Terrorism is a method of using the fear of violence and retaliation to coerce one group of people to conform to the wishes of another. In America, Black History contains volumes of episodes of terrorism used as a means to control Black populations. One of the most common and recurring forms of terrorism used against Blacks is lynching. We do not usually think of lynch mobs when we think of terrorism, but they are terrorism in its purist form. The very sad part is that lynching is as real today as it ever was.
Most people think of lynch mobs as a type of vigilante justice only practiced in the old west where judge and jury were miles away. Others refer to it jokingly as in that commercial where it is implied that a man who gets his salsa from New York City is about to receive a necktie party. The truth is lynching and lynch mobs have nothing to do with justice and they are nothing to laugh at.
American History records colonists using “tar and feather” justice, or running a culprit out of town “on a rail”. Sometimes even both. In this way, vigilant committee justice and terrorism from the fear of this type of retaliation became a trademark of American society. In fact, British agents who tried to enforce the Stamp Act in the colonies soon found out how real the threat was. For Black America, it was always a reality, and became more pronounced in the period after the Civil War.
Beginning around 1867, organizations such as the Knights of the White Camelia, the Constitutional Union Guards, the Council of Safety, and a number of other such “Gun Clubs” formed as White protective societies with the outward purpose of providing law and order during Radical Reconstruction. Actually, they were terrorists using force, ostracism, bribery and murder to deprive Blacks of political equality. One of their chief methods of terrorism was lynching. Even when the United States government outlawed certain organizations, they went underground and continued their practices.
From 1884 to 1900, there were more than 2,500-recorded incidents of lynching, mostly against Blacks. Who knows how many others occurred, but went unreported? In the first year of the 20th century, 100 African Americans died at the hands of lynch mobs and by World War I, the total rose to 1,100. The lynch mobs felt justified in their actions and practiced it with little remorse. Lynching became so common and so accepted, people went as far as to produce and sell post-cards marking such events. Many such post-cards and photographs still exist. The open acceptance of lynching declined a bit, but the act itself did not, and the terrorism continued. Emmett Till found out in August 1955.
Emmett, barely 14 years old, was from Chicago. In 1955, he went to Money, Mississippi to stay with relatives for the summer. He made the mistake of “whistling” at Carolyn Bryant. Bryant’s husband, Roy, and J.D. Milam decided to “teach the boy a lesson”. The two men beat Till, cut off his ear, shot him, tied a 75 lb. cotton gin fan to his body with barbed wire and threw him into the Tallahatchie River. That’s a lesson? On September 23, a jury of 12 white males acquitted Bryant and Milam of the crime. James Byrd found a similar truth in 1998.
Byrd accepted a ride from Shawn Allen Berry, Lawrence Russell Brewer, and John William King. The three men, for no apparent reason other than pure hatred, beat Byrd unconscious, chained his body to the back of their pick-up truck and dragged the body for three miles. The three men then took Byrd’s lifeless body, (now missing one arm and Byrd’s head), dumped the corpse in the city’s Black cemetery and continued on to a barbecue as if nothing happened. Two of the perpetrators received death penalties and the other received life in prison.
Whenever I read or hear stories of terrorism, I think of America’s own brand of terrorism. I think of the lynching, I think of Emmett Till and I think of James Byrd. It is sad that any of these things could ever happen in a free country, let alone on a planet supposed to be inhabited with intelligent life. Yet, the saddest part of all is that people cannot get over their hatred for one another, the terrorism continues, and lynching is as real today as it ever was.