On the recent radio program, Democracy Now, Amy Goodman featured a story about the Equal Justice Initiative's report, "Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror". The multi-year study documented almost 4,000 racial terror lynchings of African-Americans between 1877 and 1950 in twelve Southern states. The report stirred up a part of my past I usually manage to suppress. Our family would never talk about it over the years, too shocked, too embarrassed, too willing to wish it weren't so. As time passed, when I did think about it, I began to wonder if what I'd seen when young was real. Now I know I witnessed the aftermath of one of those 4,000 lynchings.
In the summer of 1935, my Dad decided to take us on a trip down south to visit relatives and places he had left behind when he was about eighteen. To a five-year-old, the hot June drive from St. Louis to Wiggins, Mississippi seemed never ending. My Dad's heavy, black, 1933 Terraplane Hudson had no air conditioning, no radio, and scratchy grey wool seat covers, hard on a boy wearing shorts. Mile after mile, it didn't take long to grow bored of singing Old McDonald-type songs. My parents tried to encourage me to be on the lookout for any thing unusual or different from home, strange looking buildings, landscapes, or animals that always seemed to be cows or horses. Having me to look for the frequent Burma Shave ads along the highway gave my parents some relief. "Past Schoolhouses...take it slow...let the little...shavers grow...Burma Shave." I was probably the kid who originated the phrase, "Are we there yet?"
But the miles and time did pass and we entered Wiggins early in the morning. I was semi-asleep in the back seat when I heard my mother say, "Oh, my god! No."
My father made some gasping sound.
"What?" I sat up looking around.
"Don't look," my mother said turning to me. "Close your eyes."
But it was too late.
As my father hit the accelerator, I saw out the back window what I was not supposed to see.
My eyes stuck to a black man, clothes torn mostly off, hanging by his neck from a large tree that spread halfway across the street. As the car gained speed, I watched the image fade but never really disappear.
"Turn around," my mother ordered, harshness in her voice I'd never heard before. "Quit looking!" That tone and look were not like her, so I turned forward in my seat. She looked back at me, making sure I'd turned around, then at my father who kept his eyes on the road, saying nothing. She looked forward again.
Silence became a kind of suffocation.
The sudden tension in the car unsettled me. I didn't understand. Why was he hanging there? Why did he do it? Was it a real person? Was he dead? By my parents' reaction, I sensed a disturbing seriousness. Should I ask questions or stay silent? I wanted so much to look back. I wanted to know the meaning of what I had just seen, make sense of my parents' reaction. But they stayed silent so I did, too.
Part of our trip's destination was a stop at my father's Uncle Carl's home in Wiggins. I don't remember his wife's name, but I will never forget him. We were greeted by what some call Southern hospitality. Lots of hand shaking, hugs, introductions, how-was-the-trip questions, and pitchers of cold lemonade. Once the formalities ended and we were shown where we would sleep for the night, my mother and Uncle Carl's wife disappeared into the kitchen. My dad and I joined Uncle Carl on the wide front porch.
"Quite a greeting we had entering town, C.W.," my dad said, addressing his Uncle Carl. I soon picked up the fact that his southern family relatives called each other by their given names' initials.
My dad stayed silent and waited.
"Oh, that. Yeah. Saw it. Well, let's hope that'll remind 'em of their place." He took a sip of his drink.
"Their place?" my dad asked. The muscles in his cheeks twitched.
"Why, pshaw, W.R. That nigga' done got what he deserved. Attacked a white girl. When those uppiddy coons see what we do when they step over the line, they'll remember what's what."
"Son," my dad said, "why don't you go explore the back yard, see what you can find."
I knew he wanted to get rid of me, but my curiosity was more than piqued and I wanted to stay. I wanted to know more about what we'd seen.
"Go on, now," he insisted.
"Sure, there's a big weeping willow tree out back, sonny. Branches touch the ground. You can hide under it and we'd never find you." His uncle laughed.
Instead of hiding under the tree, I slipped around the side of the porch where I could hear most of their conversation. The two of them soon got into an argument, their voices rising and falling. My dad used words like shame, lawlessness, stupidity, and justice. His uncle claimed the "filthy nigger" got what he deserved for what he did to a white girl. Words like "nigger, coon, jiggaboo" were foreign to my ears. I didn't know what he'd done to a girl, but when I realized what other people did to that man I thought he must have done some thing pretty sinful.
There was a pause in their arguing about slavery when Uncle Carl went in the house and came back out on the porch. Apparently he had gone in to get the Bible, because I heard him say to my dad, "Here. Right here. Leviticus 25:44-46. '...you may purchase male and female slaves from among the nations around you. You may also purchase the children of temporary residents who live among you, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance'."
