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If You Must Think Of Lynching, Think Of This

This Monday, April 23, 2018, file photo shows part of the display at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a memorial to honor thousands of people killed in racist lynchings, in Montgomery, Ala. Facing an impeachment inquiry that he and supporters claim is illegal, President Donald Trump tweeted Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019, that the process is a lynching. (Brynn Anderson/AP)
This Monday, April 23, 2018, file photo shows part of the display at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a memorial to honor thousands of people killed in racist lynchings, in Montgomery, Ala. Facing an impeachment inquiry that he and supporters claim is illegal, President Donald Trump tweeted Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019, that the process is a lynching. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

If you must think of lynching, think of Ida B. Wells, fearless crusader for justice. Think of her publishing "Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases" in 1892. That pamphlet, followed by "A Red Record" in 1895, challenged the pernicious lies and stereotypes white citizens used to justify the ritual murder of their African-American neighbors.

Think of Mary Turner in 1918. A mob tore her apart, along with the 8-month-old fetus she was carrying, in Lowndes County, Georgia.

If you must think of lynching, think of James Weldon Johnson, polymath, activist, and diplomat, who echoed Wells’s language when he dubbed the bloodstained middle months of 1919 “The Red Summer.” Think of him stalking the halls of Capitol Hill from 1919 to 1922, doggedly pursuing a federal anti-lynching bill.

In this Dec. 2, 2011 file photo, Michelle Duster, great-granddaughter of civil rights pioneer Ida B. Wells who led a crusade against lynching during the early 20th century, holds a portrait of Wells in her home in Chicago's South Side. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)
In this Dec. 2, 2011 file photo, Michelle Duster, great-granddaughter of civil rights pioneer Ida B. Wells who led a crusade against lynching during the early 20th century, holds a portrait of Wells in her home in Chicago's South Side. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

Think of Walter White, using his pale skin and deceptively European features to investigate 41 lynchings for the NAACP. Think of him in Lowndes County, on the trail of Mary Turner’s killers. Think of him luring a shopkeeper to spill the details. “Little by little he revealed the whole story,” White wrote in The American Mercury. “When he told of the manner in which the pregnant woman had been killed he chuckled and slapped his thigh and declared it to be ‘the best show, Mister, I ever did see. You ought to have heard the wench howl when we strung her up.’”

Think of White identifying the co-conspirators, among them “prosperous farmers, businessmen, bankers, newspaper reporters and editors, and several law enforcement officers.”

If you must think of lynching, think of Claude McKay, Harlem Renaissance genius. Think of him writing  “The Lynching,” an immortal 1922 poem in which white children, circling the charred remains of a ritually murdered black man, “danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.”

Rosa Ingram, Roger Malcom's aunt, reads the Georgia Historical Society marker for the Moore's Ford bridge lynching on the turnoff from Hwy. 78 at the rural bridge outside Monroe, Ga., Saturday, Feb. 12, 2005. On July 25, 1946, George Dorsey, Mae Murray Dorsey, Roger Malcom and Dorothy Malcom were lynched by a mob on the bridge that spanned the Apalachee River some 60 miles from Atlanta. No one has ever been charged in the murders. (Ric Feld/AP)
Rosa Ingram, Roger Malcom's aunt, reads the Georgia Historical Society marker for the Moore's Ford bridge lynching on the turnoff from Hwy. 78 at the rural bridge outside Monroe, Ga., Saturday, Feb. 12, 2005. On July 25, 1946, George Dorsey, Mae Murray Dorsey, Roger Malcom and Dorothy Malcom were lynched by a mob on the bridge that spanned the Apalachee River some 60 miles from Atlanta. No one has ever been charged in the murders. (Ric Feld/AP)

Think of Richard Wright in 1935. Think of him writing “Between the World and Me,” a poem in which a hapless traveler stumbles onto the ruins of a lynching and finds himself reliving it.

And then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth 
into my throat till I swallowed my own blood.
 
My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices, and my
 
black wet body slipped and rolled in their hands as
 
they bound me to the sapling.

If you must think of lynching, think of Mae Murray Dorsey and her husband George, murdered alongside their friends Roger and Dorothy Malcom in Georgia in 1946. Think of James Byrd Jr., tied to a truck and dragged to death in 1998.

In this Wednesday, April 10, 2019, photo Mylinda Byrd Washington, 66, left, and Louvon Byrd Harris, 61, hold up photographs of their brother James Byrd Jr. in Houston. James Byrd Jr. was the victim of what is considered to be one of the most gruesome hate crime murders in recent Texas history. (Juan Lozano/AP)
In this Wednesday, April 10, 2019, photo Mylinda Byrd Washington, 66, left, and Louvon Byrd Harris, 61, hold up photographs of their brother James Byrd Jr. in Houston. James Byrd Jr. was the victim of what is considered to be one of the most gruesome hate crime murders in recent Texas history. (Juan Lozano/AP)

Think of the more than 4,000 others, known and unknown, beaten, shot, hanged and burned.

If you must think of lynching, think of the U.S. Senate in 2005. Think of its members apologizing for Congress’ refusal to make lynching a federal crime, despite 200 proposals and the lobbying of James Weldon Johnson and so many others through the years. Think of the eight senators who declined to support the measure: Lamar Alexander, Thad Cochran, John Cornyn, Mike Enzi, Judd Gregg, Trent Lott, John Sununu, and Craig Thomas.

Think of Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris introducing the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act in 2018. The bill described lynching as “the ultimate expression of racism in the United States” following Reconstruction.

This is the history that should come to mind when “lynching” is invoked.

If instead, you conceive of a petulant president and bickering partisans, think again.

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Jabari Asim Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Jabari Asim is the author of 15 books and director of the MFA program in creative writing at Emerson College, where he is also the Elma Lewis Distinguished Fellow in Social Justice.

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