Five Ugly and Uncanny Parallels between Lynchings and Police Killings
December 6, 2014
Shaun King / The Daily Kos
While these lynchings are most commonly remembered as hangings from trees, the lynchings in this statistic include men, women, and children who were shot, burned, and beaten to death in every tortuous way imaginable. At its core, to be lynched is not a method of killing, but it is to be murdered without due process. What is often overlooked is that police, during the height of lynching, were complicit in most lynchings.
(November 13, 2014) -- It's hard to think of anything that was uglier in post-slavery America than lynching. From 1882 to 1964, the archives at Tuskegee University documented that at least 3,445 African Americans were brutally lynched in the United States.
While these lynchings are most commonly remembered as hangings from trees, the lynchings in this statistic include men, women, and children who were shot, burned, and beaten to death in every tortuous way imaginable. At its core, to be lynched is not a method of killing, but it is to be murdered without due process.
What is often overlooked is that police, during the height of lynching, were complicit in most lynchings. In the book Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930, it was determined that 64 percent of lynching victims in the early 20th century were actually seized from jails.
While historical lynchings and modern-day murders at the hands of police have some differences, many of the legal, physical, and emotional parallels are frightening. What follows below the fold are seven troubling similarities between the two.
1. The universal agreement is that the number of lynchings and police murders have both been seriously underreported.
In The Negro Holocaust: Lynching and Race Riots in the United States, 1880-1950, Yale University professor Robert Gibson observed that "in 1914, Tuskegee Institute reported fifty-two lynchings for the year, the Chicago Tribune reported fifty-four, and The Crisis, the official organ of the NAACP, gave the number as seventy-four."
In the wake of the August 9 shooting death of Mike Brown by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post, after consulting every agency available that could provide statistics on police shootings, determined that while the federal government keeps very accurate data of police officers killed in the line of duty, "there is no reliable national data on how many people are shot by police officers each year."
With all of the data that is publicly available, a recent FBI Annual Uniform Crime Report, as reported by USA Today, determined that killings by police are the highest they've been in two decades.
What may be most shocking of all is that the low estimate of people killed by American police in 2013, which is 461 people, doubles the number of people lynched in the very worst year in American history, which was 230 people in 1892.
2. The excuses given to justify lynchings and police killings are tragically bad.
Dennis Hubert, a student at Morehouse College in 1930, was lynched for speaking to a white woman at a public park. She actually had two men with her, but they didn't like what was said.
Just 14 years old, Emmett Till, in 1955, was lynched for supposedly whistling at a white woman, but even that was never proven.
In 1999, Amadou Diallo, coming home from a hard day of work in New York City, was shot at 41 times by police and killed. The officers said they believed he was going for a gun and that it could've gone off. It turned out that Diallo wasn't the man they were looking for—and that he was only going for his wallet.
Filmed and put on YouTube, Eric Garner, in the summer of 2014, was choked to death by police. He wasn't even the original reason they were on the scene, but they believed him to be selling loose cigarettes.
John Crawford, a young father of two, was talking on the phone with the mother of his children when police shot and killed him in August 2014, believing him to be a dangerous shooter on the loose inside of the Walmart. As it turned out, Crawford didn't have a real gun, but a pellet gun from inside of the Walmart, and he had threatened no one.
3. The lynchings and police killings of African Americans are outrageously brutal and excessive.
While one could argue that all homicides are brutal, the deaths that African Americans faced during lynchings or police killings are deprived and heinous. Mark Gado, in his gut-wrenching text, Carnival of Death: Lynching in America, drives this point home:
The actual process of lynching was morbid and incredibly violent. Lynching does not necessarily mean hanging. It often included humiliation, torture, burning, dismemberment and castration. Victims were beaten and whipped, many times in front of large crowds that sometimes numbered in the thousands. Coal tar was frequently used to douse the unfortunate victim prior to setting him afire.
Onlookers sometimes fired rifles and handguns hundreds of times into the corpse while people cheered and children played during the festivities. Pieces of the corpse were taken by onlookers as souvenirs of the event . Such was the case when James Irwin was lynched on January 31, 1930.
