Lynching: Unfinished Business

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Many Americans know nothing about our nation’s horrible history of lynching. They don't know that thousands of Americans died by being hung on a tree by a mob of vigilantes, often Klansmen in their white hoods. They don’t know that not only were they hung, but many of them were castrated, some were also burned alive. They don’t know that men, women and children were all lynched. They don’t know that in many towns lynching was considered a kind of free entertainment, where women and children looked on, sometimes spreading blankets and bringing lunch.

They don’t know that there were photos taken at lynching entertainments, which were then sold as postcards and mailed to friends. They don’t know that while most lynching victims were African Americans in the South, there were a thousand lynching in the Midwest and West, where many of the victims were Chinese, Mexicans, native Americans and Sicilians.

Ninety-one year old James Cameron is one American who knows intimately about lynching. He is one of the few lynching victims who survived. One summer night in 1930, as he laid in the Marion County, Indiana jail, the 16 year-old Cameron heard a mob break through the brick wall, shouting "nigger, nigger." They had already lynched two black men right in the courthouse square. They put a noose around his neck, but then he heard someone shout out, "that boy had nothing to do with any raping or killing."

Miraculously, the mob relented and Cameron was freed. He was convicted as an accessory in the murder of a white man and the rape of a white woman, but after serving four years in prison, he was pardoned by the governor. Two years ago the city of Marion apologized. Recently, James Cameron came to the U.S. Capitol, built partly by slave labor, to be present for the apology given by the U.S. Senate for never passing the legislation which would have made lynching illegal.

Seven U.S. presidents sent legislation to the Senate to end lynching, but Southern senators filibustered the legislation and it was never passed. Cameron was joined by relatives of Emmett Till, the 15 year-old who was brutally murdered in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman and by relatives of others who had been lynched. Some of those lynched were accused of raping white women, but actually were black businessmen who were becoming too successful or who had argued when they felt they were being treated unfairly or those who tried to register themselves or other blacks to vote.

The apology was engineered by Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who admits that apologies in a vacuum are not enough, but also says, "This won't correct all the wrongs that continue, but it will urge us all to tell the truth about what happened." That is what concerns some in the African American community, who argue that an apology without real confession and a real attempt to make whole those who were wounded is meaningless. Some of the Senate sponsors of this legislative apology did not even sign on until after the bill had passed.

Other Senators did not sign on, afraid that an apology might lead to financial payments for lynching victims. The United States has never apologized for slavery and this is Congress's first apology for any injustice done to African Americans. President Clinton did apologize for the government's role in the Tuskegee medical experiment on nearly 400 black men who were left untreated for syphilis so that government physicians could study its effects.

Nearly twenty years ago, Congress did apologize for the treatment of Japanese Americans who were imprisoned in internment camps during World War II and paid each person $20,000. Lynching is one of the nation's most shameful legacies. An apology by Congress for its inaction is a good first step, but it is only one step on the road to repairing the breach. Other towns must join Marion, Indiana in confessing their complicity. And, yes, the nation, must also take steps that are more than words in order to make whole those families and communities whose loved ones were brutally killed and whose deaths remained unspoken stories for so long. Only then will the words be meaningful. Only then will we be able to close this chapter of American history.

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