The spinning newspaper with the banner headline informs us that horrible things have happened. We must all look and know them so we remember our capacity for evil. In remembering, we tell ourselves that we do our small part toward ensuring such things do not happen again:
Insurgents seized a man, tortured him with a red-hot poker, gouged out his eyes, and castrated him before burning him alive.
Extremists tied a married couple to a tree, making them hold hands as their mob chopped their fingers off, to give away as souvenirs. Not content with those trophies, they set in with a corkscrew to dig out plugs of flesh. Only then did the militants relent and burn their victims alive. The radicals and their supporters alike made a picnic of it, enjoying refreshments as they watched the spectacle.
This news comes not from CNN or any other modern news outlet. Nor did these events transpire in some distant land where they speak differently, accents aside. The castrated man, Lation Scott, died in Dyersburg, Tennessee. The married couple? Luther Holbert and his wife, of Doddsville, Mississippi. Nor did those who tortured and murdered them come from abroad, shouting strange slogans in an unfamiliar tongue. If they happened today, in some other country, the news would report them in much the same voice. The news did, however, report such things back in the day. Some genuine headlines accompany this post. They communicate the obscene excitement accompanying the events better than I could.
I have these accounts from the Equal Justice Initiative’s new report on lynching in the South. Between 1877 and 1950, they count nearly four thousand victims of lynching, ranging from individuals like Lation Scott to massive attacks that claimed the lives of hundreds. The New York Times supplies a map of those lynchings. One of those took place in Arkansas, on the Mississippi Delta. The Daily Beast has the story, beginning with some horrible framing:
In 1919, in the wake of World War I, black sharecroppers unionized in Arkansas, unleashing a wave of white vigilantism and mass murder that left 237 people dead.
I know that one needs to sum up the entire story in a line or so to meet journalistic conventions, but doing so in such a way invites questions about whether the Beast’s editors think the victims had it coming. They did not unleash a wave of white terror. The whites did. The remainder of the article does much better, explaining how the sharecroppers, exploited by their white landlords, did what exploited workers the world over do to get redress: they organized a union. The owners, like employers in every land and at every time, did not welcome this development. Better pay meant money taken straight from their profits. Those vile unionists wanted to steal their rightful property, which the owners had properly stolen from their laborers in one of the most hallowed traditions not merely of the South, but of the United States in general.
There was nothing “peaceable” about the methods used to demolish the sharecroppers’ union. Late on the night of September 30, 1919, the planters dispatched three men to break up a union meeting in a rough hewn black church at Hoop Spur, a crossroads three miles north of Elaine. Prepared for trouble, the sharecroppers had assigned six men to patrol outside the church. A verbal confrontation led to gunfire that fatally wounded one of the attackers. The union men dispersed, but not for long. Bracing for reprisals from their landlords, they rousted fellow sharecroppers from bed and formed self-defense forces.
The planters also mobilized. Sheriff Frank Kitchens deputized a massive white posse, even setting up a headquarters at the courthouse in the county seat of Helena to organize his recruits. Hundreds of white veterans, recently returned from military service in France, flocked to the courthouse. Dividing into small groups, the armed white men set out into the countryside to search for the sharecroppers. The posse believed that a black conspiracy to murder white planters had just been begun and that they must do whatever it took to put down the alleged uprising. The result was the killing of 237 African Americans.
The local whites could not do it themselves. They got help from the War Department, which dispatched six hundred soldiers at the governor’s request. Men crossed over from Mississippi to pitch in. The union men fought back, but numbers and superior arms overwhelmed them.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has called white supremacy a kind of theft. We don’t usually frame it quite that way, but he has it absolutely right. White America has stolen from black America labor, property, success and lives with which we instead enrich ourselves. So the cannibal dynamo turns their misery into our happiness. That dynamo doesn’t exist independent of us; it is us. The violence did not just happen, but rather people who look like us chose to make it happen. They felt not shame, but pride and satisfaction. No one went to jail. If white, one could collect a finger or a plug of flesh from Luther Holbert and walk away feeling enriched.
By and large we don’t remember those atrocities. In the hundred and fifty years since the end of slavery, we instead ask why black Americans don’t do better. It suits us better to forget that we have prevented them from doing better and made our success out of the wreckage of black lives. Best we forget, lest we suffer pangs of conscience.
Or we could remember and perhaps do better. We have a good museum in Washington, part of the Smithsonian, all about the Holocaust. Go see it if you have the chance. But we have no unit of the Smithsonian for slavery, an American institution for more than two hundred years and utterly central to the development of the United States. In the American History Museum, which you can skip, you will find displays about presidents, first ladies, and George Washington sculpted as a Greek god. We choose to remember those things, not the others. Washington had his eight years and slavery its two centuries, but with sufficient editing we can turn Washington into an Olympian object of veneration.
Certainly we cannot teach our children the uncomfortable parts of our past. Today news came to me that a House committee in Oklahoma has voted to defund the state’s AP American History program, which would amount to an effective ban on it. Why?
Fisher, who has been active in a church-and-state organization called the Black Robe Regiment, said the AP U.S. history course framework emphasizes “what is bad about America.”
I don’t recall my own AP American History course as very long on the bad about America, but perhaps they’ve improved in the many years since. I have written on this before, but the facts remain the same. The Oklahoma committee, like the Denver school board, doesn’t want students to learn complexities and nuance. Instead they must believe the United States either perfect or close enough to call it that all the same. History class should not present difficult questions or raise consciousness, but rather suppress both in a lily-white stream of sunshine and flag waving. Should history teachers give children the skills to understand complicated issues and turn a critical eye on their own society, who knows where it would end?
