Lynching’s Legacy: Emmett Till to George Floyd

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S1: This is a word, a podcast from Slate. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. After more than 100 years and more than 200 attempts, a bill to make lynching a federal hate crime passed Congress this week. It’s cold comfort to the survivors of lynching victim. But could this moment help erase dangerous myths about its history?

S2: I think it moves us a step closer in the right direction. You know, just being a student of history, you see that it takes a very long time for societies to change, and they change incrementally because you always have to push back. And so I think it’s just another step forward in our evolution to becoming an equal society.

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S1: The history of lynching and the fight to stop it. Coming up on a word with me. Jason Johnson. Stay with us. Welcome to a word, a podcast about race in politics and everything else. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. It only took a century, but this week Congress moved to make lynching a federal crime by passing the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act, the brutal 1955 murder of the Chicago teen in Mississippi, and his mother’s decision to give him an open casket funeral and share photos of his battered and mutilated face with a public marked a turning point in the civil rights movement. Here’s a clip from the late Mamie Till Mobley from 2002 explaining her decision. It’s from the ABC News documentary Let the World See.

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S3: When Mr. Raynor asked me, he said, Mrs. Mobley, that’s the undertaker. Do you want me to retouch the body? I said, No, Mr. Reiner. Let the people see what I see. I want the world to see what is going on in Mississippi in this great old United States of America.

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S1: But Emmett Till was just one of thousands of African-Americans who die by lynching since the end of slavery, and the crime is still claiming lives today. Here to talk with us about it is historian Lopez Mathews Jr. He’s an Executive Council member for the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History. Lopez Mathews, welcome to a word.

S2: Hello, Jason. Thank you for inviting me on the show.

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S1: As somebody who studies Black history, what was it like to see the Emmett Till anti-lynching law finally passed in Congress?

S2: It was surprising, and it was exciting because it’s been a long time coming, especially in this period where we have a heightened sense of resistance to pushes for racial equality. It was very exciting to see it passed. You know, it’s another step forward to bring this country to what it has always promised it would be.

S1: Emmett Till was lynched at the age of 14 for allegedly whistling. What a white woman. That woman, Carolyn Bryant, Dunham, told a historian in 2017 that the accusation was false. But what was the range of transgressions that led to white people lynching black folks? Like, what did it take? I mean, was it always just something as simple as whistling, or could you just be in the wrong part of town on the wrong day?

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S2: It didn’t take much. It just took any kind of slight or any kind of stepping out of the racial. There were things called black codes, and there were traditions where black people were supposed to behave a certain way, like you weren’t supposed to look a white person in the eye. You weren’t supposed to address a white person by their first name. You still as a step off the sidewalk if you saw white people coming. And so there were sort of racial codes and they were unique to every town, every county, every state. And if you step out of that, you are open to lynching. You were accused of raping a white woman and it didn’t have to actually be a person who existed. They say, Oh, you know, he raped a white woman. All of a sudden there’s a lynching, or you just had to be a successful black person because that meant stepping outside of the thing that you were prescribed to be. Black people were not supposed to be successful. They were supposed to be poor and lazy and shiftless. So all of a sudden, when you step out of that cycle, you’re threatened, so you have to be put down as an example to everyone else.

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S1: What are some of the myths the popular culture has given us about when lynching happened, how lynching happened, and what the circumstances were under which people were were taken out and killed this way?

S2: I think one of the biggest myths about lynching is that it was done by outliers, that it was done by people who were not well known. Most lynchings and you can look at the photographs because people took photographs of lynchings. You can see no one covered their face. There were children there. These were social events. You had thousands of people there watching a black person be mutilated and murdered because they believe that they were teaching black people a lesson they were showing you. This is the consequence for stepping out of your place. And so I think that’s one of the biggest myths that it was some kind somehow that it was somehow, you know, a secret thing or something that people were embarrassed about. They weren’t embarrassed that they weren’t lynching someone. They felt that they were within their rights and that these were open spectacles. So I think that’s the biggest myth.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break when we come back more on the history of lynching. This is a word Will Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. This is Jason Johnson host of a Word Slate’s podcast about race and politics and everything else. I want to take a moment to welcome our new listeners. If you’ve discovered a word and like what you hear. Please subscribe rate and review wherever you listen to podcasts and let us know what you think by writing. Has got a word at Slate.com? Thank you. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today. We’re talking about the Emmett Till anti-lynching law and the history of lynching with historian Lopez Mathews. I want to follow up on this. We talked about this before, but I think this is important. Lynchings were a public event for white people. There was the killing. There were witnesses. People brought their families. Items were sometimes sold of the person who was killed. My question for you is when you talk to or is you’ve done this sort of research, what kinds of things do the white children? You know, if you were seven or eight years old and your parents say, Hey, we’re going to lynching downtown. What kinds of things do those white people say today? Do they did they? Did they feel traumatized by what they watched? Do they pretend it didn’t happen? Because I can’t imagine that that sort of spectacle at such a young age doesn’t have a psychological impact.