"Shoot, C.W. That's using ancient history as an excuse," my dad countered. "Just because it's in the Bible doesn't mean it's right. Men back then wrote that for the benefit of their people. It's not even a Christian part of the Bible."
"It's in the good book, W.R. God's word. Blackies never shoulda' been freed. Gave 'em all the wrong ideas."
"You mean the idea they're human?" my Dad's voice rose. "Somewhere in the Bible it also says you can have more than one wife. Do you believe that, too?"
"Not a bad idea." His uncle chuckled.
The women gave a call for lunch and the conversation ended. Someone called out for me but I waited a few minutes before going in, not wanting to give away my hiding.
"That's some tree out back, eh?" Uncle Carl asked me at lunch. "Hundreds of years old."
I nodded in a lie. I'd never gotten around to that tree. I still had a different tree on my mind.
I was a confused five-year-old uncomfortable in a strange adult world I didn't understand. My mind tried to make sense of the conversation I had heard. Never heard such talk at home. What I had seen kept bothering me. Yet, I felt shame because a part of me wanted to go see the hanging body again. Uncle Carl's attitude toward most everything confused me. What did it mean that the Bible says slavery is okay? What was slavery exactly, and what did it have to do with the hanging man?
That evening after dinner and a restless, boring conversation about relatives I didn't know, my dad took me for a walk. "I'm sorry you had to see and hear what went on today. Are you okay?"
"That was a real man, wasn't it? Why'd they hang him like that?" I blurted out, happy to bring the talk back to my confusion.
My dad didn't respond with a fast answer. He sighed and finally said, "Ignorance. Hatred. For a start."
I still didn't understand. "What did he do that was so bad?"
"They claim he attacked a white girl."
"What'd he do to her? Why didn't the police arrest him? Why did they have to hang him?" My lack of understanding agitated me. I felt tears coming and didn't know why.
My dad hesitated. "Carl says the young girl accused the man of hitting her. Some people don't want colored folks even talking to a white girl or woman. When word got around town, things got heated. An angry mob formed and they took matters in their own hands."
"Why didn't the police stop 'em?"
"It's hard to stop a mob." Then he muttered, "Chances are the police might have even taken part."
That surprised me. All I could say was, "It's not right, is it?"
"No, it isn't. What they did was wrong. I want you to know that. What's behind this is difficult to explain. I know it's not helpful to say some day you'll understand the history behind this. At least I hope you will. What you've experienced today is a step backwards in time. A step in the wrong direction. Something you shouldn't have had to see or that ever should have happened."
"Why does your uncle say such bad things about colored people?"
"He was taught to think like that. His parents taught him those feelings. His friends feel the same, and they take comfort in that. I'm afraid a lot of southerners feel that way. Today should teach you to not think like he does. I want you to know he is wrong."
"You're from down here. Why don't you think like he does?"
"Different backgrounds, I guess. When I was eighteen, I worked in a country store down near Pervis. The owner was a decent man. He had a lot of colored folks who did business with him. Sometimes a client couldn't pay, and they'd trade some crop they grew or a chicken or rabbit for whatever they needed. If they had nothing to trade, he'd give them credit. I saw him treat Negroes just like he treated white folks and he made sure I did, too.
"One night we were doing inventory and a noisy bunch of horsemen rode up to the store front. They yelled for us to come out. Floppy hoods covered their faces, holes cut out for their eyes. Some held guns, some held flaming torches that framed them against the dark. Just the sight of them set me shaking. My boss didn't seem afraid, though."
"What did they want?" I asked.
"They wanted him to stop dealing with coloreds, sell only to white customers."
"Well, times were really hard then. Farming was tough. Jobs scarce. A lot of whites blamed the blacks for their troubles. Some thought Negroes had jobs they should have. They needed somebody to blame and the colored were convenient. Anyway, my boss stood up to them. Told them to go home. Called some by name even though they wore hoods. He recognized some of them by their horses, or by their shoes or clothes they'd bought in his store."
"What happened?" I asked.
"They rode away, but warned him to do as they said or else."
"Or else what?"
"I never found out. They scared me enough that night that I went home, put everything I owned, which wasn't much, in that little trunk you've seen at home, and high-tailed it to St. Louis."
"What happened to the store man?"
"I never found out. I've wondered about it enough, though."
"I hope nothing bad happened to him. I hope they didn't hang him."
"No, I don't think they'd go that far," my dad tried to assure me.
Still lost for any real understanding, I told my father, "Well, I'm glad you're not like your Uncle Carl."
