In a former life as an academic, I read many books of literary and cultural analysis. None came close to Julie Buckner Armstrong's Mary Turner and the Memory of Lynching for an arresting, harrowing first paragraph:
In May 1918 a week of mob violence following a white farmer's murder spread over two Georgia counties, Brooks and Lowndes, and claimed at least eleven African American lives. One of the victims, Mary Turner, was eight months pregnant. After hearing that Turner planned to press charges against mob members for lynching her husband, Hayes, the men captured her from the Quitman home where she was hiding and took her to a bridge overlooking the Little River. There a crowd of several hundred watched the mob hang her upside down, shoot her, set her on fire, remove her fetus, and stomp the unborn child into the ground.
Novelists might envy such a powerful, if disturbing, beginning — but the story Armstrong tells is all too true. How that story has been told and retold, how it has disappeared and re-emerged, in the 93 years since Mary Turner died is the subject of this compelling book.
Turner's horrifying murder took place amid a wave of lynchings across the United States around the turn of the 20th century, more than 3,000 in a little over two decades. Most of the victims were black.
Armstrong, an associate professor of English at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, establishes the historical context of those crimes, but she is primarily interested in how they were portrayed in writing — journalism, propaganda, fiction, poetry — and in other arts, including film, sculpture and painting.
Lynching was in sharp relief in the culture before Turner's death, in part because of D.W. Griffith's 1915 movie, The Birth of a Nation. Its romanticized account of the Ku Klux Klan was ludicrous, its story deeply racist, but it was cinematically powerful, and violence erupted in its wake as audiences black and white reacted to its narrative of lynching as primarily a response of white men protecting white women from black men's sexuality.
What happened to Mary Turner exposed that narrative's dishonesty and drew a wide range of immediate reactions. Local newspapers predictably blamed the victim; the Savannah Morning News reported of the white crowd, "The people in their indignant mood took exceptions to her remarks as well as her attitude and took her to the river where she was lynched." Yet a letter to the Augusta Chronicle from a white Confederate veteran, Maj. Joseph Cumming, called her killers "hot fiends from hell" and asked, "Where are the grand juries? Where are the petit juries? Where are the sheriffs? Where is our public opinion? Is it dead?"
Armstrong describes the work of Walter White, an investigator for the NAACP. Able to pass as a white man, White gained the confidence of several members of the mob, who described the lynchings to him in detail. He compiled a report, "The Work of a Mob" — a forcefully written document whose rhetoric Armstrong analyzes in detail — with a list of the criminals' names that was sent to state and local officials, but no one was ever arrested for Turner's murder or the others that occurred over that week.
Her story became a moving force for the national Anti-Lynching Crusade and inspired works by fiction writers, poets and artists. Filmmaker Oscar Micheaux retold it in Within Our Gates, his 1920 rebuttal to The Birth of a Nation, and it is a major theme in Jean Toomer's avant garde novel Cane.
But in the 1930s Turner's death faded from discourse, as Armstrong writes, "moved to a liminal space between remembering and forgetting where all traumatic memories go." In the 1970s, for cultural and artistic reasons she explores, the story re-emerged, and she finds its newer forms, which include not only literature and visual art but an all-too-realistic depiction of the lynching at the Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore and a re-enactment of another lynching at Moore's Ford in Georgia that echoes Mary Turner's fate.
Still, it is a buried part of history. When white high school students in Lowndes County in 2002 painted Barbie dolls black and hung them with nooses from a tree, they could call it a joke, and locals said they had never heard of Mary Turner.
Armstrong does something unusual in academic writing: She addresses, mostly in her introduction, her personal responses to her subject. As a white native of Birmingham, Ala., she was familiar with black history — or so she thought. She writes movingly of being so repelled by some of the research that she found it difficult to go on. But she did, and she finds satisfaction in having helped bring a dark chapter in our history back into the light.
"In 1998," she writes, "I was told that no lynchings had ever occurred in Brooks and Lowndes counties. That history had been erased from the landscape, from discourse, and from most local archives. A decade later, the story was different. Historical markers ensure that the landscape and the people who inhabit it can no longer claim to suffer from amnesia or use 'not knowing' as an excuse for not talking."