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S2: Most from what I can gather, most just try to pretend that it didn’t exist and that it didn’t happen and that they were just never there. You know, all of a sudden, no one was there. Oh, wow, this lynching happened and there are thousands of people there, but not me. I’m not, you know, it was someone else. Someone else did it. It’s not me, you know? And so that’s I guess that’s one of the reasons people don’t want to talk about it because you dig too deep. If you look at the pictures a little too closely, you’ll be like, Oh, that’s you right there? And then you have to

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S1: accept that the NAACP and journalist Ida B. Wells, you know, they work to expose the extent of lynching and organize are trying to fight it. What were some of their strategies? You know, a hundred years ago to battle lynching and expose what was happening around the country? You know,

S2: one of the strategies that I think and I think this was ingenious. Walter White, who was the executive director of the NAACP. He was very fair skin and he could pass away. So he did. He would pretend to be white and he would go to Klan meetings. He would go to lynchings and he would document what was happening because he understood that to prove that this was happening because America has always been in the business of mythmaking. And so to prove that this happened, we needed documented evidence so he would infiltrate and he would take pictures and he would write them, you know, notes and who’s here, what they’re doing there, what’s happening? So they had irrefutable proof of what was happening to black people because, you know, before television. You could say, Oh, this wasn’t this isn’t happening. They are beating black people in the street so I can put my head in the sand, but then you have television with video, you have photographs, the people who are there taking pictures to document, Oh, I’m just taking pictures. Remember this great event when it’s really Walter White documenting it for the NAACP? You know, they put themselves in danger to document what was happening. And so that was one of the major strategies that they use. They use those who are fair skinned to infiltrate these places and document it. Now, of course, Ida B. Wells wrote about it and called it evil. And that, of course, put her life in danger for a time. She had to go live in London because her life was threatened here in the United States for speaking out against lynching because you know you’re supposed to remain quiet and pretend like it’s not happening. And so. You’re just calling attention to it and documenting it so that they can prove that this is actually happening.

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S1: So the first attempt at sort of passing federal anti-lynching laws came literally like 100 years ago in 1918, considering how long it’s taken Congress to pass this bill. What kind of resistance did people face in 1918? I mean, were they just screamed out of Congress? Did they just shoot at them, though? Tomatoes at them? What kinds of things that they faced back then?

S2: It didn’t make it. There was no vote about it. You just say, Oh, we’re going to do this. Okay? Yeah, good. Good luck with that. Right. So, you know, they even had an anti-crime conference where you had students from Howard stand outside of Congress with nooses around their necks protesting things. You need to acknowledge that this is happening. There’s actually a picture of it at the Library of Congress, of them standing outside of Congress with the nooses around their necks. Very well dressed, very well put together, trying to call attention to lynching, saying You need to acknowledge this because this is, you know, terror happening in the United States. And so even though it was embarrassing to the United States, you know it was illegal to discuss this outside of the United States. So they understood that it’s something they shouldn’t be doing. But they did not have the political will. To say it needed to stop because southern politicians understood they didn’t want to get, you know, people rather say, Oh no, they’re trying to change our way of life. Oh my God. You know, that’s like, that’s the ultimate Achilles heel of any politician. You’re trying to change people’s way of life. No, this is how I’ve always lived, so I can’t change, you know? So it would take a lot of political Will, especially at a time when. You know, racism was so accepted in this type of behavior, it was so out in the open. It would take a lot of Will for a politician who was at the will of the people to take up such a bill,

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S1: when I think about lynching in America, it’s associated with black people. It’s a very specific kind of violence. I think of scalping, which actually was introduced by white Europeans, but was mythological and racially associated with American Indians. My question is, you know, is there another society? Is there another place in the diaspora where lynching is commonly used as a particular attack against an ethnic group? I wonder if something like that exists other places?

