Southern Trees bear strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and Blood at the roots. Black bodies swingin’ in the southern breeze. Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees. Pastoral scene of the gallant South…
The bulging eyes, and the twisted mouth. Scent of magnolia, clean and fresh. Then the sudden smell, of burnin’ flesh. Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck, For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck. For the sun to rot, for the leaves to drop…
Anyone familiar with Billie Holliday’s song ‘Strange Fruit” should also be aware of its background. It’s about the almost systematic murder of thousands of Americans by lynching.
Writing recently about the hate-filled murder of Emmett Till made me ponder on a kind of hatred that prevailed throughout the 20th century, the hatred which drove apparently normal citizens to gather in a mob, tie a rope around someone’s neck and hang, burn or decapitate them.
’Lynching” is defined as extrajudicial, premeditated killing by a mob, usually by hanging, although it’s often included other forms of violence against a person.
The practice of lynching we’re concerned with here is that perpetrated, mainly against blacks, and mainly in the Southern United States. Lynchings did occur elsewhere, but in the west, it was usually against Mexicans and whites; this kind of violence against blacks there was much less common. But in the South, following the Civil War, a number of factors came into play which seem to set it apart from elsewhere.
For one thing, the social balance between blacks and whites in the South was singularly marked by slavery, which dominated the relationship between racial groups for long after it was ended by bloody warfare. Although the Civil War was fought for several reasons which go deeper than the simple, though strong, moral argument against slavery, the fact remains that the loss of the Civil War was a great blow to many Southern whites; what they saw as illegal interference by the Federal Government into their own States’ rights not only denigrated their own means of deciding their own affairs without Northern hindrance, but it also threatened a way of life that had seen whites prosper economically, if at the expense of blacks; and a social advantage that could now be diminished if ‘freedmen’ were allowed parity. This mixture of fear of loss of status and resentment of outside interference meant that there was only going to be one repository for their anger. Black folks.
There’s been a lot of research into the subject, which I don’t need to go into here, because my point is not about whether more blacks than whites were ‘lynched’, (they were) as much as why, so often, white people wanted to go much further than kill a black who they believed had broken the law, or breached their social ’mores’ or ‘folkways’. And to bring to the attention of the uninitiated the scale, the extent, and the horror of this holocaust.
‘Lynchings were not isolated hate crimes committed by rogue vigilantes. Lynching was targeted racial violence at the core of a systematic campaign of terror perpetrated in furtherance of an unjust social order.’
To give this some context, a look at the numbers of people ‘lynched‘, both by colour and by state, is informative. Reliable figures don’t seem to be readily available before 1882; but the Tuskegee Institute data shows that between then and 1968, when the practice effectively died out, there were 4,734 killings categorised as lynchings across the United States.
Of this number, 1,297 of the victims were white; 3,446 were black. Amongst those States commonly referred to as the ‘South’, there was 3,683 recorded lynchings – 639 of the victims were white; 3,044 were black. So the disparity is plain to see.
Of course, of those people who suffered this violent end, some, undoubtedly, would have been guilty of a crime. But equally, some were not. And because the nature of lynching is that the victim has been denied the opportunity to a trial, and in many cases any sort of investigation, they were all illegal. Unless your law is the rule of the mob, the verdict of the angry mass.
The disparity in the races is a clear sign of the essentially racist nature of lynching, since in all cases, the perpetrators, the leaders of the mobs, were white. It was those perpetrators’ way of expressing their anger, imposing their rule, at any prospect that blacks may gain parity, either social, economic, or legal. And if, God forbid, a black man was suspected of raping a white woman, or even of getting too familiar, sometimes even saying hello, then his chances were poor indeed.
In their eyes, white superiority was a God-given right, and they were going to uphold it come what may. Their predecessors might have lost the Civil War, but they weren’t prepared to lose the Racial War. And in many cases, official law-enforcement at best turned a blind eye; at worst they actively colluded in the murder.
And the other side of this which is so appalling, which heaps further disgrace on the act of lynching itself, is the manner of it. Because not only were the victims, usually, hanged from a convenient height, they were often tortured, flailed, mutilated, and burnt, while still alive.
The practice wasn’t confined to men either. Women and children were also lynched. And the brutality doesn’t need to be imagined.
Often the trivial nature of the supposed infraction beggars belief. Whilst much was made of the heroic nature of white men, protecting their white womens’ honour against the sex-crazed, rampaging Negro, in reality it didn’t take much for a white mob to vent it’s vicious spleen. In 1916, a man named Jeff Brown was lynched because he’d accidentally bumped into a white girl while he ran to catch a train.
In 1898 in Lake City, South Carolina, a white mob took exception to the appointment, by the United States President, of a black man to the post of local postmaster. They went to the home of Fraser Baker and riddled it with gunfire, killing Baker and Julia, his infant daughter, leaving his wife and five other children wounded and traumatised. Not even a President was going to tell them what colour postmaster they were going to have.
In another case, a black man was detained by a mob who decided that he was the person who’d raped a white woman. Upon further investigation, it turned out that the rapist was a white man who’d blacked his face. Of course by then, the black suspect was well and truly hanged.
In Newnan, Georgia, in 1899, pieces of Sam Hose’s heart, liver, and bones were sold after he was lynched; that same year, spectators at the lynching of Richard Coleman in Maysville, Kentucky, took flesh, teeth, fingers, and toes from his corpse.
In 1917 in Memphis, Tennessee, a mob of twenty-five men seized Ell Persons from a train that was transporting him to stand trial for rape and murder. ‘The mob had announced the lynching time and location in advance, and thousands of people attended, backing up traffic for miles. Food and gum vendors sold their wares to the many spectators as Mr. Persons was doused with gasoline and set on fire. A ten-year-old black child was forced to sit next to the fire and watch him die. When members of the crowd complained that Mr. Persons would die too quickly if burned, the fire was extinguished, and attendees fought over Mr. Person’s clothes and remnants of the rope to keep as mementos. Two men cut off his ears for souvenirs, after which the head of Mr. Person’s corpse was removed and thrown into a crowd in Memphis’s black commercial district.’
