Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Remembering Martin Luther King's Death: "Such Barbarism and Inhumanity . . . Are Not Really Past"

Fifty years after Dr. King was murdered, the giant evils of racism, militarism, and capitalist materialism he challenged with increasing alarm and anger during his last years should not be disregarded and discounted by resorting to eulogy. Respect for Dr. King's life and the way he died deserves much more than pleasant words about his skill as a communicator. 
Fifty years after April 4, 1968, black, brown, red, and poor white people are routinely being slain by law enforcement agents in the US.   
Immigrants are being mistreated. 
Women and girls are being assaulted and subjected to other unfairness. 
Voting rights are being undermined. 
The air, water, and soil are being poisoned. 
US war-making continues 50 years after the assassination of the prophet who courageously insisted that war-making is a human rights issue. 
Fifty years after Dr. King was murdered in Memphis, workers are still being exploited in Memphis, Tennessee, Little Rock, Arkansas, Dallas, Texas, and elsewhere across the US. 
Fifty years after Dr. King was slain, religionists of all stripes are still more interested in civic ceremonies than social justice. 
Fifty ‎years after Dr. King's voice was silenced, we should not be deceived when people eulogize Dr. King after they spent the last half century working against social justice.  We should not accept shallow sentimentality as a substitute for societal repentance and a fierce insistence on doing justice. 
Dr. King's memory and ministry deserve much more than sentimental eulogies from us.  Justice is a verb, not a platitude.
As the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King arrives, I find myself reading a book edited by an acquaintance whose work I regard highly — Guy Lancaster's Bullets and Fire: Lynching and Authority in Arkansas, 1840-1950 (Fayetteville: Univ. of AR Press, 2018). I'm about a third of the way through this important book. As I think about the murder of Dr. King, which I remember well — it happened in my senior year of high school — it's impossible for me to disengage my memories of that event from what I'm re-remembering as I read Bullets and Fire.

And it's impossible for me to disengage all of the above from other memories, ones in addition to my memory of the murder of Dr. King, about which a high-school classmate of mine talked with me when he and I visited several years ago as he made a trip home from California. He asked if I remembered that he, I, and one or two other students were the only students in our high school lamenting Dr. King's assassination on the day after he was shot in Memphis. Most of the rest of our classmates were jubilant, he recalled.

That part of these memories I had evidently blocked out, though I have no reason to doubt what my classmate told me. The problem is that so many memories similar to what he reported to me flood back into my head as I think about incidents in our town from those years, all of them linking to each other, forming a dismal picture of unrelenting racial oppression rooted in the savage history recounted in the essays of Guy Lancaster's book. It's easy for me to forget details, because I want to forget.

Dr. King was murdered in April 1968. In September 1967, three boys in my high school class drove through a black neighborhood next to my own neighborhood and murdered — shot in cold blood — a black teenaged boy walking along the street in that neighborhood. They shot him with a shotgun from their car window.

One of the three was charged with the crime. He and the others who were in the car with him when the murder occurred were exonerated by a jury, an all-white jury. To refresh my memory, I have just read a newspaper account of the trial of the classmate charged with the murder, in which he boasts of having told others in our class that he intended to "throw a Negro off a bridge" and then boasted of having shot a Negro.

All three boys were exonerated, I want to repeat. I occasionally have lunch with other classmates who now live in Little Rock, as I do. At our gatherings, we never fail to discuss this story, asking each other, "Did that really happen? Could something like that have happened in 1967-1968? In our town?!"

We know that it happened, because one of the classmates who is often at these gatherings was with those boys not long before the murder occurred. She was driving around town with them, drinking with them. They left her at her house not long before they went and murdered the teenaged boy they shot in cold blood. She has no doubt at all about what happened.

I have, as it were, seen lynchings. I have seen acts of terror directed at black citizens of my own community in the year after a handful of black students integrated "our" white high school. I have seen how people committing those acts of white-supremacist racial terror can be exonerated even when everyone in the community knows what they did, and why they did it. 

Growing up in that town, I saw white families take the offal from fish they had cleaned — the heads, guts, scales of fish — put the offal into a paper sack, and casually toss the sacks into the ditches in front of the houses in that very same black neighborhood in which that boy was casually shot one evening as he walked along the roadside. I have seen white teenagers take their cars, drive through that neighborhood, and casually swerve the car as black children walked along the road, so that the children had no choice except to jump into those ditches to save their lives. 

What fun some white teens in my town considered those casual acts of intimidation to be! See the little black children jump! 

In that town, I myself went with friends to park on Friday and Saturday nights in one black neighborhood in which there were several bars. We parked the car, we sat, and we watched — we watched the merriment as people drank and went from juke joint to juke joint, the fights that occurred sometimes as they exited a bar. We treated black citizens of our town as an amusing, horrifying spectacle placed there for our entertainment.