S2: It does. You know, insofar as that lynching is just when someone is murdered by a group of people, two or three more or more people equals a lynching. I think it’s just unique in that. That’s what we call it here. We call it lynching here. Your lynching someone. And we’ve made it, you know, one of the things that Black Americans have done is they have done a great job of calling attention to what’s happened to them. You know, they’ve been able to highlight it, and because America has such an outsized presence in the world through, you know, through design, because America has wanted to have such an outsized presence in the world. And so everyone is looking to say, Oh, this is what’s happening here. Look what they’re doing there. Oh, they’re trying to say they’re so great, but look what they’re doing. And so it’s become a very visible, you know, kind of black eye to America. So the rest of the world kind of almost pretends like they aren’t doing it as well. And so their minorities aren’t quite, you know, aren’t given the space to breathe like a sailor now has international branches. And one of our branches in London did a great program about racial segregation and food in England. And you hear about their stories and you’re like, Well, this sounds so familiar, but you don’t really hear about that so much. And so because they don’t quite have that sort of outsized presence in the mind of the world in terms of what they’ve been doing in terms of race. You know, when you look at London, in England, you think about colonialism and those horrors, you don’t necessarily think about what’s happening in England.

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S1: So you said a I just want everybody to understand what that acronym stands for.

S2: Yes, a Salah is the association for the study of African-American Life and History. It was founded by Dr. Carter G. Woodson in 1915 to professionalize the study of Black history because what you had happening at the time was people saying that black people had no history didn’t make any contribution to America. You didn’t do this. You didn’t do that. You didn’t do this. And so you had historians like George Washington Williams documenting the black experience. It wasn’t respected and it wasn’t accepted. So he creates this organization to professionalize the study of black history. He created Negro History Week that became Black History Month, which was supposed to be a time where you highlighted what you learned throughout the year. Not this is the only time we talk about black people, but we’re supposed to learn about black people throughout the year and then highlight it during this week of Lincoln’s birthday in Frederick Douglass, his birthday. So that’s what we’re doing. We’re highlighting what we’ve learned throughout the years. So that’s always a solid is, and that’s what a scholar has remained to be throughout the years.

S1: We’re going to take a short break when we come back more about the history of lynching and efforts to stop it. This is a word Will Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today, we’re talking with historian Lopez Mathews about lynching and the effort to make it a federal hate crime. We can’t talk about anti-lynching law without talking about George Floyd. George Floyd was murdered in the summer of 2020. The effort to pass anti-lynching legislation was revived around that time. Does this law in any way bring us closer to a point where you know, you think black people are going to get justice or do you think that this is mostly sort of a a symbolic thing because we still see sort of endemic violence against black people by the state?

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S2: I think it moves us a step closer in the right direction. You know, just being a student of history, you see that it takes a very long time for societies to change and they change incrementally because you always have to push back. And so I think it’s just another step forward in our evolution to becoming an equal society. You know, if you look at world history, it takes hundreds of years to change a society. You know, it doesn’t happen like that. You know, like when the Civil Rights Bill passed in, 64 people were shocked that it appeared that overnight the outward racism seemed to go away. But racism still existed. It just wasn’t as in-your-face. And so but that was an incremental step forward. You know, the Voting Rights Act 65 incremental step for housing rights in 68, another incremental step forward. And so we’re like creeping forward, you know, and so I think that it’s just a step forward, you know, it probably may not do much to change things, but it is a step in the right direction. You know, seeing where we started in this country, you know, we’ve we’ve made some progress

S1: thinking of the progress we’ve made. As grotesque as it is to think about how has lynching changed? I mean, one hundred years ago, it was a big spectacle. Today, when we hear about black people being lynched, often the problem is someone’s body is found and there is nobody there. So how was the lynching change in our modern society that is significantly more observed and recorded? And yet oftentimes the perpetrators of this violence disappear into the night.