Irwin was accused of the murder of a white girl in the town of Ocilla, Georgia. Taken into custody by a rampaging mob, his fingers and toes were cut off, his teeth pulled out by pliers and finally he was castrated. It still wasn't enough. Irwin was then burned alive in front of hundreds of onlookers (Brundage, p. 42).
No one was ever punished for this barbaric killing. Black victims were hacked to death, dragged behind cars, burned, beaten, whipped, sometimes shot thousands of times, mutilated; the savagery was astonishing.
Gado goes on to say:
Sensational journalism, then the standard of American news reporting, spared the public no detail no matter how horrible. "The Negro was deprived of his ears, fingers and genital parts of his body. He pleaded pitifully for his life while the mutilation was going on . . . before the body was cool, it was cut to pieces, the bones crushed into small bits. . . . the Negro's heart was cut into several pieces, as was also his liver. . . . small pieces of bones went for 25 cents..." (The Springfield Weekly Republican, April 28, 1899).
This was an actual description of the lynching of one Sam Holt, accused murderer, who was burned at the stake in Newman, Georgia in April, 1899. Graphic accounts like this were in abundance throughout the South. They served both white and black purposes by adding to the psychological suffering of the African American and empowered the white man to do more.
A full 100 years after Sam Holt was lynched, Amadou Diallo, unarmed and on his front porch, was fired upon 41 times.
Milton Hill, a mentally ill homeless man, was shot at 46 times.
Sean Bell, unarmed and on his way to be married, was shot at 50 times.
Eric Garner, an unarmed father of six who was not resisting arrest, begged for his life and said over and over again that he couldn't breathe as he was choked to death.
4. Few instances in history exist where people are held truly liable for lynchings or police killings.
In spite of extremely egregious circumstances surrounding all lynchings and many police killings, it is a rare occurrence for the killers to be held liable. While definitive stats are hard to come by, some estimate that over 95 percent of the perpetrators of lynchings or police killings never served a single day in jail.
During the days of public lynchings, it was popular for entire families to come and view them. Photos, as seen in the exhibit, Without Sanctuary, were regularly taken of the lynched bodies on display and made into postcards that were sent all over the country. Little legal interest truly existed in bringing the perpetrators to justice.
In modern America, even in extreme cases like the March, 2012 shooting death of high school football star Kendrec McDade, police claimed they heard McDade take multiple shots at them and even saw the flash of the bullets exiting his gun, but it turned out McDade was unarmed. Police were completely exonerated.
The constant exoneration of police who kill unarmed African Americans lends itself to the belief that, like during the time of lynching, little true interest exists in bringing justice to the families of the victims.
5. The character of the men and women who were lynched by mobs or killed by police is assassinated as a sick form of justification for the killing.
In Carnival of Death: Lynching in America, Mark Gado made the following astute observation of how easily and eloquently the guilt and reputation of lynching victims was assessed in the mainstream media of the day:
Newspapers were at least consistent at assessing the guilt of the accused. Of course it mattered less that a legal trial never took place. Reporters wrote inflammatory comments such as "well known as a criminal character to the officers of Clarke County" (The Atlanta Constitution, Feb. 16, 1921), "A Negro Desperado Lynched" (Boston Evening Transcript, July 21, 1886), "The Negro was killed irregularly, but justifiably" (The Chicago Chronicle, June 19, 1897), "unspeakable wretch . . . no more thought need be given to his death than to that of a dog" (The Indianapolis News, June 19, 1897), "help lynch the brute" (The Intelligencer, October 12, 1911).
In this last example, a lynching that took place on October 11, 1911 in Anderson County, South Carolina, the mob was led by State Legislator Joshua Ashley and the editor of the local newspaper. The target of that mob was one Willis Jackson who was accused of attacking a white child. He was hung from a tree upside down and shot numerous times (Tolnay and Beck, p. 26).
Similarly, in 2014, the public reputation of teenager Mike Brown has been smeared over and over again. Brown was a recent high school graduate who was a week away from starting college, and the public editor of the New York Times ultimately called their poor word choice a blunder.
In the weeks after his death, it was regularly alleged that Brown had been previously arrested for crimes as serious as murder, and journalists were filing lawsuits to have his juvenile records released. When it was announced that Brown had never been arrested before, no apologies were made and the damage was done.
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