A man was lynched this week.
Timothy Caughman, 66, was a former social worker who, in his retirement years, had taken to recycling to keep busy and help pay for his apartment, a room in a building for people transitioning from homelessness to permanent housing (a longtime tenant, he was not homeless himself). Caughman was black, which made him a target for his professed killer, James Harris Jackson, 28, of Baltimore.
By his own account, Jackson hated black men. “I’ve hated black men since I was a kid. I’ve had these feelings since I was a young person. I hate black men,” he reportedly told police. And armed with a sword and several knives, he traveled to New York City to kill them. On Monday, according to a police account from the New York Times, Jackson confronted Caughman—who was sifting through trash for recyclables—and stabbed him. He then tossed his sword in a nearby garbage can and went to a restaurant restroom to wash away the blood.
There’s nothing ambiguous here. Jackson says he targeted a black man for death to make a statement about the kind of society he wants to have. Once finished with his task, he turned himself in to police.
Prosecutors say this was a hate crime and “most likely an act of terrorism.” We should also think of it as a lynching, the latest episode in an American form of racial violence that stretches back to the 19th century. Jackson’s professed crime has all the hallmarks of the lynchings that scarred the American landscape from the close of the 19th century to middle of the 20th. This isn’t a semantic point. To describe this attack as a lynching is to emphasize the reality of anti-black violence, its persistence through time, and the way in which it’s justified.
The first thread that binds this killing to past lynchings is Jackson’s motivation. The self-proclaimed white supremacist told police that he hated black men in particular for their relationships with white women, a harkening back to the rationales of an earlier age. “To palliate this record … and excuse some of the most heinous crimes that ever stained the history of a country,” wrote journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett in her 19th-century pamphlet Southern Horrors, “the South is shielding itself behind the plausible screen of defending the honor of its women.” South Carolina Sen. Benjamin Tillman voiced this same justification for this form of murder in a speech on the Senate floor in 1900. “We of the South have never recognized the right of the Negro to govern white men and we never will,” he said. “We have never believed him to be equal to the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.”
What makes the comparison even stronger is the fact that, like many victims of “lynch law,” Caughman was innocent of any actual crime or offense. In 1912, a young field worker named Rob Thomas was lynched in Forsyth County, Georgia, accused of raping a young white woman. As Patrick Phillips describes in his book Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America, Thomas had simply been in the company of another young black man, Ernest Knox, who had been accused of the same crime. Unable to get to Knox, a lynch mob turned its sights to Thomas, kidnapping him, dragging him to the town’s square, hanging him, and shooting his body. Like Caughman, he was meant to be an example.
There are important differences, obviously. Traditional lynchings were often public affairs, with large gatherings and almost picniclike atmosphere. In his chronicle of the lynching era, At the Hands of Persons Unknown, historian Philip Dray recounts a 1906 lynching in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where “two hundred boisterous spectators” followed a dozen men as they dragged 23-year-old Ed Johnson, accused of rape, from his cell in the local jail to a nearby bridge and hanged him:
Someone fired a pistol, then a spray of bullets struck him. One shot split the rope and Johnson fell to the ground, where his body was fired into hundreds of times as it lay motionless on the ground.
Caughman was killed under the cover of darkness, away from crowds or spectators. Likewise, in the past, law enforcement either worked with lynch mobs to deliver prisoners to their deaths or looked the other way as lynchers carried out their task. Here, that doesn’t apply. But there is one other similarity worth noting. While lynchings saw fierce condemnation from black observers and elites and occasional disapproval from local and state politicians (who worried that mob violence would repel the business community), few (white) men in Washington took an active stand against the practice. Infamously, President Woodrow Wilson refused because to take a public stand against lynching until 1918, when he issued a short, written statement against “mob action.”
Our current president, Donald Trump, has yet to comment on Caughman’s murder, issue condolences to his family, or condemn this act of white supremacist terror. He did have time, however, to send a message to an American victim of terrorism in London. Trump’s indifference to victims of racist violence isn’t new; Trump never condemned a January shooting at a Québec mosque that took six lives (he managed, however, to comment on an attempted stabbing in Paris), and it took him a week to condemn the killing of an Indian computer engineer in Kansas. If past behavior tells us anything about future performance, we should expect similar silence from Trump on Caughman, even as law enforcement treats his killer as a terrorist.
By understanding Caughman’s murder as a lynching, we gain clarity into how racial violence is more than hate—how it’s meant to enforce racial caste by making an example of violators, or anyone who might be a violator. And in turn, we can use today’s context to help understand the past and gain insight into how it felt for black Americans at the time. To call Jackson’s professed attack an act of terrorism is also to recontextualize the age of lynching as an earlier age of terrorism, forgotten by most, but whose scars still linger in the memory of black America.
A man was lynched this week, far from the first, and given the rising tide of racial violence, certainly not the last.