Politics

"The oppression doesn't cease, it adapts": America's historical past of lynching and its resonance right now

When Robert Fuller was found dead and hanging from a tree in a square opposite Palmdale City Hall, the authorities said it was suicide.

"It's not the first such incident since the COVID-19 pandemic began," the California city said in a statement, according to the CNN, adding, "The city continues to strive to address mental health problems in these difficult times."

But family members of the 24-year-old and others in the community were deeply skeptical. As a woman recently said at a press conference, "No black man would hang himself up in public like this."

Your comment recalls that Fuller's death took place in a country with centuries of lynching history – one that may have changed in recent years but has not disappeared. Thousands of black Americans were lynched in the decades after reconstruction, and although such suicides may have declined in the 20th century, efforts to enact laws that prohibit them have been repeatedly thwarted. In the meantime, these murders have largely been replaced by racist policing and the state-sanctioned execution of black Americans, historian Nicholas Creary told Vox. "The oppression doesn't stop there," he said. "It adapts."

In worldwide protests against this oppression, Fuller was one of two black men who hung from trees in southern California within a few days. The first was Malcolm Harsch, who was found dead in Victorville, California less than two weeks before Fuller. In response to protests and calls from family members and others, both deaths are now being investigated more closely, and some claim to have information that suggests that Harsch actually died from suicide. But many say that across the country, the deaths of black men are often dismissed as self-inflicted by the authorities without a full investigation. The NAACP even has a name for such cases, which it calls "suicides with a quick call," as Sue Sturgis reports at Facing South.

And this lack of research also has an important historical context. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, according to Creary, lynchings were almost never prosecuted. Instead, the authorities would decide that the victim "was killed by unknown parties". For Creary, a brief announcement that someone has committed suicide may just be a “more contemporary variation”.

As deputy director of the Center for Diversity and Enrichment at the University of Iowa, Creary previously studied the history of lynching in Maryland and headed the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a nationwide lynch investigation facility. He spoke to Vox in a condensed and edited conversation about the history of racist violence in America and how that violence has evolved over time – but has never disappeared.

Anna North

Can you define the term “lynching”? Even within the term itself, there seems to be a lot to tell.

Nicholas Creary

I like to use the NAACP criteria: number one, someone must have been killed. Number two, it must have been committed by a group to distinguish lynching from pure murder. This recognizes that lynching is basically a community action. A lot of people are involved and there is coordination. In this way we get to the third criterion: it must have been done "in the name of the race" or "for justice" or for something. So when we talk about lynching, someone was killed, it was committed by a group of people, and it was done in support of something that is most likely related to white domination.

Anna North

When did lynching start and to what extent has it continued over time?

Nicholas Creary

There were lynchings before the reconstruction. Only in the case of Maryland does the earliest documented case of Lynch that we have date back to 1856. And that was the lynching of a free black man.

But in terms of what we consider lynching racial terrorism, much of it really began to rise and implement and enforce Jim Crow during the rebuilding, and especially after the rebuilding. The numbers only really increased from the 1890s.

This is really a phenomenon that occurs in the course of general emancipation with the adoption of the 13th amendment. It becomes a tool to keep blacks in their so-called place. This includes when blacks have been too economically successful.

Check out Ida B. Wells' Southern Horrors book. She explained: much of it was about the economic success of black people. And then, many of these cases of rape or black men attacking white women were codes of existence for a secret, consensual, interracial sexual relationship.

If you look at some of these things, they'll announce it in the newspaper: "Hey, we're going to lynch this person this afternoon." And literally thousands of people would show up to see this.

They are just so grotesque. I read [descriptions of] them because research requires it, but I get to the point where I refuse to watch more of these videos of murdered black men. It becomes a real challenge to be able to read through these things again. These were traumatic events.

The other thing that happened without exception: the coroner or the cause-of-death investigation [would conclude that "this person has been killed by unknown parties"].

One of these main elements of lynching is silence: the silence of the black community saying, "Don't talk about it, because doing so will risk the same fate." But then there's the mute that is part of the cover-up: "Oh, we don't know who did it."

