Thursday, February 12, 2015

In the News This Week: New Report on History of Lynchings in U.S.

To my way of thinking, the news this week has been something like those Russian matryoshka dolls, in which doll nests inside doll, each identical to the other, a larger doll enclosing its identical offspring inside itself. Discussion of the history of American lynching connects to discussions about the alliance of the U.S. Catholic bishops with right-wing white evangelicals who are willing, in collaboration with the bishops, to rend the fabric of the nation by trampling on the Constitution, if gay citizens receive rights. Arkansas and Kansas, in their attacks on LGBT citizens, nest inside Alabama, just as the Catholic bishops nest inside Roy Moore, Mike Huckabee, and other political leaders calling for nullification of Supreme Court decisions and of the Constitution itself, insofar as it protects the rights of LGBT citizens.

First a set of stories having to do with the lynching discussion that have caught my eye this week: 

On Tuesday, Campbell Robertson reported for New York Times on a very important report about the history of lynchings in the U.S. released that same day by the Equal Justice Initiative: he writes, 

On Tuesday, the organization he [i.e., Montgomery attorney Bryan Stevenson] founded and runs, the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., released a report on the history of lynchings in the United States, the result of five years of research and 160 visits to sites around the South. The authors of the report compiled an inventory of 3,959 victims of "racial terror lynchings" in 12 Southern states from 1877 to 1950.

The goal of the Equal Justice Initiative is to erect monuments to mark the sites of lynchings and memorialize those murdered in these terroristic events that occurred for a long, shameful period of American history with predictable frequency in one place after another across the American landscape — but, above all, in the states of the former Confederacy.

In an opinion statement on Wednesday, the editors of the New York Times tell us why we need to remember this sordid history:

It is important to remember that the hangings, burnings and dismemberments of black American men, women and children that were relatively common in this country between the Civil War and World War II were often public events. They were sometimes advertised in newspapers and drew hundreds and even thousands of white spectators, including elected officials and leading citizens who were so swept up in the carnivals of death that they posed with their children for keepsake photographs within arm’s length of mutilated black corpses.

As Jamelle Bouie notes (rightly) for Slate, lynchings had a quite specific religious foundation: they were justified and promoted by the religious ideology that dominated the culture and political life of the areas in which they occurred:

These lynchings weren’t just vigilante punishments or, as the Equal Justice Initiative notes, "celebratory acts of racial control and domination." They were rituals. And specifically, they were rituals of Southern evangelicalism and its then-dogma of purity, literalism, and white supremacy.

And as Lauren McCauley notes for Common Dreams, though lynchings may thankfully appear now to be a thing of the past, capital punishment, with its disproportionate propensity to target black males, is a direct, lineal descendant of lynching:

Capital punishment and ongoing racial injustice in the United States are "direct descendents" of lynching, charges a new study, which found that the pre-World War II practice of "racial terrorism" has had a much more profound impact on race relations in America than previously acknowledged.

Where do American Catholics stand regarding this history? Given the heavy emphasis of Catholic magisterial teaching on a pro-life ethic and against racism and exclusion of minority groups from participation in social structures, you'd think it would be a given that Catholics would deplore this aspect of American history and would be calling on the nation to remember victims of lynching. 

But not so. Have a look at the thread of comments responding to Vinnie Rotandaro's recent report on the lynching discussion at National Catholic Reporter, and you'll find some ardently pro-life American Catholics (predictably) trying to do everything in their power to undercut discussion of lynching and remembrance of lynching victims by trying to change the subject to the bogus black-on-black crime canard or to abortion.

These Catholics are a grim testament to the way in which the bishops of the Catholic church in the U.S. have abdicated sound pastoral leadership for some time now, and to which the way in which their abdication of pastoral leadership, with its obsessive focus on abortion and same-sex marriage, while the interlocking issues of life represented by concerns about social justice, marginalization, and oppression of minority groups are completely ignored, is contributing significantly to the fraying of American democracy. 

The graphic: a map prepared by Equal Justice Initiative of lynchings from 1877 to 1950, from the Campbell Robertson article linked above. The largest circle points to 237 lynchings that occurred in my own state of Arkansas in the community of Elaine in 1919. The actual figures of black men killed by gangs of white terrorists in this event are not entirely known, since even to the present, people with information about what occurred in the so-called Elaine race riot are unwilling to disclose what they know about these events.

No comments: