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.
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The move is likely to help focus debate in a country still struggling with the aftermath of slavery.Skip to next paragraph
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"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."