Deep South's response to a lynching apology
The Senate's gesture fits a larger pattern of attempts at reckoning - but to many, it comes too late.
GOLDSBORO, N.C. — Near here, at the crook of the Neuse River, they lynched John Richards in February 1916 after the solidly built black man confessed to killing a white cotton farmer with a shovel in order to steal $35. He was caught trying to buy a new pair of overalls at a nearby mental hospital with a $20 bill.
The execution was one of nearly 5,000 mob lynchings across the country, some for serious crimes, others for merely whistling at a white woman.
To be sure, whites were killed, too, and only four states have no documented evidence of the existence of hanging trees. But 80 percent of lynchings occurred in the South and the images - snapshots of the victim, a mob, and a pine box - became emblematic of the haunting nature of the region's prejudices.
As part of a broader reckoning of past racist crimes, the US Senate this week - in front of the only man known to survive a lynching, 91-year-old James Cameron - formally apologized for its failure to enact federal anti-lynching legislation during the heyday of mob law.
To some blacks who live in areas where lynchings took place, the apology for a long-ago practice is an odd gesture that papers over today's racial inequities. For others, though, it's an overdue overture.
"You can't go back and change it and you can't compensate the people who experienced it, so this is certainly the least we can do - and maybe the most," says Monte Akers, a Texas lawyer who wrote "Flames After Midnight" about the burning of three innocent black men in Kirven, Texas, in the 1920s.
The Senate's apology comes amid an unprecedented era of reckoning and atonement for past racial injustices, stopping short of outright reparations for slavery and its aftermath. A few weeks ago, for instance, the FBI exhumed the body of Emmett Till to look for more clues in the 50-year-old murder that galvanized the civil rights movement.
On Monday, a frail Edgar Ray Killen faced the first day of trial for his alleged role in the killing of three civil rights workers outside Philadelphia, Miss., in 1964. In Chicago, an exhibition of lynching images, "Without Sanctuary," is once again sparking introspection on a lost but haunting time.
Sometimes called a form of American holocaust, lynchings were effective as a kind of homegrown terrorism to keep intact the social structure that preceded the Civil War. They were driven by fear among whites as much as hatred of blacks. But dozens of postcard images of lynching gangs - and a body count kept by the Tuskegee Institute - were also responsible for changing attitudes about race, culminating in the civil rights movement and the ebbing not only of mob violence, but of separate water fountains.
Yet the changes took time. Between 1880 and 1960, 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced, and seven presidents urged their passing. Filibustering Southern senators scuttled the vote every time, saying a lack of law enforcement in the tumultuous postwar South necessitated mob justice.
Critics today say Congress's failure surely fueled the boldness of the mob. Acknowledging that role is a step forward, many say. The Senate's official apology, approved Monday, is one of only a handful it has issued throughout history.
"The Senate failed these Americans," said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana, who sponsored the action after the Committee for Public Apology began pressing the issue in 2003.
The move is likely to help focus debate in a country still struggling with the aftermath of slavery.
"America's racial experience is like a death in the family: The first thing that happens in the process is denial, then anger, then grief, and, finally, healing," says Mr. Akers. "And we've still got parts of the country in denial, some that are angry, some that are grieving, and some that have looked the beast firmly in the eye and experienced the healing."
Still, in all the emotionalism over the apology, some worry that it will just divert attention from the living legacies of racism. "I'm suspicious of government apologies," says Jonathan Markovitz, a sociologist and author of "Legacies of Lynching." "There's a way where you can pay attention to something and empty it of meaning. What defined lynching is it was a method of terrorism that worked to preserve racial stratification, and in many ways those structures of inequality are still in place."
Nathan Davis, a black septuagenarian who lived through the Jim Crow era, sees the apology as a selfish flourish to appease Washington's guilt - serving to fan the flames of racial discontent, not cool them. As someone who once feared white-mob rule, Mr. Davis says today's morbid fascination with lynching is counterproductive, drawing attention to the horrors of the past instead of the distance the country has since come.
"What's done is done, ain't nothing changing it now," he says, sitting in the shade of a tree less than a mile from where John Richards was lynched. "They lynched blacks, whites, everybody, if they didn't do what they said. The people they're apologizing to are dead and gone. It was a different time, and it needs to be left where it is."
Carolyn Creech, who grew up and still lives in the black section of Clayton, N.C., says her great-great-grandmother told her father stories about the injustices blacks experienced. To her, the Senate's apology falls flat - especially since racial injustices still prevail.
Instead of eradicating racial stratification, the powers-that-be, she says, have simply institutionalized such tactics. Her proof: Everything from the predominance of black men in prison to the refusal of the town to put a proper railroad- crossing guard next to the black neighborhood.
"I won't accept their apology," she says. "What they used to do with a rope, today they do with a paper and pencil."
While generations retell the apocryphal tales of enslavement and prejudice, many blacks have experienced the prospect of mob justice. When Clarence Mason was working in Kentucky in 1975, locals would tell him: "Whatever you do, don't go out at night by yourself - they might get you."
"It's too late to apologize," the Clayton, N.C., resident says. "If they wanted to do something about it, then they should have done it when it was happening - not all these years later."
Still, he sees hope in how Americans today react to overt racism, pointing to the atonement and self-evaluation that the town of Jasper, Texas, went through after a black man was dragged to death there in 1998. That kind of community outrage also happened when several burnt crosses were discovered in Durham, N.C., last month. "These days, communities rise up against injustice - and that's how things change."