If you actually read some of these reports in the Baltimore Sun and other newspapers, either the reporters must have been there or they had spoken to people who were there. There is no way that they could have reported the details of what happened without first seeing it or talking to people who saw it.

We know that people can be identified. Only in some preliminary investigations conducted by the Maryland [Lynching] Truth and Reconciliation Commission research committee did they identify names of people who were involved. It reveals the lie that "we don't know".

Anna North

I would like to come back to the topic of muting, but I would also like to ask: to what extent does lynching continue to this day? Do we see lynchings now? And what is the connection between racist violence today and lynching in the past?

Nicholas Creary

Reports show that the number of lynchings decreased significantly in the early decades of the 20th century, and they identify a correlating and corresponding increase in the number of state-sanctioned black man executions. The oppression does not stop, it adapts. It changes.

At the beginning of the 20th century, lynching became an embarrassment. The NAACP is fully committed to advocacy and activism and is trying to pass a law against lynching. Dyer's Anti-Lynch Law is introduced in the house [1918]. This is when the machinery of the state, the arrest, and the persecution and execution of black men become an important vehicle.

And the policing that everyone is talking about now can go back to slave patrols. It's like, "Do you have a passport to be away from your plantation?" We call it broken windows now, right? But it's basically the same thing. Are you not in your place

The net effect is that you are still killing black people. It's been officially approved by the state right now, it's not being done by a vigilante mob.

Another part of my research dealt with actual cases in which [perpetrators] lynching murders of blacks were brought to justice and convicted. [From 3,500 to over 6,000 Lynch cases], we found only 18 possible cases in which convictions were obtained. Seven of them, either the appeal convictions were overturned or the conviction was dismissed, or they said, "Okay, served time." The likelihood of Lynchmen being punished was infinite.

Compare that to the number of police officers who are actually convicted or punished in any way for killing black people. You don't have to do much advanced math to see that these numbers are comparable.

Anna North

What about the murder of black people by civilians as opposed to the police? For example, the murder of Ahmaud Arbery has been described as modern lynching – do you see that as part of this story?

Nicholas Creary

Absolutely. The way he was persecuted and basically hunted is a lynch pattern. If you apply the NAACP criteria, the three were "concerned about neighborhood security". I think that's a kind of contemporary riff about "doing it in the name of justice", but it is still fundamentally underpinned by a notion of white supremacy, only using a more contemporary coded language.

Anna North

Are there any cases where lynchings or suspected lynchings have been declared suicides by the authorities to come back to the problem of decommissioning?

Nicholas Creary

In general, in the age of lynching, no. The attack was never completely rejected. A mob broke into the jail and took it out and untied it or burned it or shot it or all of the above. That was undeniable.

But inevitably [after all this] the prosecutor or the medical examiner would investigate what was causing the death. And as I said, in each of these cases it was without exception: "He was killed by unknown parties."

To hear now, "Oh, well, that's suicide." Isn't that basically just a more contemporary variant? "He must have committed suicide" to modern "dies by unknown parties".

Anna North

This leads me to my last question: can you talk a little about the effects of deaths such as those of Robert Fuller and Malcolm Harsch? They mentioned the trauma of going through some of these lynchings and the trauma of watching videos of men who died from the police. Can you talk about the effects of hanging black men on black Americans, given the story we talked about?

Nicholas Creary

This immediately sends a clear message to the black communities. Even small children know what it's about. This is something I was asked about a few years ago because there are more loops in the DC area. You don't even have to kill people, just put the noose on and send a message for yourself. The piece of rope, it says it all. It is a message of violence. It is a message of hate. It is a message to terrorize people.

To take that and now put bodies in trees, this is the story that is brought back to life. And in my opinion that says a lot about who we are as a society, who we are as a nation. It serves to make all of these great words, with which we like to describe ourselves, hollow again. We are the largest country in the world? No, we are not. Do you want to talk about terror? Let's talk about the racial terror that black people have experienced.

If you watch [NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund President] Sherrilyn Ifill's book, which looked at two [Lynch] cases in Maryland, titled On the Courthouse Lawn. Because for many of these things, they literally happened in front of the courthouse. To hang Robert Fuller on a tree opposite the town hall, one page is literally taken out of this old playbook. It reveals the lie that we have made progress.

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