​Should We Make Lynching Illegal, Or Nah?

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Good news, everyone! We're close to having a federal anti-lynching bill, to which you might say, "We don't already?" Yeah, that's weird. But our three black US Senators -- Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Tim Scott, and yes, we only have three -- have joined together to put forward a bipartisan bill.

The move came more than two weeks after a similar bill was introduced in the House of Representatives. Nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress from 1882 to 1986. None were approved.

Wow, 200 anti-lynching bills failed to pass in Congress? What was the hold-up? Was there an unnoticed typo and everyone thought they were voting on an anti-lunching bill? I wouldn't support that, either. Lunch is my second favorite meal.


Under the bill, lynching would be punishable by a sentence of up to life in prison. The measure would not preclude murder charges that can already be brought under existing law.

This all seems reasonable, but those 200 bills still tanked because of opposition from Southern Democrats (we'd now consider them Trump Republicans) in the South. If you think it should be easy to pass an anti-lynching bill, just consider the uproar over removing the Confederate flag or statues of Confederate generals. An anti-lynching bill would strike at the very heart of Southern entertainment, and that's not morbid humor. The sick truth is that lynching was once a very popular form of funtimes.

Crowds showed up to watch the brutal murder of Sam Hose in Atlanta. They even later sold grisly souvenirs.

One Sunday morning in 1899, just as they were leaving church, white Atlantans learned that a black fugitive who had allegedly killed a white man and raped his wife had been caught and would soon be lynched in a nearby town. Thousands rushed to the railway station, the lucky ones finding places aboard crowded trains departing for the lynching site. The black fugitive, Sam Hose, would never be tried in court. Whites knew he was guilty. They also knew exactly how they wanted to torture and kill him. In a half-hour of ritualized savagery, Hose's torturers methodically cut off his ears, his fingers, and finally his penis and testicles, all of which were held aloft for the crowd to admire. Then Hose was doused with oil, and the pyre over which he was chained set ablaze. The crowd of white men, women and children watched with fascination as his body burned to a crisp. Once the lynch site had cooled down, souvenir hunters rushed in to claim Hose's remaining body parts from the ashes. Hose's knuckles found their way to an Atlanta grocer, who displayed them in the window of his store.

And there was the grotesque murder just 100 years ago of Mary Turner and her unborn child.

Nineteen year old and eight months pregnant Turner publicly denied that her husband had anything to do with the murder of Hampton Smith. He had been arrested among others on the farm. Her remarks further enraged the locals, and the mob turned on her, determined to "teach her a lesson."

Upon hearing the news Turner fled but was caught the next day, May 19. A mob of several hundred people dragged her to Folsom Bridge, over the Little River, which separated Brooks and Lowndes counties. The mob tied her ankles, strung her upside down, doused her clothes in gasoline and set her on fire. While she was still alive, someone split open her stomach and her unborn baby slid out and fell to the ground. The mob stomped and crushed the baby to death. Turner's body was riddled with hundreds of bullets. Later that night, the remains of Turner and her baby were buried a few feet away from where they were murdered.

Three days later, the murderer of plantation owner Hampton Smith was caught, and killed in a shootout with police. During the week long rampage, more than 500 African Americans fled from Brooks and Lowndes counties in fear of their lives from the angry mobs.

Perhaps the most "famous" lynching victim is Emmett Till. His killers mockingly passed unpunished through the justice system -- just like the killers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, among many others. After every recorded lynching, a white person would eagerly tell you what the black victim did to deserve it. They committed a horrible crime, be it murder, or simple defiance, or just winking. If you had access to a time machine and sufficient capacity for self-reflection, you'd notice how similar the rationalizations sound to what we hear today. It's why we still march and why we still kneel.

But the 201st time is the charm! We're totally going to pass that anti-lynching bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is just plain flummoxed that it hasn't happened already.

"I thought we did that many years ago," Mr. McConnell said this month in an interview on Sirius XM. "I hadn't thought about it, I thought that was done back during L.B.J. or some period like that," he said.

"If we need one at the federal level, I certainly will support it," he said.

That "if" is suspicious, but let's see how it plays out. Nothing's certain these days. There was already some pushback against a lynching museum in Alabama.

Randall Hughey, another member who also owns a local radio station, emphasized his support of the museum – but also repeatedly questioned the veracity of its facts.

"They have every right to have the memorial, if it's accurate," he said, adding that he was perplexed by reports of more than 4,000 lynchings. "That seems pretty incredible to me that there would be that many documented lynchings … That was not the norm."

Equal Justice Initiative, the group behind the memorial and lynching data, did six years of research and made extensive visits to southern sites.

Mary Massey, a 58-year-old nurse on her way to lunch in Montgomery, expressed disdain at the project: "We didn't have nothing to do with that. I think they just need to leave it alone. It's just stirring up something."

No, Ms. Massey, I'm afraid we all have something to "do with that." As Rod Serling once said about the Holocaust, it's a "moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all, their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the gravediggers. Something to dwell on and to remember, not only in the Twilight Zone but wherever men walk God's Earth."

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Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He's on the board of the Portland Playhouse theater and writes for the immersive theater Cafe Nordo in Seattle. Tickets are on sale now for his latest Nordo collaboration, "Curiouser and Curiouser," an adaptation of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass." It promises to feel like an actual evening with SER (for good or for ill).

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