This article is the fifth and final in a series to help Samford students understand the significance of lynching in American history and culture.
Up until this point, I have discussed the lynching era in great detail. I documented the historical development of lynching, and I have attempted to contextualize lynching as a tool of racial terror meant to oppress African-Americans by enforcing Jim Crow-era segregation. In my discussion of the People’s Grocery lynching and the Jesse Washington lynching, I have hopefully demonstrated how lynching was an effective, horrific tool that succeeded in reinforcing racial divides.
I agree with Bryan Stevenson, the director of the Equal Justice Initiative and our 2016 Davis Lecturer, that racial oppression reshapes itself over time, seeking new ways, such a mass incarceration, to achieve the same goals. When the Civil War and slavery ended, white communities used lynching to continue the racial oppression that was evident during slavery. When society turned against lynching, beginning under President Nixon, racial oppression was reshaped through mass incarceration for nonviolent crimes which disproportionately affects minority groups, specifically African-Americans. However, my purpose in this series is not to discuss mass incarceration, but lynching.
In my experience, lynching is not a well-known topic, yet the lynching era lasted approximately 90 years in U.S. history. In modern discussions of race relations, I have sometimes heard the phrase “but slavery ended more than 100 years ago.” Before a constructive conversation on mass incarceration can begin, we must acknowledge that racial oppression has reshaped itself before. And without an understanding of the history of lynching, I do not believe that agreement can be made.
In five articles, I have attempted to provide information that took me a semester to learn so that we as a community will be capable of having these conversations. Using case studies, I have detailed how lynching was racial terror and how it was used to enforce segregation when slavery was no longer a viable option. If we can agree this happened, then we can agree that racial oppression has historically reshaped itself.
Lawmakers previously opposed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not change their views on race overnight, and neither did their constituents, just as those who supported the Coffederacy and slavery did not immediately accept the Union and take up the abolitionist cause following the Civil War. One form of oppression may not be legally or socially permissible, but the ideology behind it will live on. Only by addressing this fact will we be able to form a society free and open to all people.
My hope is that, in providing this information, I have played at least a minor part in facilitating positive discussion of our nation’s history, no matter how troubling and uncomfortable it may be.
Will Featherston, Columnist