Almost eighty years have not erased from my eyes that man hanging by his neck. Our family never talked about it again. But after that I became aware of "Coloreds Only" signs at water fountains, restrooms, and restaurants. While in the Navy, I even encountered prejudice toward my uniform with signs at some Southern establishments that read "No Dogs, No Sailors, No Coloreds." Outwardly, "Whites Only" signs have disappeared today, but only from view in many cases.
The Democracy Now radio report on "Lynching in America" stirred up old memories and raised questions I wanted answered. I sometimes wondered if I had imagined the lynching I kept seeing in my mind, maybe created the incident after hearing and reading and seeing movies about such atrocities over the years. The report prompted me to look for proof that I had not made up what I remembered. I did some research and discovered a small column on page 21 of the June 23, 1935 New York Times:
NEGRO IS LYNCHED,
Mob of 300 at Wiggins, Miss.,
Hangs and Shoots Man as
Attacker of Young Girl.
HIDE HIM FROM OFFICERS
Second Negro is Seized and
Beaten on Charge He Insulted
a White Woman
Wiggins, Miss., June 22 (AP) One Negro was lynched and another was spirited into the woods and whipped in the course of twenty-four hours of mob rule by citizens in Wiggins today.
R. D. McGee, 25-year-old Negro, was hanged to a tree and his body pieced with bullets about 9 A.M. for an attack on an 11-year-old daughter of a white dairy farmer. Stone County was in a state of excitement until the mob of about 300 dispersed and Sheriff J.A. Simpson and the Coroner had the body cut down from the tree beside a narrow road. Later the Coroner and peace officers met and held a formal inquest, returning a verdict that the Negro "came to his death at the hands of unknown parties."
So, there it was. I hadn't imagined it. I had witnessed a murdered man, R.D. McGee, left hanging on a tree by a mob of angry whites. While researching this hanging, I discovered many disturbing photographs exist of African-American mutilations and lynching.
In the Amy Goodman radio interview, she interviewed Equal Justice Initiative Director Bryan Stevenson, one of the compilers of the "Lynching in America" report, and author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. He explained that in those days before the Civil Rights bills were passed, and sometimes, even after, lynching became what he calls "an intoxicating social phenomenon." With no one stopping them, people got away with abducting, torturing and lynching African Americans for no reason at all or for a made-up excuse. A black man in Blakely, Georgia, came home from fighting in World War I and was lynched because he refused to take off his American uniform when told to do so. Another black man bumped into a white girl while running to catch a train and was hanged. Whole communities would turn lynching into picnics and social get-togethers. Thousands of people gathered in Dyersburg, Tennessee, to witness a black man's eyes being gouged out, his body mutilated, burned alive and hanged. Stevenson refers to such actions as acts of terrorism, used to scare and control African-Americans.
Stevenson says in the summary of the "Lynching in America" report, "We cannot heal the deep wounds inflicted during the era of racial terrorism until we tell the truth about it. The geographic, political, economic, and social consequences of decades of terror lynching can still be seen in many communities today and the damage created by lynching needs to be confronted and discussed. Only then can we meaningfully address the contemporary problems that are lynching's legacy." I could have done nothing as a five-year-old to counter the actions and beliefs of a man like my Dad's Uncle Carl. But as I grew older, I did nothing of major substance to fight racial discrimination. My father, as an eighteen-year-old, ran away from the problem, though passing on to me his distaste for racial prejudice. As a family we grew up tsk-tsking bigotry, but managed to avoid taking part in any helpful action. Perhaps by not perpetuating Uncle Carl's line of thought we made change in some small way.
And now, as racial tensions continue to hurt and destroy, it is obvious we did not and have not done enough "to address the contemporary problems that are lynching's legacy." This legacy is seen today in the inequality of our justice system: racially based incarceration, capital punishment, excessive sentencing, and police brutality.
I continue to wonder what turn of events makes a man like my father and what makes a man like his Uncle Carl. I'm no longer that shocked, naive five-year-old, but I'm still trying to understand the hatred and injustice that leads to brutal inequity. We shudder at pictures of the atrocities done at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, and at the beheadings done by terrorist groups. Look back at the photos and historical reports of the terrorist treatment of African-Americans. It could help bring about a better understanding of today's racial biases and point us in a direction of evolutionary moral growth.
Equal Justice Initiative. (2015). Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror. Retrieved from http://eji.org/reports/lynching-in-america
Goodman, Amy. (February 11, 2015). Transcript of interview with Bryan Stevenson. Retrieved from http://www.democracynow.org/2015/2/11/as_study_finds_4_000_lynchings
"Negro is lynched, another whipped" (June 23, 1935). The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.rarenewspapers.com/view/570101
This essay previously appeared in a slightly different form in Black Fox Literary Magazine, Summer 2016.