It started in the earliest days of our Republic.
First, they came for us on the Continent.
We were hunted trapped, enslaved and imported as cargo from Senegambia (today’s Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau and Mali) and west-central Africa, including what is now Angola, Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Gabon. We were catalogued, priced, shipped and sold as chattel, into a strange land.
Then came the fugitive slave laws — federal laws that permitted those who enslaved African people to hunt down like dogs those few who had the courage to flee in pursuit of life, liberty and a small measure of happiness.
Then came Emancipation in 1863. With Juneteenth 1865, came a short sweet taste of freedom. But as W.E.B. DuBois so eloquently said of the Reconstruction that followed, “. . . the slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”
Indeed, we were yanked back, hunted down— before we were able to shake the ugly yoke of racism, de jure and de facto, from our collective neck.
We were industrious, nevertheless. With great optimism, we built homes, schools, churches, businesses and communities.
But they came for us still, rampaging through Rosewood and Perry and Ocoee in Florida; tearing through Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and rioting through Elaine, Arkansas; burning our homes and businesses to the ground, and killing us along the way. They hunted us down for daring to entertain a glimmer of the American Dream.
As we persevered, the hunt continued. Lest we dare
to sit at the front of a bus;
to eat at a lunch counter;
to marry a person we loved;
to teach our children to read;
to vote …
For exercising these privileges of citizenship they hunted us
their bare hands.
Most of all, they hunted us with guns.
Octavius V. Catto. Philadelphia, PA. 1871. Lynched in retaliation for his work to increase voting rights for African Americans. Shot in the heart on Election Day, one year after the passage of the 15th amendment.
Frazier Baker. Lake City, SC. 1898. Lynched in opposition to his appointment as Postmaster General of Lake City by President McKinley. A mob set his house — which also served as the post office — on fire. His wife and five children escaped. But Frazier and his infant daughter Julia died, inside the burning house, after being fatally shot during the attack.
Ed Johnson. Chatanooga, TN. 1906. Wrongfully convicted for the rape of a white woman. When U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan issued a stay, a mob pulled Johnson from the jail, hanged him from the Walnut Street Bridge, then shot him over 50 times. The leader of the lynch mob pinned a note to his body: “To Justice Harlan. Come get your nigger now.”
Joe Pullen. Drew, MS. 1923. After a dispute over his sharecropping debt, a mob of 1000 men pursued him into the Mississippi swamps. They flooded the area with gasoline and shot Pullen down as he ran from the fire.
Jesse James Payne. Madison County, FL. 1945. After another sharecropping dispute, the young married father was falsely accused of assaulting the land-owner’s five-year-old daughter. A white mob hunted him down and shot him.
In this final year of World War Two, it seemed for an instant that white America was beginning to lean in, perhaps willing to ignore for another day the ugly toll this hate was taking as their fellow African American citizens were denied due process, the full protection of the law, and their very lives. But the reaction to Jesse James Payne lynching seemingly had more to do with the way the crime made us look on the international stage than it did with the man’s murder itself.
For, as we continued to press for our full measure of rights, the violence in response was as harsh as it was swift.
Rev. George Washington Lee. Mississippi. 1955. Murdered for using his pulpit and his printing press to get-out the black vote. A white man pulled alongside Lee’s car, fired three times from a shotgun, shattering Lee’s jaw and causing his car to veer off the road. Lee died before he could get to the hospital. Authorities never charged any suspect for Lee’s murder.
And then a few months later, Emmett.
Emmett Till’s mother made the courageous decision to open the casket.
“The main thing [the police wanted] to do was to get that body in the ground so nobody else could see it,” she said.
“I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.”
What they did was abduct and brutally murder a 14-year-old boy. They hunted the boy down.
But, surely it would stop with the torture and murder of this child. But it did not stop. Emmett was not the first child so brutally murdered and he would not be the last.
The Civil Rights Movement started in earnest and the hunt continued. Because the stakes grew higher. The stakes are about power.
Rape is cited as a rationale for many lynchings, and statistics show that one-fourth of lynchings between 1880 and 1930 were prompted by an accusation of rape.
As the journalist and editor, Ida B. Wells reported, beyond the sexual power dynamic, most victims of lynching were political activists, labor organizers, or those who violated other white expectations of black deference. The lynching of successful black people was a means of subordinating potential black economic competitors.
There have been at least 4400 lynchings of black people in the United States between 1877 and 1950, according to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which I visited last December.
But it goes on. there are the freedom fighters, doing battle with segregation.
Medgar Evers. Jackson, MS. 1963. Field director and voting rights activist for the NAACP. After multiple threats on his life and the life of his family, Ku Klux Klansman Byron de la Beckwith gunned him down in the driveway of his home. When I went down to Mississippi to interview Beckwith before his 1994 trial (30 years after the murder), I asked him, point-blank, “Did you kill Medgar Evers?” Beckwith reared his head, trained his beady blue eyes on me and replied, “I did not kill that nigger but he sure is dead.”
Vernon Dahmer, Sr., Hattiesburg, MS. 1966. As president of the Forrest County chapter of the NAACP, Dahmer was murdered for his work recruiting African Americans to vote. The White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan burned his home to the ground, shooting Dahmer to death as he defended his family and homestead.