In the same year in nearby Dyersburg, Tennessee, Lation Scott was subjected to a brutal and prolonged lynching after being accused of “criminal assault.” A crowd numbered in thousands gathered at an empty lot across the street from the downtown courthouse; children sat atop their parents’ shoulders to get a better view of Scott’s clothes and skin being ripped off with knives. ‘A mob tortured Lation Scott with a hot poker iron, gouging out his eyes, shoving the hot poker down his throat and pressing it all over his body before castrating him and burning him alive over a slow fire. Mr. Scott’s torturous killing lasted more than three hours.’
In 1911 in Okfuskee County, Oklahoma, Laura Nelson and her fourteen year old son L.D. were arrested after an incident at their farm when a local Sheriff, part of a posse investigating the theft of a cow, was shot dead in a struggle over a gun. It seems that Laura may have been very feisty; nonetheless they were awaiting trial in the jail, when a large group of men entered and took her, her son, and it seems, her baby, to a bridge six miles away. Laura was reportedly raped, then she and L.D. were hung over the bridge and their bodies left swinging. The baby was simply left at the scene. Photos were taken and copied and distributed widely.
In Mariana, Jackson County on October 19, 1934, Lola Cannady, a young white woman was found murdered. Claude Neal, a twenty-three-year-old black farmhand, was arrested for the murder. Five days later and before any judicial conclusions had been reached, six white men abducted Neal from the Alabama jail where he had been moved for ‘safekeeping‘ and brought him back to Jackson County, where they killed him in the woods. Then they showed his corpse to the Cannady family and a mob which had gathered. The corpse was then castrated, the fingers and toes amputated, and the skin burned with hot irons. The mob drove over it with cars, shot it at least eighteen times, and hung it from a tree on the courthouse lawn, where they again shot at it and took pieces of skin as souvenirs. When the sheriff cut the body down and refused to rehang it, an angry mob rioted, burning the homes of Mr. Neal’s family members and threatening black residents with violence until they fled. And these people considered themselves more civilised than their black victims.
In 1904 a man called Luther Holbert, working on a plantation owned by a white man called Eastland, was living with his common-law wife Mary. Mary had previously been in a relationship with another worker called Carr, who took exception to the union between Luther and Mary. One day Carr and Eastland went, armed with guns, to Luther and Mary’s cabin; what happened has never been established, except that the outcome was that Luther so successfully defended himself that Eastland and Carr ended up dead.
Luther and Mary knew what would happen for the killing of a white man, so they went on the run, Mary disguised as a man. Eastland’s brother led a posse of hundreds of white men, with bloodhounds, tracked the couple down, and three days later captured them in the swamps. What happened next would be beyond belief, unless you already have knowledge of the atrocities that went on. It’s rightly been describe as a ‘horror of humanity’.
The mob held Luther and Mary for three days, and waited until the following Sunday to extract their revenge. They chose their location carefully, outside a black people’s church in Doddsville, Mississippi. Thus would they send a clear message to the black community that these white folks weren’t to be fooled with.
They tied Luther and Mary to a tree. A newspaper of the day describes what happened next – ‘ … the two Negroes … were tied to trees and while the funeral pyres were being prepared, they were forced to hold out their hands while one finger at a time was chopped off. The fingers were distributed as souvenirs. The ears of the murderers were cut off. Holbert was beaten severely, his skull was fractured and one of his eyes, knocked out with a stick, hung by a shred from the socket. Some of the mob used a large corkscrew to bore into the flesh of the man and woman. It was applied to their arms, legs and body, then pulled out, the spirals tearing out big pieces of raw, quivering flesh every time it was withdrawn.’ Finally, they were both thrown into the flames.
Remember, the victims were alive and conscious throughout their ordeal. What makes this incident, and so many others, even more horrific, if that’s possible, is the report of the large crowd: ‘The white men, women, and children present watched the horrific murders while enjoying deviled eggs, lemonade, and whiskey in a picnic-like atmosphere.’
And many of the surviving pictures show that this is exactly what happened repeatedly – large crowds of white people standing around, grinning inanely for the camera while they were entertained by the gruesome spectacle before them, enjoying some poor souls’ tormented death. Children and women can often be plainly seen amongst the watchers. Their grins, their detachment to what was really happening before them mark them out as inhuman; unfortunately we can see echoes of these characters in the right-wing, racist, fascist fanatics of today.
And photographs weren’t just taken for a personal, if goulish record. Oh no, they were vital because a thriving sideline had grown up around such events. Beside the picnic baskets and soft drinks, the images were widely sold on postcards, produced for other white folk to see how these dangerous, uppity blacks were kept in line by the superior white folks.
It’s worth remembering that the mobs were always white. And no-one was ever – or hardly ever – called upon to account for their crimes. On the rare occasions that they were, they could count on white juries, and white judges, and white law, to set them free to go on their way.
So next time you read of a young black kid being stopped by police without reason, or shot without much more reason, don’t forget that this isn’t a modern phenomenon. This is part of a prejudiced, racist tradition that goes way back. And all that’s necessary for it to flourish again is for the rest of us to turn away. But at the end of the day, Black lives do matter. Just as much as mine or yours.
(Note – the featured image heading this article is a commemoration in 2018 of the death of 20 year old Jesse Lee Bond, castrated and drowned in 1939 by white store owners. Two men were charged and later acquitted. His crime? He’d asked for a receipt.)