S2: It’s made it more difficult to fight because it has gone kind of underground. Now it’s not in your face and you know what’s happening, you know, you know what’s happening, but you don’t know what’s happening now. It’s almost like when black men got the right to vote in the 1870s, all of a sudden, Oh, we can’t stop you from voting because of your race. OK, we will put in the grandfather clause Will. But in the literacy tests? Well, but in the poll tax, we’ll put in the shotgun policy in Mississippi, where a black man shows up. The vote gets shot with a shotgun. You know, we’ll find other ways. To get done what we want to get done, and so that’s the difficult part about what’s happening today is finding a way to prove that this is what’s happening. So it almost has made the job harder by making so much progress, it’s almost made it harder to root out the bad actors because they’ve figured out a way to get around it, to still do what they want to do. But now you don’t act. It’s harder to prove what’s happening. So I think that’s one of the biggest issues we have now is proving that this is actually happening.

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S1: And even though the law was just passed, we still see that, you know, at the Emmett Till memorial that it’s routinely shot up, that terrorists come by and shoot it up. Sometimes people take pictures of themselves shooting it in your work and your sort of historical study in recent years. I mean, yes, the bill has passed, but in recent years, what were justifications for a stand against an anti-lynching bill like I can? I mean, a hundred years ago, you were just going to ignore it, right? We’re just not going to pass it. But what would someone in 2012, 2013, 2014? What was their rationale for saying We don’t we don’t need to make lynching a federal crime

S2: because there has been this new narrative created, we’re acknowledging racism and acknowledging that bad things have happened is somehow causing it will somehow make people think it happened. I don’t understand that line of thinking, but by saying waters where that doesn’t make it way, do you’re just acknowledging that it’s wet? And so they’re saying, if you acknowledge that it’s wet, that means that people will know it’s wet. Well, yeah, that’s kind of the point here. And so but that’s been the justification, oh, if we if we passed this law, if we vote for this, it’ll acknowledge that it happened and it’ll make people angry or it’ll it’ll bring up old feelings that have gone away as if people don’t remember these things. You know, as if the people who suffered under it haven’t acknowledged it, you know, because other people want to bury their heads in the sand and pretend it never happened because it goes against the myth of what America has always been.

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S1: You know, one of the interesting things that you told my producer is that you don’t want white folks to feel guilty about lynching. You know, and I want to make sure I understood that properly. If you did say that, I want to understand what you meant by it.

S2: So when I say that, say that you personally don’t, I mean, you didn’t do it, you didn’t do it. So why are you afraid to talk about it and say, Oh, I feel so guilty? You know, I mean, I just think that it’s interesting that there’s this sense of ownership of history while also trying to ignore it like you have like the fact that you would feel guilty about something that happened 100 years ago. That’s an amazing amount of ownership that you take of your history, though. And so I think that’s a that’s a that’s very interesting. Whether you choose to acknowledge

S1: that

S2: is an amazing amount of ownership like, wow, you do care about your history. You know, I’ve always been told people don’t care about history, so I think it’s amazing. But I’m like, OK, collectively, wow. I feel guilty that my country has done this. But you personally, what did you do? You know, I don’t want to say you’re nobody, but you’re going to do anything big happened in the country that you live in. So acknowledge it and, you know, allow the country to make amends for it. You know, you personally didn’t really. You do nothing. What do you feel you’re so deeply invested in it for, you know, just thinking for the app and a movie.

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S1: I want to say this just also in closing, you know, now that the bill is passed. What is the next step like? What does this look like in a practical way? Does this mean that there’s simply something else in the arsenal of a county prosecutor? Or does this mean that there are different procedures that local law enforcement can employ in finding justice?

S2: I think it’s just another weapon in the arsenal to try to bring about some accountability. That’s all it is, and that’s up to, you know, the prosecutors to then prove that case and bring about justice for that family because it’s not going to stop it as history has proven, it’s not going to stop it. But it’s another thing that can be used to try to bring justice, you know? And so that’s why I say, you know, it’s a positive because, you know, it’s moved in. It’s moving us in the right direction, even though it’s not putting a stop to what’s happening. It’s moving us in the right direction and I try to stay, you know, see the positive in all of this forward progress. You know, it’s not where we need to be, but we’re still moving in the right direction and being a student of history, I see how slowly it takes to change a society. And so, you know, that’s why that’s what I kind of rest on what history has taught us that we’re moving in the right direction even though we’re not there yet.

S1: Dr. Lopez Matthews Jr. is an executive council member for the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History. Thanks so much for joining me on a word today.

S2: Thank you so much for the invitation.

S1: And that’s a word for this week. The show’s email is a word at Slate.com. This episode was produced by Jasmine Ellis. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of Podcast at Slate. June Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast Network. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for word.