“But you’re white, so why study lynching?” This was a question asked by nearly every person I shared this research with. It took me nearly until the end of this project to be able to articulate exactly why, but even now, researching the lives of 10 lynching victims is hard to summarize in a few sentences.
This history is not popular history, it is history long ignored and covered up by the justification that even after the abolition of slavery, African Americans remained the lesser race. Systematically killing African Americans did not matter in the eyes of many whites, and thus language used to describe these lynching among the white press ultimately sought to justify the actions of lynch mobs, and criminalize the victims. Many of these men were lynched for allegedly “outraging” white women, being accused of actions ranging from looking at a white woman the wrong way, to kidnapping and assault, to rape. Or, in the case of John Durrett, white men decided to take his life because he simply spoke out against the lynching of another man in his community. But the white supremists did not wait for justice to be served at the courthouse—they played judge, jury, and executioner, as if they had the right to kill these alleged criminals, or those who threatened their way of life. They used killing to intimidate and manipulate and entire race of people to remain enslaved to the white man—this time simply as slaves to fear.
After endless research and discussions about lynching, as a class we began to explore what this legacy of ignoring the “messy” bits of history has done to our country. Lines can be traced from slavery to lynching to mass incarceration today. The issues of the past continue to resurface in new form, because we as a country have not taken a significant pause to seek the truth of this long-ignored history, and adequately reconcile the past wrongs in order to move forward equitably. So why study lynching? So we can begin this dialogue, and engage those around us what it looks like to remember lynching and other injustices that African Americans have faced, and move forward. Especially being a part of the white community, where so many cling to the past glory of the Confederate South, it is equally important to have the voices of white people to reveal truth and shed light on past injustices, not to evoke feelings of shame, but to take ownership of wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness. That is how we will move beyond division based on color, and into full equality and liberty.