"Hate is a disease, and in 1930 I became sick with hatred."
Today’s trial news is dominated by decades-old crimes in which the original prosecutions were nonexistent, resulted in hung juries, or involved offenses charged under state law, leaving room for new cases that do not invoke the double jeopardy clause. A new generation of law enforcement officials has begun a string of “reprosecutions,” to use the legal term, to pursue convictions in a number of unsolved murder cases from the civil rights era. But those efforts are far from universally popular… even historians who write and talk about old murders--and Senators who apologize for the Senate’s failure to pass the legislation that may well have halted the killings--find themselves excoriated by those who would prefer to “look forward.”
The list of reprosecutions of civil rights-era cases goes back to the late 1980s and continues to grow: Medgar Evers, Vernon Dahmer, the Birmingham church bombings, and this month’s manslaughter conviction for the June 21, 1964, Klan killings of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman are only the beginning of what promises to be an ongoing courthouse trend. Jerry Mitchell, a reporter for the Jackson (Mississippi) Clarion-Ledger, has written some of the best coverage of the old cases now new again.
Reporting of the old cases will continue; the murder of Emmett Till, recently exhumated, is now under the purview of the FBI, with prosecutions expected. Another case from Georgia involving the death of four blacks in 1946 may loom large in the headlines later this year or next year. In the meantime, historian Gary May in a History News Network piece suggests the reopening of the murder of Viola Liuzzo, “the only white woman to lose her life in the struggle for equal rights.” Liuzzo was an FBI informant who was shot by four Klansmen in the mid-1960s and is the subject of May’s book, The Informant: The FBI, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo (Yale University Press).
At the same time, the U.S. Senate’s apology for its failure to pass federal anti-lynching legislation brings the ugly practice of lynching back into the news. The Senate action made news across the country and even the world, as Russian newspapers and Al-Jazeera picked up the story. The apology was welcomed by groups such as the Anti-Defamation League. But at the same time, it has not been well received in all circles. “In light of the serious problems we face in the world and our own country,” says intemperate black conservative blogger La Shawn Barber, “I think this apology is one of the dumbest, emptiest, most politically correct pile of rubbish I’ve heard in a long time.” At the other end of the spectrum are writers for the Black Commentator: "The terror of lynching created the social relationships that resulted in white households accumulating ten to twenty times as much wealth as black households - our collective national inheritance. An apology will not do.”
Two themes dominate the criticism of the Senate's apology, and neither bear cursory scrutiny.
1 - "The federal law wasn't necessary - murder and conspiracy to murder were already illegal." Like many false dichotomies, this is true on one level. But if murder and conspiracy were adequately covered by existing laws, then why did Congress pass the Patriot Act, which specifically criminalized conspiratorial acts connected to terrorism? Or RICO, which criminalized conspiratorial and racketeering acts that were already criminal under state laws? Or 42 USC Sec. 1988, which gives the federal courts authority to hear criminal cases arising from the violation of someone's civil rights? Where the federal courts are the better forum and are better prepared to prosecute, Congress has not hesitated to step into the traditional arena of state criminal law to federalize certain criminal prosecutions.
2 - "A federal law wouldn't have made a difference." Ah, now, this is where history differs. Historians point out that while the federal anti-lynching legislation was pending, there was a stunning dearth of lynchings in the United States. The word had gotten out. The efforts to pass anti-lynching laws received extraordinary coverage in newspapers across the United States. If one runs a search for "anti-lynching law" on Newspaperarchive.com, the largest historical newspaper database on the internet, one can find literally hundreds of articles particularly about efforts in the 1930s and 1940s to pass these laws.
By contrast, the lynchings themselves received very, very little coverage, less and less as you go back through the decades. Newspaper content reflected the racism of the times, and crime against blacks simply wasn't covered, period. As a reporter for the Kansas City Times candidly admitted in his autobiography, “If he managed it without causing a traffic jam or otherwise making a nuisance of himself to the white world, a black man could get himself murdered without getting his name in the paper.” (Mr. Blood’s Last Night—End of an Era in Journalism: A Reporter Remembers Kansas City and The Times in the Late Thirties, by Martin Quigley, Sunrise Publishing Co., 1980.) The historians at WithoutSanctuary.org, who collect and display lynching photography, report that they offer a $1,000 reward for any lynching photo that isn't already in their archives. Some families have found old photos behind Granddaddy's shaving mirror or in a family Bible (can you imagine--in a Christian Bible? One of the boldest actions of Jesus of Nazareth took place on the Mount of Olives, where a woman was brought to be publicly executed. His response? Jesus berated the mob. "He who is without sin, cast the first stone.") As a result of the effort, some lynching photos have surfaced for which there is no corresponding historical record--no police reports, certainly, no newspaper articles--prompting them to doubt that the figure of 5,000 lynchings is actually an accurate count.
And the apology seems to have meant a lot to some Americans. Emmett Till’s mother is still alive, and in a recent NPR interview, she recalled, decades after the fact, examining the body of her child after he was tortured and lynched in the most infamous such case in American history, for Emmett’s “crime” was whistling at a white woman. The apology also meant a great deal to one victim in particular, James Cameron (whose photo is above), now 91 years old, the only person known to have survived a lynch mob. The incident took place in Marion, Indiana, in 1930. Cameron, then 16, and two of his friends went out into a hot August evening and decided to rob a white couple. What they got was a dose of mob justice, for in Indiana, their crime was punishable by public torture and death. Cameron said he recognized the white man and ran away. One of the other two boys then shot the white man to death.
Cameron and both his friends were caught and put in jail. "I will never forget my mother pleading and crying for them to take her instead of me,” Cameron would later say. “That's just not something you forget." The lynch mob broke into the jail and dragged the trio into the streets, and the other two boys were beaten to death and hung from a tree. But the mob knew that Cameron was not involved in the murder, and in what he describes to this day as a miracle, the mob let him go back to jail. He eventually served prison time for his abbreviated role in the robbery. The photograph of his friends, beaten and executed and hanging from tree, has found its way onto withoutsanctuary.org and is the first photo in a piece found at the Long Island University website, which also contains a lengthy bibliography.
Today, historians such as Robert S. McElvaine at the History News Network recognize a parallel in today’s war on terror, and it is interesting to note that newsmen across the United States recognized lynching as “organized terror” as far back as at least 1949 (Syracuse Herald, Nebraska State Journal). But the criticism continues. “Shame on you for promoting a continuous culture of hate in America… Times have changed. Move On,” said one visitor to the Without Sanctuary site.
I wonder if the commentator would dare to repeat that sentiment to Emmett Till’s mother or to James Cameron?
Some recommended reads:
The Informant: The FBI, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo
A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till
Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America
Update, 7/22/05: Gary May has kindly pointed out that Emmett Till's mother passed away some time ago. The interview I heard on National Public Radio must have come from the archives.
I hold out hope that when she passed away, perhaps she finally had the opportunity to wrap her loving arms around her son.