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Lynching as Racial Terrorism

It’s time for a new abolition movement

On February 11, the New York Times published the following editorial. I’ve included it here in full purposefully.

It is important to remember that the hangings, burnings and dismemberments of black American men, women and children that were relatively common in this country between the Civil War and World War II were often public events. They were sometimes advertised in newspapers and drew hundreds and even thousands of white spectators, including elected officials and leading citizens who were so swept up in the carnivals of death that they posed with their children for keepsake photographs within arm’s length of mutilated black corpses. These episodes of horrific, communitywide violence have been erased from civic memory in lynching-belt states like Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Mississippi. But that will change if Bryan Stevenson, a civil rights attorney, succeeds in his mission to build markers and memorials at lynching sites throughout the South as a way of forcing communities and the country to confront an era of racial terror directly and recognize the role that it played in shaping the current racial landscape. Mr. Stevenson’s organizationthe Equal Justice Initiative, took a step in that direction on Tuesday when it released a report that chronicles nearly 4,000 lynchings of black people in 12 Southern states from 1877 to 1950. The report focuses on what it describes as “racial terror lynchings,” which were used to enforce Jim Crow laws and racial segregation. Victims in these cases were often murdered without being accused of actual crimes but for minor social transgressions that included talking back to whites or insisting on fairness and basic rights. The report is the result of five years of hard work. Researchers reviewed local newspapers, historical archives and court records; interviewed local historians, survivors and victims’ descendants; and scrutinized contemporaneously published articles in African-American newspapers, which took a closer interest in these matters than the white press. In the end, researchers found at least 700 more lynchings in the 12 states than were previously reported, suggesting that “racial terror lynching” was far more common than was generally believed. The report argues compellingly that the threat of death by lynching was far more influential in shaping present-day racial reality than contemporary Americans typically understand. It argues that The Great Migration from the South, in which millions of African-Americans moved North and West, was partly a forced migration in which black people fled the threat of murder at the hands of white mobs. It sees lynching as the precursor of modern-day racial bias in the criminal justice system. The researchers argue, for example, that lynching declined as a mechanism of social control as the Southern states shifted to a capital punishment strategy, in which blacks began more frequently to be executed after expedited trials. The legacy of lynching was apparent in that public executions were still being used to mollify mobs in the 1930s even after such executions were legally banned. Despite playing a powerful role in the shaping of Southern society, the lynching era has practically disappeared from public discourse. As the report notes: “Most Southern terror lynching victims were killed on sites that remain unmarked and unrecognized. The Southern landscape is cluttered with plaques, statues and monuments that record, celebrate and lionize generations of American defenders of white supremacy, including public officials and private citizens who perpetrated violent crimes against black citizens during the era of racial terror.” Mr. Stevenson’s group makes the persuasive argument that this history needs to be properly commemorated and more widely discussed before the United States can fully understand the causes and origins of the racial injustice that hobbles the country to this day.

Mr. Stevenson’s group is doing some hard work. There is more work to be done. It stems, in part, by having conversations–open, honest, scary conversations. Confrontational ones, even. That a friend from high school wrote “I applaud you for ‘going there'” when I posted the above on Faceplace made me gasp. Why on earth would I be applauded, I thought. This doesn’t deserve applause. This isn’t an act of courage or great act for which one stands up and gives cheer.  All I could do was say, “We all need to go there.” I’ve discussed my own views of race and how I experienced the two as a child and young adult.  What I’ve not done is explore this in the spiritual or energetic aspect.

We talk mostly about acknowledging the past as if giving the nod to it is the action that reconciles past and future, black and white. The past goes far deeper than that. It goes to the marrow of humanity. Those things that are most violent are held within the human spirit, held within the ground, held within belief systems and behaviors. And they do not vanish until we actively change them.

Are we responsible for the sins of our fathers? No. We did not commit their acts of violence. Do we replicate the sins of our fathers? No, not necessarily. Their behavior is not inherited in the same manner we do their eye color but it can be taught to us. And we learn well. While, blessedly, in this age tarring, feathering and hanging in front of the courthouse and church don’t occur here in the US any more, the energies behind those actions of the past still exist.  Fear and the hatred, anger, rage, dismay, confusion, rigidity & violence that it generates and then feeds are still here. Combine those ingredients with how well we learn from our forefathers  and what arises is the recipe that breeds more of the same–here and around the globe.

There is, though, from my perspective, something much, much deeper than that. So deep that ‘going there’ is not enough. Memorials and remembrance are not enough. Reconciliation may be a beginning but can only dip just below the surface. There is an energetic string, an invisible connection between past and present that is fully present. It may be invisible but it is as real and as inherited as the DNA that effects us physiologically & psychologically. It is exhibited when we choose to engage or disengage from our brothers of another mother. It is fed by how we see or choose not to see each other; how we open our minds and hearts to the experiences of ‘other’ or maintain barriers; and how, or if, we will join together in union consciously, for healing and hearted welcoming of our joined spirit–back beyond the us versus them.

We breed this continued energetic yoke. Each time ‘nigger’ and ‘coon’ are uttered, each time we steal more land from tribal peoples, each time we choose to not sit in the empty bus seat next to someone who doesn’t look like us, each time we perpetuate the myth that I am separate from you, lower than you, less than you, or invisible to you. Each time we make excuses for it, ignore, lessen it, obfuscate it, or try to disappear it.

This yoke has held our country’s psyche hostage for far too long. It has infected our day to day personal behaviors and  bureaucracies have been built upon it. Decisions about how we build cities, provide food, divide resources, devise politics, define equality, freedom, and brotherhood, are grounded in the hypocrisies with which this country was built and social mores that have survived our other progressive leaps in growth.

Healing the wounded people and ground is easy. Moving past the nature of the institutionalized division is simple. The only difficult thing about it is a willingness to show up–openly, honestly, and with a purpose for peace, not proselytizing or pandering.

The catalyst for healing and building of integrated, unified community cannot be violence. We are used to a quick burst of energy that arises from it. An act of violence occurs then what follows is an immediate reaction that is neither equal nor opposite. The energy required for a real, prolonged response–the sustained work of change–loses steam before healing even has a chance to begin.

This can change. This must change. We can talk about peace. We can meme-ify and deify those who have come before us, holding their pedestals high above us as thoughtful markers of ideals to rise to or we can bring what they taught us forward.

There is but one force that brings the healing needed. It is the one thing that is both the catalyst and the sustaining energy behind great social change.

It is the power of love. Not an invisible, intangible, idea of love. But a powerful, visceral, touchable force of nature. It is an experience that opens the hearts of individuals and communities because once you have felt and been touched by the Other–you can never see another in the same way.

Baby steps are no longer acceptable, we can no longer wait for the next generation to do the work. We have ungracefully danced around this thing that keeps us all down for far too long. We don’t have to dig deep for this work. We just need to show up.

The time is now. For action, not applause.

Who will help me?

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