That sunshine can’t come through clouds, so the clouds have to go. It can’t come in different colors. The shadows it casts must pass without scrutiny, taken for granted like a Whites Only sign. Such signs, ex officio, remain on the covers of plenty of history textbooks. The lynchings from the EJI report, their great popularity in their day, and how they went unpunished say things about America, past and present. Remembering them doesn’t put a neat little bow on history, raising past injustices only to declare them resolved in the grand tradition of American progress where, born immaculate and perfect, the nation only gets better. They confront us with our national shortcomings.
The EJI support memorializing the victims. They should have monuments to fill that curious lacuna in the American landscape. We have monuments for the Civil Rights Movement. We have monuments for Confederate soldiers, including one I saw in Massachusetts. Yet even where scores died no monuments exist, as people of the right color died at the hands of people of the other right color, each group in its proper place. A plaque here and a statue there will not change the world but just as forgetting four thousand lives feasted on by white mobs says something about us, so would choosing to remember them instead. It might even say that, in some small and tenuous way, we have had our fill of such lives and wish to stop claiming them as our own.
But that does require that white Americans acknowledge that we have all received stolen goods and so have a responsibility beyond that of well-meaning bystanders to do what we can to ameliorate the wrong. Progress on that front has come with agonizing slowness and great controversy, most infamously involving the greatest political realignment in recent American history and most famously the Civil War. We should accept the country we have and not think about alternate visions, whether for better or worse. Otherwise we might have to ask what kind of country we actually have, at what costs we have it, and whether we should allow it to continue as we have.
The first great historian of slavery and the South, Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, got a few things badly wrong. He thought slavery a benevolent, paternal, and tragically inefficient and backwards institution. But he did find a kind of consensus, however unwittingly. Writing in the 1920s, he identified white supremacy as the central theme of Southern history in a famous essay of the same name.
Phillips wrote long ago. The field has moved on. He particularly missed the centrality of white supremacy outside the South. Writing today, he might instead title his essay The Central Theme of American History. When the American ISIS rampaged across the South, busting unions and burning people alive, the rest of the white America filled our pockets and looked away. When thousands of black refugees flooded out of the South, fleeing white terror, we got into the lynching business ourselves to remind them that we had a white man’s country, by us and for us. Many of us, if not so many as in past decades, want to keep it just that way.
Preventing children and adults alike from putting the picture together ably serves such goals. If they can’t count on our malice, then they can count on our ignorance. Toss in a large helping of desire for peace and quiet, popular once upon a time on the Missouri frontier, where it saturates the writing of proslavery men, and then again in Alabama, not so long ago, and it might seem like things will never change. They might not, but if so then we have again said something about ourselves. We have said that the American ISIS and all its gains must prevail. This must remain a country for the white man and the Klan, the Red Shirts, and their many auxiliaries had it right. We have chosen and voted in our myriad ways to keep it that way.
That choice falls not on impersonal forces beyond our control, but in ourselves. It would mean discomfort. We would have to take sides. But we do both of those things anyway. White America usually chooses to make black America pay the price, with everything from grotesque violence and our carefully-curated, genteel forgetfulness. Maybe that makes sense to members of the Denver school board or the Oklahoma House committee. I know it made sense to proslavery writers in the nineteenth century and defenders of segregation in the twentieth. Might we at last wonder if we picked the wrong side? We have such clarity when we condemn ISIS, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda. The horrors at home receive a few passing mentions, often full of equivocation or calibrated to avoid the larger questions they present.
Growing up white and American means you get to take that for granted; I know I did. Despite learning better, I probably still do in more ways that I care to count. It takes uncomfortable work to curb the habit. It takes more than a book or memorial or post by some random internet person. The slaveholder’s lexicon comes built in: runaways, not slaves who stole their lives back; race riots, not pogroms built on white terrorism; plantations with their nice houses and gardens; not slave labor camps like something out of Siberia. Even the word lynching doesn’t do the reality justice. Terrorism might, but even that seems too abstracted from the gross realities of cutting off fingers and pulling plugs of flesh out by corkscrew to keep as souvenirs.
Three thousand people came to see a man burned alive. If they did that in some other country, it would be the one thing every American knew about that country and we would cite it for decades after as the defining trait of that foreign land. No American old enough to have heard of it forgets that the Germans had the Nazis and killed the Jews. To at least a generation, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. To another, Muslims flew planes into the Twin Towers. In our memories, those moments stretch on to eternity…so long as someone else has the dirty laundry worth airing.
While we can attribute this to a universal reluctance to grapple with complex issues and resistance to confronting things that don’t reflect well on people we imagine as somehow a part of ourselves, that only sanitizes things for the perpetrators. Yet even granting that, other countries have done much better. In school, German children learn all about the Nazis and the Holocaust. I understand they have special classes just on it.
Americans can’t even manage a National Museum of Slavery. Some of those who prefer the version of history espoused lately in Oklahoma City and Denver stress the import of American exceptionalism. Why not meet them halfway? History teachers should encourage students to understand American exceptionalism: Exceptional Americans made an empire for slavery. They came by the thousands to watch a man burned alive. They came and took fingers and corkscrews of flesh to remember the day. They posed for the pictures with the hanged bodies, like they would with a prize deer or trout. They smiled and laughed and ate their picnics while human ash rose up to the sky, burnt offerings as much as anyone that rose above camps in Europe.
We wrote those chapters into the story of us just as we did all the other things. If a full accounting leaves us with more bad than good on the balance sheet, we should find fault not in the math but in ourselves.