high historic lynching rates are less likely to vote than their white counterparts. She argues that voting is a social norm, and in areas where violence kept black people from voting, that norm never took hold.

Across Germany, more than 70,000 stolpersteine – raised concrete cubes embedded in the ground – mark the last known residences of people whom the Nazis murdered. The Apartheid Museum sits in the heart of Johannesburg. Those countries have faced up to their past atrocities sins in part because the political regimes that directed them are no longer in place. But America had no transfer of power. The South’s secessionist government, the Confederacy, founded to protect southern white people’s right to enslave African-Americans lost the civil war in 1865. But its remnants were absorbed into the American body politic. And the tension at the heart of the American experiment – between a promise of “liberty and justice for all” and the reality of wealth drawn from slave labour – remained unresolved.

Former Confederate soldiers went on to serve in Congress – the legislature of the county they rebelled against. Southern cities and states erected statues honouring them, and segregationists served as senators, congressmen and governors well into the late 20th century. Strom Thurmond ran for president on a segregationist platform in 1948, and served in the senate from 1954 until 2003. Robert Byrd founded a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1940s and served in the Senate from 1958 until 2010.

People seeking national office pandered to bigotry: Ronald Reagan kicked off his presidential campaign in 1980 by telling an audience in Philadelphia, Mississippi – where just 16 years earlier Klansmen murdered three civil-rights workers – that he believed in “states’ rights” (which is how segregationists often framed their resistance to federally ordered integration: they believed that states had the right to abrogate their own citizens’ constitutional rights) And just four years after Americans re-elected a black president, they elected a nativist who exploited antipathy among white Americans to Mexicans and Muslims.

At the foot of the bridge where Richardson was murdered there is now a plaque telling his story. It was erected by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a charity that provides lawyers for indigent prisoners, advocates for criminal-justice reform and produces research and educational materials. In additional to a museum, the organisation has opened a haunting memorial on a hill in downtown Montgomery, capital of Alabama, commemorating the thousands of lynching victims across the country. At its centre stand around 800 copper columns that physically evoke a hanging, the most common form of lynching. Each one represents a county in which a lynching is known to have occurred.

Inscribed on each slab are the names of lynching victims and the date of their murders. Duplicate slabs surround the memorial; EJI has invited each county where lynchings took place to take the duplicates home and display them publicly. They have also taken soil samples from every documented site: rows of labelled jars of dirt in a long, silent room, some with soil the colour and texture of ground cinnamon, others clay-red, or rough, dark earth like coarsely ground coffee.

Bryan Stevenson, EJI’s founder, argues that slavery morphed into lynch law, which then morphed into segregation and today, into mass incarceration – all of which reflect a desire to control and subjugate black people physically. And all of which persist in part because Americans have not honestly confronted their history. Simply avoiding subjects because they are hard leaves injustice to fester, says Stevenson. But that is precisely what has happened: “I think that’s been everybody’s prescription for how to move forward: let’s just not talk about the past, let’s not talk about race.”

In Gadsden, both black and white communities have been reluctant to discuss publicly the visceral, intimate events of the lynchings. Many, like Croft’s parents, were frightened even to talk about them. She says she can’t imagine people talking honestly and openly about what was once whispered in fear.

Near the river where Bunk Richardson was murdered, atop a plinth on a little verdant island around which a steady stream of traffic flows, is a statue of a young girl with a determined expression pointing into the distance. Her name was Emma Sansom. In 1863, when she was 16-years-old, she helped Nathan Bedford Forrest – then a Confederate general and later one of the first members of the Ku Klux Klan – capture a colonel from the United States army. As well as the statue of this girl in the centre of Gadsden, a school is named in her honour.

Croft’s neighbour, Willie “Toson” Coleman, a self-taught artist and carpenter, is wary of dredging up local history. “I don’t think it’s going to heal nothing” to talk about it,” he says: “It’ll bring up a memory of it, and some might want to deal with it in that same violent way.” But for some the memory has never gone away. The pain has just lingered. “There has been so much silence about this,” says Croft. “But we are going to go to every spot and memorialise every one of them. We’ll give some respect to every person and every family.”