November 7th, 2007 14:11 EST
Antique Terrorism - The Noose
Hardly a week passes without reports of some incident involving a noose: On a doorknob of an African American professor at Columbia University; inside a black Coast Guard cadet's bag; in a Home Depot store under construction in Elgin, Ill.; in a Long Island, N.Y., police locker room, and in a tree outside a cultural center at the University of Maryland. On Oct. 1, a white construction worker shook a noose at a black worker on the Comcast Tower construction site in Center City.
The very symbol of domestic terrorism was even found outside a post office near ground zero in Manhattan.
It is difficult to grasp the severity of these post-Jena 6 outbreaks without recognizing what the noose symbolizes. In early American history, most lynching victims were white. But that changed as of 1886, when there were 74 recorded lynchings of blacks and 64 of whites. In every year since the end of the Civil War, the number of blacks lynched has easily exceeded whites put to death outside of the law.
Statistics compiled by Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama show that from 1882 through 1944, when lynchings first began to drop significantly, there were 3,417 reported lynchings of blacks and 1,291 of whites.
As Philip Dray notes in his excellent book, "At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, " lynching became "a systematized reign of terror that was used to maintain the power whites had over blacks, a way to keep blacks fearful and to forestall black progress and miscegenation."
It should come as no surprise that lynching became largely a Southern phenomenon. In Gunnar Myrdal's 1944 landmark study An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, he observed the South's "fixation on the purity of white womanhood." He noted, "The South has an obsession with sex which helps make this region quite irrational in dealing with Negroes generally."
At any crossing of the color line, real or perceived, white mobs assumed the role of judge, jury and executioner.
Ralph Ginzburg's book 100 Years of Lynchings, first published in 1962 and reissued by Black Classic Press in Baltimore, provides a compilation of newspaper stories about lynchings. Among them:
"HARTWELL, Ga., Jan. 2 - Two negroes were lynched and a negro woman was badly beaten as the result of a remark to a white girl in Anderson County, South Carolina, according to reports received here tonight. "The three negroes were riding in a buggy when they passed the girl. One of the men made a remark to the white girl, at which she took offense. She reported the encounter to a group of white men who quickly caught up with the blacks, lynched the men, beat the woman, and ordered her out of the state. "Reports concerning the nature of the alleged insulting remarks are conflicting. Officials of Georgia county say that one of the negro men yelled out, 'Hello, Sweetheart.' The negro woman asserts that all they said was 'Hello.' " - Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan. 3, 1916.
"MUSKOGEE, Okla., March 31 - Marie Scott, a negro woman, was taken from the Wagoner County jail early today and hanged from a telephone pole. A mob of at least a dozen armed men overpowered the jailer, a one-armed man, threw a rope over the screaming woman's head, dragged her out of her cell, and strung her up from the jail. "Marie Scott was charged with driving a knife into the heart of Lemuel Peace, a youthful white man who, in the company with other young white men, had gone to the negro quarter of Wagoner last Saturday night." - Seattle Times, March 31, 1914.
"CEDAR BLUFF, Miss., March 31 - Jeff Brown was lynched by a mob here late Saturday afternoon. Brown was walking down the street near the car tracks and saw a moving freight train going in the direction in which he wanted to go. He started to run to board the moving train. On the sidewalk was the daughter of a white farmer. Brown accidently brushed against her and she screamed. A gang quickly formed and ran after him, jerking him off the moving train. He was beaten into insensibility and then hung to a tree. The sheriff has made no attempt to find out who the members of the mob were. Picture cards of the body are being sold on the streets at five cents apiece." - Birmingham Voice of the People, April 1, 1916.
Far from being merely a prank, the hanging of nooses harks back to a shameful period in American history. It was not until 1952 that the United States went a whole year without a single lynching. If we're ever going to bridge the racial divide, we must acknowledge that for more than a century, if an African American was thought to have violated a social code, he or she could be killed for it. That's not a laughing matter.
George E. Curry, a former Washington correspondent and New York bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune, was editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.