Until recently, I had a remarkably rudimentary knowledge of lynching and did not at all grasp its momentous, lasting importance in American life. I grew up in a small town in southeastern Georgia, and in the course of my public education there, I learned to approach lynching as a distant and detached historical phenomenon. I learned that it was a monstrous crime performed in the dead of night by anonymous white men in white hoods—men who had no relation to me, to our community, or to our times. I have come to learn that lynching is much more than that. It is neither distant nor detached from the present, neither anonymous nor isolated. The legacies of lynching are alive and well in our society today, and until the history of lynching is studied, discussed, remembered, confronted, and understood, Americans will continue to be haunted and hunted by the unrepentant crimes of our past.
My tardy journey to rethinking the contemporary significance of lynching has been unfolding for several years. The first rumbles of thought came with the shocking, historically specific violence directed toward President Obama in the many documented cases where he was lynched in effigy by white protesters. Later, I began to connect the routine murder of unarmed black people by the police with the history of frequent police involvement in lynchings in the 19th and 20th centuries. Even more recently, I was deeply shaken when one of my white classmates at The University of Alabama—Ryan Parrish, a pre-law student with a Confederate flag as his Facebook cover photo—threatened to lynch a black classmate in October of 2016. He was granted permission to withdraw and transferred without consequence and without ever being found to be in violation of the code of student conduct. All of these awful instances—and the ways that they have been systemically tolerated—served as evidence of lynching’s persistent relevance as a phenomenon and as a lens through which to understand contemporary events.
To that end, I signed up for this class because I wanted to understand more clearly how the history of lynching interacts with the communities that I am a part of. One of the first things that I learned: at least two black people were lynched in Camden County, Georgia, where I grew up and went to school. How had that never been part of the conversation in history class? Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, has an even bloodier history: at least ten lynchings. We were each assigned local lynching cases to investigate, and I embarked on my research nauseas but needing to know. Nothing prepared me for what followed.
I will never forget how in class we would sit together around a table each week. We were surrounded by century-old portraits of Southern white men while repeating the names of Southern black men who were murdered in their time, by their hand, on their watch, and in their name. I will never forget how each class period became a makeshift memorial service, how names when said again and again in somber tones become like the litanies I learned in Sunday School.
“Bud Wilson… Cicero Cage… John Durrett… Sidney Johnson… Charles McKelton… John Johnson… Henry Burke…”
I would listen to my classmates updating us on their findings and I would shudder at how familiar this ritual of naming felt. I would think of the lynched men that I was researching: Dennis Cross, Dan Pippen, A.T. Harden, Elmore Clark. I would think about how Cross, a bedridden, paralytic man, was physically carried out of his bed by police officers and driven downtown to be lynched. I would think about how Harden wasn’t yet 16 years old when he was handcuffed and shot by the sheriff’s deputies on a dark Alabama road. As my classmates named the victims they were researching, I could also nearly hear:
“Michael Brown… Tamir Rice… Trayvon Martin… Eric Garner… Sandra Bland… Akai Gurley… Terrence Crutcher… Philando Castile… Alton Sterling… Jordan Edwards… Walter Scott…”
I would think about all the names we don’t know, from then and now. I still do.
This class and this research experience taught me more than I ever anticipated. It taught me the importance and the inequality of documentation. It taught me the power and the politics of public memory, which so often takes the form of public forgetting. It taught me the limitations of journalism as incomplete historical accounts. It taught me the outer limits of human depravity and resilience. It taught me the expansive connectivity of the past to the present. It taught me the corruptive power of wounds left untended. It taught me the dimensions and manifestations of white supremacy. It taught me the inescapability of this history for each person and for me as a Southern white man in particular.
There is much that I will remember and take from this class, but what stands out the most is a moment from the service at First African Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa after our community dedicated a historical marker to the victims of lynching in Tuscaloosa County. Among the speakers was an older black woman who was there when the police came and took her brother away many decades ago—her brother who was soon lynched only a few miles from where we sat in the pews. She said many words, but in my memory, they whittle down to two that play again and again: “I remember… I remember… I remember.”
The history of lynching is still with us. It is living history. For some time yet, they’ll all still be here walking among us—both the loved ones left behind and the ones who committed these heinous crimes without ever facing justice. And until we—namely white Americans—acknowledge, confront, and interrogate this history, we will continue to remain blind and tolerant to the pernicious forms of institutional violence that have descended from lynching into the present day. Whether acknowledged or not, lynching leaves us an unwanted inheritance that runs through our lives as surely as the blood in our veins.
After months of holding this history, I am left with fewer answers than questions. And so, looking toward the possibility of healing, of truth and reconciliation, the learning continues. The listening continues. The research continues. The dialogue continues. It must. It is our responsibility and the best hope we have.