My youngest daughter stopped by a movie house last week to see Spike Lee’s newest project, “Black Klansman” (which, by the way, is very well worth seeing—excellent work). She was not in the “community” at the time. Towards the end of the movie, the distinguished Harry Belafonte, portraying a guest lecturer at a college, tells the story of the lynching of 15-year old Jesse Washington back in 1915.
Mr. Washington’s body was hung, tortured, burned and chopped up, to make sure he got whatever message was being sent, according to Mr. Belafonte. My daughter started crying, and went from soft tears to a sudden seated rage. She was irritated more when hearing many of her fellow theater-goers ask out loud, who is that guy? Is that Sidney Poitier? She yelled out, “Please shut up!!”
At first embarrassed by her loss of decorum, it took her a minute or so to calm herself, as curious theater-goers rushed to see if she was okay and to offer sketchy commiserations. She just wanted to be left alone, as she fought to control her emotions.
She didn’t know where it came from, but she had suddenly felt this very deep revulsion for them all. How could human beings do that? And who were these modern white nationalists in the movie who seemed to want to continue the practice? She got up to make a quick exit from the theater. She was blocked in the aisle by someone saying, “We’re sorry! But it’s just a movie! People don’t do that anymore!” Fortunately, the person moved out of the way.
When she sent me the volley of texts explaining the situation, she asked why we let stuff like that happen back then. I reminded her I wasn’t quite back there then, but it was a common enough occurrence because whites could use the threat of lynching to constantly terrorize Black folk. It was very often a community affair advertised in newspapers and flyers. ‘Get free cotton candy while you watch!,’ some of the notices said.
I told her that if she really wanted to get a feel for the practice, look at a library copy of James Allen’s “Without Sanctuary,” published in 2000. Better yet, get to Montgomery, Alabama and take a tour of the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice (a.k.a., National Memorial and Museum of Lynching). This major project of attorney Bryan Stevenson and his collaborators—identifying lynching as authentic, home-grown terrorist activity– identified the fact that though over 4,400 lynchings of Black men, women and children had been recorded (not yet the total number) in the country, to date there had never been a U.S. anti-lynching law passed. As of 2018, It had never been declared a federal hate crime.
U.S. Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris have recently introduced a senate bill to correct that omission, but it is unlikely to pass that chamber, let alone the House. It would have been interesting to see whether our current POTUS would have signed or vetoed it if it got to his desk.
For millennials and others, here is work still to do. Don’t just cry and complain—do something.
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.