And we felt invulnerable, godlike, superior, as we sat in our car and watched the free show. I confess this with shame.

In that town, I saw the Klan gather as I drove around with those very same friends, looking, on a sleepy summer evening, for something — anything — to do in our small, boring, provincial little town. By complete accident, we happened on the Klan gathering, saw the cross burning, the robed adults and robed children massed inside one of the drive-in theaters outside our town. We parked. We listened to the screaming speeches broadcast by microphone to the gathering. 

It was another sort of spectacle for us than the ones we saw when we parked in that black neighborhood on weekend nights. When I say that Bullets and Fire, with its historical accounts of lynchings in Arkansas, causes me to "re-remember," I'm speaking quite literally: lynching was not just an historical reality as I was growing up in south Arkansas in the 1950s and 1960s. It was a present reality, even when it was not given the name lynching. 

Here's some of what I'm re-remembering as I read Bullets and Fire:

As Guy Lancaster states in his introduction to the book, the "sheer ubiquity of atrocity reported" (p. 3) in case after case after case of terroristic violence directed by white citizens against black citizens of Arkansas makes writing a history of lynching from 1840-1950 daunting. This kind of violence was everywhere. It went on all the time.

It was considered unremarkable: as Guy notes, atrocious acts of violence targeting black men were routinely featured in casual headlines side by side with headlines about new electric plants or name changes for local papers around the state (p. 4). Another day, another lynching . . . .

As Randy Finley indicates in his essay entitled "A Lynching State: Arkansas in the 1890s," 

The headine 'Another Lynching' frequently appeared and confirmed to Arkansas that lynching was the new norm of the day [in the 1890s] (p. 67). 

Lynchings peaked in the 1890s in Arkansas and across the South in part because the region was undergoing cultural and economic shifts that produced widespread insecurity among white citizens, who needed someone to blame for their misery: the region was becoming less rural, its economy less agriculture-based; new industries like the railroad and the lumber business were booming; but, at the same time, the region was in economic depression, culminating in the Panic of 1893 (see Lancaster, "Introduction," pp. 11-2; Nancy Snell Griffith, "'At the Hands of a Person or Persons Unknown': The Nature of Lynch Mobs in Arkansas," p. 56; Finley, pp. 61-3).

Cultural shifts and cultural changes akin to those of the 1950s and 1960s, which sparked — all over again — one act of terroristic violence after another against black citizens as the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act passed, and the barriers of legal segregation were struck down, with schools, businesses, other institutions being racially integrated, black citizens being given the right to vote freely again . . . . 

In the 1890s, there was also this: the Populist movement, which had particular strength among farmers of the South and West (my great-grandfather Lindsey belonged to this movement; an uncle of his ran for office on the Populist ticket in Red River Parish, Louisiana, and is thought to have won his election, but had the seat taken from him by a Democrat), reached across racial boundary lines and organized a movement that linked economically struggling people regardless of race. This movement advocated for a strong federal government, government control of railroads and banks, government support for farmers in distress, and an end to lynching, with criminal allegations being handled by courts and not by mobs.

The Populist movement was so strong in Arkansas in the late 1880s and early 1890s that it's believed the Populist candidate for governor won the 1888 gubernatorial election — but his seat was given, instead, to a Democrat. The powers that be would not tolerate this class-based cross-racial political movement. They destroyed it and upped the terror ante with more lynchings (pp. 63-4).

As Nancy Snell Griffith notes, terrorist mobs bent on intimidating black citizens peaked in the 1890s as more African Americans were hired by the railroad and lumber businesses then blossoming in Arkansas, the latter, in particular, in the southern half of the state in which I was raised (p. 43). As she also notes, as a state that was in a virtual frontier condition when the Civil War arrived, further interrupting its development thoughout the latter half of the 19th century, Arkansas was more prone to terroristic violence than Southern states that had more established institutions when the war came (p. 46).

Between 1877 and 1950, Arkansas saw 503 lynchings, according to a 2014 report of the Equal Justice Initiative cited by Snell. These statistics place Arkansas fourth in the nation for lynchings in this period, behind Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana (p. 37).

A great proportion of these lynchings were not hidden events in which the agents of racial violence sought to conceal their identities: as Griffith states, 

Many Arkansas lynchings were comitted by mobs of local citizens, sometimes describes as prominent men, who were totally unmasked (p. 35).


Just over 30 percent of Arkansas lynchings were committed by private mobs. Almost half of these mobs went about their work undisguised (p. 38).

People — many of them — were proud to have it known that they had taken part in a lynching. Families — Christian ones, ones that would be in church the next Sunday praying and singing hymns — would pack picnic baskets and take their children to see black men tortured, dismembered, burned to death.* As with lynchings elsewhere, Arkansas lynchings were "spectacle lynchings" (Griffith, p. 51, citing Terrence Finnegan, A Deed So Accursed: Lynching in Mississippi and South Carolina, 1881-1940 [Charlottesville: Univ. of VA Press, 2013], p. 74). They were meant to be a show.

