Because Philip Dray’s AT THE HANDS OF PERSONS UNKNOWN: The Lynching of Black America (edited to get title right) probably would make some students uncomfortable with its story of how brutally many whites have treated several thousand blacks (and some whites too) and how other whites turned a blind eye.
I thought I knew how horrifying lynching was but this book was an eye-opener. People taking home knucklebones from a corpse as souvenirs. Children posing next to a hanged black man for a photo (many post-lynching photographs would become postcards). A black WW II veteran having his eyes burned out with a blow torch. All of it done without benefit of trial, frequently to innocent men (and sometimes women), on the bullshit rationalization that supporters of “Judge Lynch’s law” were protecting white women from being defiled by lecherous black men (in some states, sex between a black man and a white woman was automatically classed as rape). All of it originally done as a community public spectacle; criticism in the 1930s made racists take most such incidents private rather than attract attention from Yankees and others who just didn’t understand the South was it’s own special place (sarcasm font). Often lynching’s aftermath included rampages through black business districts, reminding me of kristalnacht and other European porgroms.
While some historians argue if it isn’t public, it isn’t a lynching, Dray follows the pattern of violence on into the 1950s and 1960s as it slowly fades in the face of increasing opposition. The deathblow came when the feds successfully prosecuted the killers in the Meridian murder of three civil rights workers — not everybody, but enough to show you couldn’t be sure of getting away with it. Dray acknowledges that the legal system is still biased against black men but writing in 2002 he’s optimistic we’ve come a long way. I wonder if he’s still so optimistic (back then, I was too) in a world where police defend their right to shoot black people and whites have called the cops because a black person was standing there. Or where a Tennessee lawmaker can get nostalgic for hanging people from trees — yeah, I’m sure no racial subtext there. Nor in Texas’ scumbag governor Gregg Abbott vowing to pardon a driver convicted for running over a BLM protester
I’m also reminded of the shocked reactions so much of America had to 1960s protests and 1970s urban terrorism and the fantasy that before Kids These Days got out of hand (irrationally angry blacks, irrationally angry gays, kids raised too permissive) everything had been civilized and orderly and peaceful. No, it wasn’t. But lynchings didn’t have the same impact on white America that black or anti-war protests did; lynching enforced the status quo, 1960s protests challenged it.
Dray does a good job profiling the people who fought against Jude Lynch’s Law, such as black activists Ida Wells and Walter White, the NAACP and the Communist Party. Many of them labored for years to end lynching without seeing their work bear fruit. Others were simply self-interested: as lynching finally began to offend the rest of the nation, Southern leaders pushed back against it for fear lynching was bad for business and bad for their image. At the local level, the murderers kept right on lynching for far too long.
Like I said, it’s understandable if, even cleaned of the worst details, lynching upsets students. Contrary to DeStalinist, even if it does that’s no reason not to teach it.
Cover from Allen-Littlefield collection at Emory University, all rights remain with current holder.
4 responses to “I imagine Ron DeSantis does not want people reading this book”
Your text and image disagree on the title of the book.
Sobering post for sure. Shows how high the stakes are.
Thanks for pointing out the error. Corrected now.
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