Add to that the killing of men and women for Living While Black and the numbers are all the more staggering.
Clifford Glover. Queens, NY. 1973. The 10-year-old African American boy was shot by undercover police officers, as he and his grandfather ran from them, in South Jamaica, Queens. Ten. Years. Old.
Michael Donald. Mobile, AL. 1981. 19-year-old Donald was on his way to the store in 1981 when two members of the United Klans of America abducted him, beat him, cut his throat and hung his body from a tree. Donald’s murder is often called the “last lynching” in the US. However, it was not.
The Equal Justice Initiative defines “lynching” in America as an act of domestic terrorism, perpetrated to enforce racial subordination and segregation. When Black life is snuffed out for that reason, we need to use the word, “lynching,” even if a rope is not the weapon of choice.
So, the count continues.
Willie Turks & Michael Griffith & Yusef Hawkins were all killed by white mobs in New York City in the 1980s. If a lynching is a killing of person by a mob because of the victim’s race, these men were lynched. Plain and simple.
Oscar Grant. Oakland, CA. 2009. Shot and killed by a transit police officer in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day.
Trayvon Martin. Sanford, FL. 2012. High school student followed, shot and killed, while heading home from a snack-run.
Ramarley Graham. Bronx, NY. 2012. Unarmed teenager shot and killed in his home by NYPD officers.
Mike Brown. Ferguson, MO. 2012. Hands Up. Don’t Shoot. The narrative remains unclear, but Brown was unarmed, shot and killed and his body remained in the street for hours.
Eric Garner. Staten Island, NY. 2014. I Can’t Breathe. I Can’t Breathe. I Can’t Breathe. I Can’t Breathe. I Can’t Breathe. I Can’t Breathe. I Can’t Breathe. I Can’t Breathe. I Can’t Breathe. I Can’t Breathe.
Tamir Rice. Cleveland, OH. 2014. Tamir was shot within seconds by Cleveland police who found him playing with an Airsoft gun. He was twelve years old.
Sandra Bland. Waller County, TX. 2015. Found hanging in a jail cell, after being arrested during a traffic stop.
Walter Scott. North Charleston, SC. 2015. Shot in the back, by a North Charleston a police officer while Scott was fleeing.
Paul O’Neal. Chicago, IL. 2016. Shot in the back by CPD after a car chase.
Atatiana K. Jefferson. Fort Worth, TX. 2019. Fatally shot while playing video games in her bedroom with her 8-year-old nephew.
Breonna Taylor. Louisville, KY. 2020. The E.M.T. was fatally shot by Louisville Metro Police Department officers executing a no-knock search warrant. She was asleep in her home at the time.
And then of course George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN. “I can’t breathe.” Again.
The disregard for George Floyd’s Black life that Memorial Day connects directly to the lynching one hundred years earlier in the state on June 15, 1920.
A white mob lynched Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie, three circus workers passing through Duluth, Minnesota. The disregard for Black life then is the disregard for Black life now.
It goes back to our founding: this is land ripped away from Native people (my ancestors), built on the back of enslaved African people (my ancestors) by white people from England, Wales and Ireland (also my ancestors).
So, I know of what I speak.
What can we do?
I’m seeing you with your blackout posts on Instagram, wearing your #BlackLivesMatter t-shirts and professing your support for our long-suffering condition on Twitter. But that is counterproductive because those feel-good measures stand in the way of real change.
Instead, just listen to what Black people are saying about our experience.
Put aside whatever counterposition occurs to you when we make proposals for ways to change the structures that lead to the devaluation of Black life.
The goal isn’t to prove to us that you are morally good. The goal is to get to work and bend the arc of the moral universe.
This is a social disease buried deep in the core of our identity. It was there from the beginning. The sickness has had generations to infect the American psyche and will take generations to rehabilitate and cure.
We know that you aren’t responsible for what your grandfather and grandmother may have done. But you are responsible for what you do.
It starts with thinking deeply about the systems that are in place to perpetuate this cycle of violence and devaluation.
It’s not about guilt or guilt feelings. It’s about change.
We must vote to change the structural imbalances in this country that disenfranchise Black people.
It’s really that simple. Medgar died for it. Martin died for it. John Lewis damn near died for it. We must cherish and exercise it.
Gerrymandering is complicated. The ways in which the courts are structured is complicated.
As Medgar Evers said,
“Our only hope is to control the vote.”
But, the echo of terror lynching reverberates in the political behavior of African Americans today.
African Americans who reside in counties that experienced higher numbers of lynchings between the period of 1882 to 1930 have lower voter registration rates relative to those residing in counties that had fewer lynchings. (These findings hold up after accounting for other characteristics — such as incarceration rates, access to polling places, and Republican party dominance.)
One week ago today, Rayshard Brooks was shot twice in the back as he ran from police in a restaurant car park in Atlanta. This they did on the anniversary of Medgar Evers Death.
We have to break this cycle.
We must claim our share of the power that is rightfully ours as Americans. The power to do that lies in the vote.
So, celebrate Juneteenth, yes. March in the streets. Post on social media, if you must.
But on then, on Election Day, Vote — like your whole life depends on it.
*This story reflects my own views and does not reflect the views of WNYC or New York Public Radio.