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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Senate Lynching Apology: The Hypocrisy and the Horror

Revolution #008, July 17, 2005, posted at Recently the U.S. Senate passed a “resolution” apologizing “to the victims of lynching and the descendants of those victims for the failure of the Senate to enact anti-lynching legislation.” Of course, there was a hitch: Bill Frist, the leader of the Senate, refused to put who did—and did not—vote for it in the written record. And some eight Republican senators still refused to support the apology! On one hand this “apology,” and the way it was carried forward by the Senate represents a self- exposure of this system and the way it operates. After all this time these suckers still can’t get together around any real apology for the whole history of lynching of mainly Black people in the U.S. Let alone change the actual oppressive conditions of the people. On the other hand this “apology,” coming now, reveals some deeper lessons about forms of oppression and subjugation in U.S. history. The resolution for the apology was originally sponsored by two Senators after viewing the book Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, which shows pictures and even postcards that were made of lynchings. The book grew out of an exhibit of those postcards and pictures, and not too long after hearing about this so- called apology I went to check out this exhibit with a friend. **** On the postcard picture a small white x showed the spot where William James, a Black man, had been lynched. He was hung from a steel arch in Cairo, Illinois on November 9, 1909. Bright light illuminated the steel arch so that everyone in the town could see his body. After William James died his corpse was pulled down and dragged around while a racist white mob cheered. Then members of the crowd severed his head and put it on a wood pole. They removed his organs so they could use them as souvenirs. And finally the remains of his body were set on fire. This was one of the first stories I encountered at this exhibit, but it was far from the most gruesome. In many of the pictures and postcards there are crowds of white people cheering and grinning. Some have little children smiling up at the burnt corpse, standing with their family and dressed up in their Sunday best. These pictures and postcards were sold as souvenirs. What made this all the more disgusting and appalling were the notes written on the postcard pictures of lynched people. One postcard showed a crowd standing around a burnt Black man, hanging from a tree, and read, “This is the barbeque we had last night, my picture is to the left with the cross over it. Your son Joe.” According to the book Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, “Between 1882 and 1968, an estimated 4,742 blacks met their deaths at the hands of lynch mobs. As many if not more blacks were victims of legal lynchings (speedy trials and executions), private white violence, and ’nigger hunts,’ murdered by a variety of means in isolated rural sections and dumped into rivers and creeks.” These lynchings were officially and unofficially sanctioned by and often led by sheriffs, politicians, and clergy. In response to this, an anti-lynching movement developed in the North and to a degree in the South. Ida B. Wells, an ex-slave, journalist, and anti-lynching crusader, exposed the horrendous nature of lynchings. She, together with W.E.B. Dubois and others, mounted a mass campaign which put anti-lynching legislation as their top priority. And some 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress. None passed. Why this is so is never explained in the Senate’s apology. “But Why Didn’t They Send In the Army?” The exhibit included a book where people could write their comments after viewing the photos and reading the horrific stories. One page contained the following, in the handwriting of a child: “Why didn’t they just send in the army to stop this?” Damn good question. After the Civil War, from 1865 to 1877, the Union Army did remain in the South. This was the period of Reconstruction. Freed Blacks and poor whites seized lands and began farming. Former southern plantation owners, defeated in the war, were largely held at bay by the Union Army. Changes and reforms also happened in the political superstructure. Blacks were not only able to vote but also ran for and were elected to political office. But, as Chairman Avakian points out in his essay How This System Has Betrayed Black People: Crucial Turning Points, “In 1877, all this was reversed and betrayed. The bourgeoisie had gotten what it needed out of this situation: it had consolidated its hold over the country as a whole; it had consolidated its dominant position economically and politically within the South as well as the North and West.” The old plantation owners used their control of the plantations to force millions of Black people into sharecropping and serf-like conditions. And in 1877 the Union Army was withdrawn from the South. The answer to the question, then, is this: They—the bourgeoisie, or ruling class of capitalists—“didn’t send in the army” because they had consciously decided to pull it out years before! Once the army was gone, a whole structure of Jim Crow laws codified the subjugated position of the Black masses. In the spread-out conditions of the rural South, the plantation owners relied on the massive terror of racist lynch mobs and the Ku Klux Klan to enforce those laws and that oppression. And that’s why they not only didn’t “send in the army,” but didn’t even pass a law to make lynching a federal crime: lynching was too important, too central, to the whole system of the oppression of Black people in the South, and to holding together the whole class structure of the United States, north as well as south. “I Wonder: Has Anything Really Changed?” Another comment written in the book at the end of the exhibit was from a young Black man. He said, “I’m a 24-year-old Black man. I found this exhibit very powerful and it made me remember stories I’ve heard from relatives who live down south. But then I wonder, has anything really changed? I still live with the harassment of the police and discrimination.” Think about the fact that this “apology” is coming long after lynching as such is no longer a significant form in which the oppression of Black people is carried out and enforced. The forms of exploitation and impoverishment have changed with the economic changes in this country, as the southern plantations were mechanized and many Black people moved from the rural south into the urban ghettos, north and south, to be exploited in the factories and other jobs, or kept unemployed. The corresponding forms of oppression have changed too. From lynching and Jim Crow, we’ve gone to pervasive police brutality, police murder, and massive imprisonment. Under capitalism, control over the poor and continued oppression of Black people takes the from of direct state terror by urban police forces. This is backed up by the army in times of massive rebellion against this oppression. There continues to be segregation and discrimination, massive impoverishment, exploitation and super- exploitation, and terror to back all this up. Some of the forms have changed, but the essential nature of the system has not. Nor will it until it is overthrown and something different is brought into being. **** All of this makes me wonder, when is the U.S. Senate going to apologize for the present-day terror? For Abner Louima, for Tyisha Miller, for Rodney King, for Amadou Diallo, for all the Black people and especially the youth who live with the constant fear of the present-day terror? And even lynching isn’t totally off the map. Just look at what happened in Howard Beach where three white racists recently attacked some Black men, for the second time in 20 years. Or who can forget James Byrd, lynched in Texas in the late 1990s? And what does it say about what kind of country this is, and what kind of system we live under, when this historical period in which most of these lynchings took place is not the whole story, but merely a chapter in an ongoing real-life book of horrors? From the horrors of the middle passage on the slave ships, to the selling of children and other atrocities during slavery time, through lynching and down to the present-day mass incarceration of Black youth—what does it say? Sorry, the lame fucking apology won’t cut it. And we don’t intend to, nor need to, wait another 50 years for a half-hearted apology for all the hell you put people through now. (Which won’t be delivered anyway.) We have a whole other kind of future in mind. This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolution Onlinehttp://revcom.usWrite: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497


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