The Lingering Legacy of Lynching and Trayvon Martin

When I learned that 17-year old Trayvon Martin was gunned down by a man who registered his boyish face and casual presence in his gated-community as dangerous, I once again felt the sorrow of mothers and fathers who for generations agonized over how best to protect their children from the horrors of lynching. History shows that the bigotry, polarization and indifference that exist today are the same ingredients for the dehumanization that fueled the social climate that made lynching thousands of African Americans acceptable. When we do not take the time to truly see each other, it is to the detriment of the entire country.

Just weeks before Trayvon was murdered, I admonished my 13-year old son for wearing a hoodie on his bus ride home. With love and conviction, I explained that he could put his hood on if it gets cold or starts to rain, but otherwise not to pull it over his head, “especially when talking to strangers,” because others might misread his brown face and 5’9” frame as menacing. Easily the gentlest person I know, my child was stilled by my seriousness. Even as I spoke, I questioned whether this was paranoid, over-protective parenting. But, I also knew that if he had blonde curls instead of the afro spirals that poked beneath his hood, I would not have to place limits in this way on how he could just be in the world.

I am just as painfully aware that unlike Trayvon, Oscar Grant’s head was not covered by a hoodie when shot in the back by officers on a railway platform in Oakland, California in 2009. Nor was 49-year old James Craig Anderson’s when he was beaten and run over with a truck by a group of white teens in Brandon, Mississippi in 2011. When 14-year old Emmett Till’s mutilated body was dumped in the Tallahatchie River in 1955 and family patriarch, Anthony Crawford, was stabbed, beaten, shot, and hanged in Abbeville, South Carolina in 1916–neither of these victims of lynchings wore hoodies. What these black males have in common with Trayvon is that they were beloved by their families and friends, moving through life with many of the same values and dreams that we all share, yet someone else saw them as less than human.

I hope Trayvon’s untimely death prompts us to take every opportunity to see the god in one another, ourselves in each other, and the American-ness that we all share. From the depiction of President Barack Obama surrounded by fried chicken, watermelon and ribs on a $10 “food stamp” by a California Republican women’s club in 2009 to “Don’t Re-nig 2012” anti-Obama bumper stickers unabashedly displayed on cars in Mississippi—there is a growing push to normalize hateful language and behavior. Human nature dictates that we act out of what we believe, and if we devalue others because they are not like us, we will treat them accordingly. That’s how Lawrence King, an openly gay 8th grader, could be murdered in 2008 in Oxnard, California by a homophobic classmate and how Mexican immigrant, Rodolfo Olmedo, was beaten into a coma by a group of mostly black men shouting racial epithets in Staten Island, New York in 2010.

The indifference I saw from otherwise good, decent people who were not alarmed enough by the fatal shooting of unarmed Oscar Grant to at least question the inappropriate (if not intentional) misuse of force by police when apprehending the “black male suspect” speaks to the emotional distance created by stereotypes. For some, the incident had little to do with their lives and discussing it would only make overly sensitive black folks riot. And, stereotypes like this, which permeate the culture of our country, can be learned by anyone. This is why some of those I talked to who automatically associated the anger some blacks felt regarding the Oscar Grant shooting with an almost innately irrational tendency towards looting and violence were in fact African Americans. This also explains how George Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, could very well have seen Trayvon Martin as just another “black male suspect.”

This latest unresolved incident of racial violence is a reminder that the country has not healed from the anger, pain, guilt, fear, and shame of so many unacknowledged injustices relating to nearly a century of lynching African Americans. Compounded by the countless racial incidents that have followed, as well as the systems of inequality that remain, communities across the United States have work to do. Thankfully, thousands from different nationalities, races, ages, genders, and sexual orientations have chosen to relate to each other out of love, coming together to seek justice for Trayvon. This collective activism shows that a past when murderers of black men, women, and children could quietly walk away protected by the silence of everyone in their communities no longer exists. Through these demonstrations of support and the fight for justice, Trayvon’s grieving mother, Sybrina, says she has found some comfort and also, I hope, the love necessary to heal.

To learn more about the lingering impact of almost a century of lynching African Americans, check out the documentary, Always in Season, by clicking here.

For a schedule of upcoming Justice for Trayvon rallies, click here.

Always in Season documentary project


Should You Just Turn Away?

I’m asked quite a bit why I’ve chosen to produce Always in Season, and it’s hard for me to give just one answer. My first response is that while the details of the violence of lynchings can definitely be alarming, I am inspired by the determination of people who carried on with day to day living— providing for children, husbands and wives, parents, and neighbors despite having to simultaneously mourn the tragic loss of their loved ones while managing the threat of becoming targets of lynching themselves.

Shortly after I moved back home to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, I encountered the collection of lynching postcards and photographs called Without Sanctuary. Before I saw this eye-opening exhibit, my mental image of the victims of lynchings was faceless because the subject was rarely talked about, and the photographs were still largely hidden away in families, quietly passed down through generations. Those recently uncovered photographs on display in 2002 revealed the startlingly familiar faces of men, women, and children who could have been my relatives, my friends, my loved-ones, and my neighbors. I was immediately drawn into their stories and found that while lynchings were a common tool of vigilante justice through the late nineteenth century, African Americans were tortured, mutilated, murdered, and photographed with unparalleled frequency that reached 2-3 lynchings per week at its peak and continued on long past the time when most others were simply hanged.

Most often the victims were guilty of no crime at all and rarely received a fair trial like Laura Nelson who in 1911 was hung from this bridge in Okemah, Oklahoma with her 14-year old son’s lynched body suspended only 20 feet away and facing hers. The Nelsons’ alleged crime was stealing meat.

Even though I’ve researched lynchings for two years now and seen dozens of photographs, it is still difficult for me to think about the brutality of this incident, but it is ultimately important for me to continue listening to the stories of the victims, however challenging, because that’s where the lessons are— the ones that are buried deepest and expose how a climate of hate and indifference can build to the point that most of the citizens of Okemah were proud of the double murder and felt comfortable enough to pose with the bodies of Laura and her son for photographs to share with their families and friends.
Nelson Lynching CrowdBecause of this dehumanizing level of brutality, one of the most important reasons for making the documentary and Second Life projects for me is to help show the human toll of 4,743 murders that occurred for almost a century from 1882-1968 of people who endured the indignity of death by lynching but whose voices continue to resonate across generations.

In upcoming posts, I’ll share more about my motivations for telling the multi-faceted stories of those involved with lynchings, the effects of the unrestrained violence on their family members and others in communities where lynchings occurred, and contributions from people who are also compelled to turn the lessons of this dark part of American history into guideposts for a more embracing and safer world.