While it is uncomfortable to talk about lynching, it is necessary. Dr. James Cone, in his seminal text The Cross and The Lynching Tree, asks “who wants to think about lynched black bodies in church worship? Or when doing a theological reflection on Bonheoffer’s question: ‘who is Jesus Christ for us today?’”[i] However, this is exactly what Cone attests that the gospel requires and I concur. As believers today, we must be willing to engage in this difficult dialogue. Having the conviction and courage to do so sets us apart from the masses who are drinking the colorblind Kool-Aid and doing so in faith–knowing that we’re partnering with God’s ongoing work of restoration and reconciliation–allows us to distinctively partake in this dialogue, with hope as well as a purpose. Our faithfulness to difficult conversations like this, serves as a testament to God’s faithfulness. If we can humble ourselves enough to authentically enter into this conversation and follow the conviction of the Holy Spirit, it will attest to the fact that while society at large might have amnesia, God has not forgotten about lynched black bodies swinging from trees. Since as Christians we know this to be true, how can we then turn a blind eye to this topic as Christ’s bride?
The harsh truth is that our silence on this subject matter renders us negligent. Therefore, we–the Church–are complicit in our nation’s unrepentant suppression of truth. As co-sufferers with Christ, we are called to be bearers of truth, reconciliation, and love. Within the U.S., an aspect of what this means is acknowledging, confronting, lamenting, and repenting of the sin of racism. While this is no easy task–especially within a nation that is insistent upon being exceptional and innocent–it is one of the most practical ways to embody pursuing the Kingdom first.
Therefore, this post is a loving nudge, prompting us to wade deeper into the murky waters of this conversation. Christians who yearn to seek first the Kingdom of God, especially within our context, must be willing to wrestle with issues of race and faith. While discussing lynching is definitely not the only way to do this, it is one of the most tangible. Dr. Cone’s implores us to take up our crosses in this regard, saying that “unless the cross and the lynching tree are seen together, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in the U.S. and no healing of the racial divide in churches, seminaries, or broader society as a whole.”[ii]
We begin this process with confession. As a nation, we must confess that we are great at scapegoating others; we do this in order to prevent ourselves from having to endure shame, stigma and responsibility. We strategically highlight the fault of others, and even ostracize parts of our country, in an effort to absolve ourselves of blame and guilt. We lambast Germany for the holocaust and look down upon Rome for enacting crucifixions. Within our own boarders, we bastardize the South for the practice of lynching and brand Ferguson as the bastion of discriminatory policing and brutality towards African Americans, despite having statistics which prove that these are nationwide problems. Thus, in the case of lynching, our nation scapegoated the South and offered it up as a sacrificial offering in hopes of atoning for a national sin. Our nation needs to confess this!
The lynching era is an extremely unnerving period within our nation’s history. Honestly, most citizens and Christians would just rather not deal with it. Because of this, many citizens know little, to nothing, about this period of U.S. history. Nevertheless, this choice in large part has been taken away from citizens by school boards who have deemed lynching as outside of the canon of pertinent information students must know about the our nation’s past. Lynching, and its horrors, are not acknowledged, lamented, or even alluded to within our nation’s classrooms, or within the majority of our churches. This unfortunate reality has historically left the Black Church, at least those churches who know their history, isolated in its grief over the unnerving reality that during a fifty year period of time ranging from 1890 to 1940, approximately 5,500 African Americans were documented as lynch victims. This too must be confessed, repented of, and changed.
Lynching reached its peak in 1892, shortly after Reconstruction ended; but, we shouldn’t take that to mean that lynchings became rare after 1892. In fact, in Phillips County Ark., 237 people were lynched in 1919 alone during the Elaine race riot.[iii] Due to realities such as this, the lynching era became known as the “Nadir Period,”[iv] the lowest period of U.S. race relations. While African Americans were not the exclusive victims of lynchings, they were without question the primary prey of this form of vigilante “justice.”[v]
It is important to note that lynching essentially was not a problem prior to emancipation. Because, as the following quote from historian Jaqueline Royster indicates, slaves were simply too profitable to kill.
The lynching of slaves was rare, first and foremost because it would result in a loss of property and profit. Obviously, it was more profitable to sell slaves than to kill them. Second, there were more advantages to planters when slaves were executed within the law, as planters were compensated for their lost “property.” Third, the lynching of slaves served to under-mind the power base of the South’s wealthy, white, landowning aristocracy. In effect, mob violence against slaves would have transferred the power of life and death from the hands of planters to the hands of the mob, whose numbers were quite likely to include non-elite whites, as well. Such a transfer of power would have loosened the systems of control, the general stronghold of the landed aristocrat over both economic and political life. The lynching of African Americans before the Civil War, therefore, was exceptional indeed.[vi]
During the Nadir Period, the practice of lynching became so commonplace that the Tuskegee Institute, a predominately black institution in Alabama which later became Tuskegee University, decided in 1881 to begin issuing annual reports on lynchings occurring nationwide. Astonishingly, it was not until 1952 that the institution was able to report a year where there were no lynchings nationwide. While popular belief still holds that lynchings only occurred in the South, this is not true. Lynching was a national sin; the South alone cannot be condemned for this grotesque practice.
