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Idle comment has ugly past

It was a such a pleasant setting _ background music, soft lighting, and round tables, impeccably set by the caterer. We were at Ruth Eckerd Hall, dining before the performance of the Alvin Ailey Dancers.

I was there with a black friend, Carolyn Hobbs, Times public service manager. Four strangers _ white women _ two middle-aged and two elderly, joined us at our round table. We exchanged pleasantries as we waited to be served.

Mrs. Hobbs had called earlier to request salmon for our dinners. Our table companions did not know to call, and almost in one chorus asked the waiter if they could exchange their beef tips and noodles for salmon.

He said no, they would have had to call in earlier.

There was friendly banter back and forth with the waiter as they pleaded with him to get them salmon anyway. We all laughed.

One white-haired elderly woman seated next to Mrs. Hobbs placed her hand on her shoulder and said:

"But we simply must have the salmon. If you don't get it for us, we might have to lynch this lady and take her salmon."

I stopped eating to stare at this woman, who looked like someone's grandmother. At first I saw no recognition of this offensive racist remark she had made. Then suddenly, I caught a fleeting glance of something.

By then the meal had been spoiled, as I wrestled with leaving and taking a doggy bag to my reserved seat in the theater. I suppressed a counterattack, the urge to teach, to confront. I had come for a peaceful evening.

What a nice meal it could have been. How I had looked forward to relaxing after a day at work, and there it was. I realized immediately that there was no innocence in that statement. It was born of a society that has permitted and continues to permit nice grandmotherly white women, or anyone else who has a preferred status in this society, to feel free to make racist, threatening statements.

It sort of rolled off her tongue as if she were used to talking about lynching. It was possible that during her lifetime she had even seen a black man hanging from a tree. She used the word within the right context _ the object of the lynching comment is black _ and she and the other women were white.

Historically, lynching was the preferred means of getting rid of black men, especially in the South. Sometimes thousands of white families attended a lynching, and it became a festive occasion _ picnic lunches and all. Many of the lynchings also ended in castrations. Black men were also burned alive _ roasted on spits like pigs _ but lynching was the preferred method.

From 1882-1968, the archives at Tuskegee Insitute (now Tuskegee University) reported there were 3,445 lynchings of black people. A later study by the University of Georgia showed that black people were more likely to be lynched in Florida than in any other state. There were 212 in Florida, making it fifth in the nation. The study indicated that because Florida had fewer African-Americans, its per capita percentage was the highest in the nation. So for every 2,150 black people in Florida between 1882 to 1930, one was lynched.

Lynching in this country started during the colonial period with white people being lynched for a variety of infractions. But lynching eventually became an American pastime to maintain a racial caste system, beginning in earnest after Reconstruction.

Black people (men, women and children) were also lynched for a variety of reasons in the North and in the South. For being "uppity," that is, speaking out; being too prosperous; for allegations of stealing, murdering, assaulting, and the one most often used, alleged rape of a white woman.

In 1887, black Louisiana workers went on strike against a cut in the 75 cents a day they were earning and demanded a raise to $1.25. Thirty black people were killed and hundreds wounded in the massacre that ended the strike. Two brothers who help organize the strike were taken from the jail and lynched.

In Arkansas, in 1888, black cotton pickers asked for an increase in their pay of 50 cents per one hundred poundsof cotton picked. Mobs organized by the landlords lynched 10 of the strikers.

In 1915, the Chicago Defender carried a picture of a black farmer and his three sons hanging from the same tree in Texas. Their crime was harvesting the first cotton in the county that season.

In 1916, a posse lynched several people while searching for a suspected hog thief, Boisy Long, in Alachua County community of Newberry. Long, who shot the sheriff and another man when they came to arrest him, went into hiding. The posse lynched his wife, Stella, mother of four, a friend, Mary Dennis, who was pregnant, and a minister, John Baskin.

In 1981, two members of the United Klans of America lynched Michael Donald, 19, in Mobile, Ala. Donald had been selected at random, as the two klansmen roamed the black community looking for black men to kill.

Perhaps the most relentless foe of lynching in the late 19th century was Ida B. Wells, a journalist. At 23, as editor and co-owner of a Memphis newspaper, Free Speech, she courageously wrote about these atrocities.

In 1892, three young black businessmen were lynched in Memphis, and Wells wrote in her newspaper that the lynchings were instigated by white business competitors.

She fled the city when her office was destroyed by a white mob. In 1895 in Chicago, Wells married Ferdinand Barnett, an activist attorney. She wrote three booklets on the subject of lynching: Southern Horrors in 1892; A Red Record in 1895 and Mob Rule in New Orleans in 1900.

In Southern Horrors, Wells wrote: "It is no pleasure I have dipped my hands in the corruption here exposed. Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so."

Wells often quoted white people in her writings, exposing, through their own statements, their racist feelings about African-Americans. A large percentage of the lynchings were attributed to black men raping white women, and Wells methodically attacked this belief through research.

"Nobody in this section of the country believes the old threadbare lie that Negro men rape white women," she wrote.

In Southern Horrors, Wells exposed the case of a minister's wife, Mrs. J.S. Underwood of Elyria, Ohio, who accused a black man of rape. He denied the charge and said he was invited to her home, but he was sentenced to 15 years in the penitentiary.

Sometimes later, Mrs. Underwood confessed to her husband that she had lied because the neighbors knew the black man was making frequent trips to the house, she was afraid she might contract a disease, or have a black baby. Her husband divorced her.

Research done by other organizations over the years found that in scarcely one-third of the cases was rape even alleged, much less proven.

Barnett died in 1931. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass praised her work, and in a letter written before her death, called her a "brave woman."

"You have done your people and mine a service which can neither be weighed nor measured . . . if American moral sensibility were not hardened by persistent infliction of outrage and crime against colored people, a scream of horror, shame and indignation would rise to Heaven wherever your pamphlet shall be read."

Walter White, former executive director of the NAACP, picked up the mantel left by Barnett, and this organization fought for anti-lynching legislation for decades. Filibusters killed all of the proposals. Civil Rights measures between 1957 and 1968 came closest to sounding like national anti-lynching laws.

Textbooks and literature about the South are woefully silent on the issue of lynching. Recently, I waded through a section on violence in an encyclopedia on Southern mores, cultures and people and could find no reference to lynching.

I believe hiding any mention of these crimes makes them even more potent. Most of us have heard the statement that those who do not know their history are in danger of repeating it _ perhaps even at an innocent dinner, seated at an impeccably set table, with soft music wafting in the background.