Arkansas was, in short, as theologian James Cone, who grew up in south Arkansas as I did, "a lynching state" (Finley, p. 61, citing James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2011, pp. xv, 9). "Arkansas lynchings included hanging, burning at the stake, massive volleys of bullets, or a combination of these three modes of execution" (Finley, p. 69). 

Burning at the stake: it would be a mistake to think of this as a barbarous medieval method of execution, one that white Christians left behind long ago as they developed democratic institutions and a more enlightened understanding of criminal justice. Thousands of African-American men were burned alive in public spectacles during the years of terroristic violence directed against the African-American community in the South. 

These were public spectacles that deliberately envisaged the total destruction of black bodies as a demonstration of what any rebellious African-American citizen could expect. Tortured, destroyed bodies were proudly displayed to that end: Charlie Lewis' body was left hanging by the roadside in Mississippi in 1897 as a warning to other black citizens; Bud Hayden's body was left swaying from a limb in Texarkana, Arkansas, and viewed by thousands; in downtown Little Rock, thousands viewed the "swinging body" of Henry James at Fifth and Main Streets in 1892 (p. 73). The desecration of the tortured and executed black body was a ritualistic aspect of lynchings, the expected outcome after death had been effected and the body displayed as a warning spectacle (p. 73).

As Finley states, 

What seems to be going on in Arkansas in the 1890s is the use of retaliatory, random, and capricious terror to maintain white supremacy (p. 84).

Throughout the period of lynching, it was very common for false allegations of rape of a white woman or white girl to be levied against a black man to justify his torture and murder, especially when the black man in question was involved in a relationship with a white woman (p. 62). Part of the challenge of writing coherently about this extended reign of racial terror is that the entire system of terroristic violence was based upon lie piled atop lie, so that no one knew — not really — what the man being tortured and murdered had done to lead to his violent end. If he had done anything at all . . . .  As Bruce Baker observes, "Lynching was always entangled in lies" (This Mob Will Surely Take My Life: Lynchings in the Carolinas, 1871-1947 [NY: Continuum, 2008], p. 143, as cited by Finley, p. 84).

And the perpetrators of this violence, the white men who did not fear any reprisal so that they often did not hide their faces as they enacted their violence: they counted on brazen lies to assure that there would not be any legal, social, or other consequences for what they did. 

One of the horrifying stories told by Finley is the story of what happened in March 1899 across the southern tier of counties in Arkansas — again, the area in which I was raised after my family moved to that part of the state from Little Rock in 1958 — when a wealthy planter in Little River County, James Stockton, was allegedly murdered on 18 March by an African-American man, General Duckett. Stockton had threatened Duckett and it was alleged that Duckett shot Stockton to protect himself.

On 21 March, Duckett, who went into hiding after shooting Stockton, surrendered and was lynched. Two days later, the statewide paper the Arkansas Gazette issued a lurid report suggesting that Duckett had been the leader of a group of black men seeking to instigate a race war.

This resulted in a reign of terror across south Arkansas in which black men were rounded up and lynched. Newspapers across the nation reported what was happening, as black citizens sought to flee the state during their reign of terror (p. 83). I have long known of these events for this reason: on 28 March 1899, a relative of mine, a man of mixed race whose father was a white planter and whose mother was a biracial free woman of color with whom that white planter formed a marital relationship and had a family, was murdered while riding on his father's former plantation in south Arkansas.

The murdered man's name was Powhatan Winn. He had inherited his father's plantation in Union County, the county in which I grew up. He was shot in the back. A black man named General Washington was apprehended, charged with the murder, and sent to prison. 

I have long believed that Powhatan Winn was lynched. That is, I have long believed that Powhatan Winn was killed by a white citizen or citizens of his community resentful that a man of mixed race had inherited valuable land from his white father. I have long believed that General Washington was falsely charged with this murder, which occurred in the very same week in which black men were being rounded up and lynched throughout the state. After General Duckett (the choice to charge a General Washington in Powhatan Winn's case after General Duckett had been lynched for allegedly murdering a white planter would have been considered an ironic coup) had been executed, precipitating the wave of race-based executions within one week in that area of Arkansas . . . . 

This is my own history. But it's more than history, as Finley concludes. As he notes, the shadow of the noose and the mob that haunted Arkansas and the U.S. in the 1890s hangs over historians today: 

And they [historians] sadly confess that such barbarism and inhumanity are not just relics of the past — while they are ignored and distorted, they are not really past (p. 85).

In fact, it's evident to me — the evidence is crystal clear in the U.S. at present, as we read of a police execution of an unarmed black man with constant regularity — that none of this ever went away. It's back with a vengeance in the MAGA world in which we have currently chosen to live.

* Later: And black women, too, I am now learning as I read the next essay in the volume: black women were also lynched.

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