While it is true that lynching was particularly prevalent in the South, it was not exclusively a Southern horror. Lynchings were enacted as far North as Minnesota and Illinois, and as far West as California and Oregon. In fact, one of the largest spectacle lynchings to ever occur took place in Duluth Minnesota in 1920, where some accounts say as many as 10,000 people served as spectators at this lynching.[vii] Moreover, this was not an anomaly for the North, we see virtually the same exact thing ten years later in Marion Indiana, on August 7th 1930. Reports estimate that as many as 15,000 people gathered at this lynching, to watch two African American teenagers be tortured, mutilated, and ultimately executed.[viii] In both cases, African American men were killed for allegedly raping white women–not to downplay the seriousness of this charge– but this is not surprising because this usually served as the justification for most lynchings.
While the historic legacy of lynching hovers over our nation as a haunting reminder of racism enduring presence, well beyond slavery, there are two reasons why lynching is an indictment upon the Church in particular. The first reason is the broader Church’s appalling silence throughout the Nadir period. With lynching being as commonplace as it was, there is no way that the Church was unaware of this barbarous practice being exacted by vigilantes within its communities. Consequently, as a result of the Church’s silence, we have a unique role to play in mourning, lamenting, and repenting of this corporate sin. The second linkage between lynching and Christianity is that most lynchings actually occurred on Sunday afternoons, shortly after church services concluded. After Sunday services, lynchings frequently served as a sort of perverted social soiree, and they were habitually well attended by Christians.
This harsh reality is not only beyond frightening, but it also serves to prove the necessity of beginning this conversation. In fact, many church goers who attended lynchings did not consider themselves to be racist, because in their minds the racists were the ones actually conducting the lynchings. Therefore, these individual were able to socially avoid the stigma of being labeled as racists and were also able to spiritually squelch the conviction of the Holy Spirit by rationalizing their presence as purely spectators.[ix] Lynchings were routinely photographed and turned into postcards, which would then be used to promote future lynchings.[x] According to historian Ralph Ginzberg, “lynching [which also frequently included burning, castrating, & disfiguring the victim,] were spectacles, announced in advance, attended by Whites, including women and children, and covered on assignment by newspaper reporters in a manner not unlike contemporary coverage of sporting events.”[xi] People would send these postcards to their friends inviting them to attend upcoming lynchings…as if these executions were some sort of theatre at a local country club. The most disturbing part about this spiritually is that people who self-identified as Christians played a significant role in these events, in both the promotion and execution of lynchings.
Theologically, this exists as the most disturbing part of the lynching phenomenon. Believers’ lack of morals and ethical response to God’s love was so nonexistent that it was commonly acceptable within the Church within the last 70 years to watch someone be burned at the stake, castrated, and killed for sport, just because of the color of their skin. Moreover, one’s faith was thought to have nothing to do with opposing this sinful practice. Christians did not feel responsibility for coming to the defense of these helpless victims. In fact, one’s faith did not even prohibit Christians from participating as enthusiastic observers within the crowds.
Furthermore, it was normative for infants and children to be taken by their parents and grandparents to see these “spectacle” lynchings. This was an intergenerational sin! Imagine the psychological trauma of growing up seeing this sort of dehumanization on a semi-regular basis. This had to profoundly impact these young minds. Being taken to public executions, where African Americans were looked upon as a kind of game animal to be caught and executed for pleasure, had to permanently hallmark the image of black inferiority within the young, impressionable, minds of white children. This doesn’t even begin to address the catastrophic psychological effect this had to have on the entire African American community, who saw family members, friends, and neighbors persecuted with such brutality.
Thus, we must realize that the psychological impact of these dehumanizing images cannot be divorced from the killing of unarmed African Americans today and the diseased racial imagination which exists within our nation. While the racism that is expressed within our nation today is mainly manifested through institutional bias and unjust structures rather than lynch mobs, we still have to understand it in relationship to the reverberating effects of the trauma of the lynching tree. Since racism is infrequently made manifest in overt ways today (i.e., lynching, the KKK, and white only signs) the façade of colorblindness is tempting for many citizens, particularly Euro-American Christians. As long as we refuse to authentically talk about, lament, and repent of the historic realities of racism, this sin will continue unhindered. There can be no repentance without the confession of sin and without repentance, there will be no true racial progress. This post is not intended to cause further division within the Body; its purpose is to open our eyes to this often untold historic reality, and to create space to begin lamenting it. I, like Dr. Cone, want to summon the Body to begin this long overdue familial conversation. As followers of Christ and members of one interconnected Body, we must forthrightly enter into this dialogue so that we can begin to heal the wounds which have historically gone untended and consequently unmended.
[i] James Cone, “Strange Fruit, the Cross and the Lynching Tree” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZngcqqgQyzo
[iv] Nadir means the lowest point; time of greatest depression. For U.S. race relations, this period of time following Reconstruction is identified as the era where racism was worse than any other period in our postbellum nation. This phrase was coined by Rayford Logan.
[v] Lynching in the West, 1850-1935, By Ken Gonzales-Day, details how in California, Latino/as–particularly Mexicans–were the primary victims of lynching, but the book also states that a few African Americans, 41 Native Americans, & 29 Chinese immigrants were lynched in California during this period of time.
[vi] Jacqueline Jones Royster. Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900 (Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1997), 8.
[ix] Spectators would often argue that they just happened to be present at the scene of the hanging, which in their minds did not make them culpable.
[x] James Allen. Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America; http://withoutsanctuary.org/.
[xi] Ralph Ginzberg. 100 Years of Lynching (New York, NY: Lancer publishing: 1962), 46. Lynching frequently included ritualized burning at the stake, castration, and mutilation in addition to the victim being hung from a tree.
Photo credit: Patrick Campbell: The New Age of Slavery.