Postcards of lynchings illustrate madness

July 01, 2000|By Gregory Kane

Lige Daniels hangs from the tree in Center, Texas. His neck is bent backwards so that his head makes a grotesque right angle with his body. His corpse wears a white shirt and rumpled jeans. His feet are bare.

Below Daniels stand members of the mob that lynched him. Many stare straight into the camera. One, a boy who can't be more than 11 or 12 years old, has his head cocked slightly to his left. He wears a shirt with his sleeves rolled up to his elbows. A wide tie drapes his neck, its design almost clownish in appearance.

The boy is smiling.

The photo was taken in 1920. That was some 55 years after slavery was supposedly outlawed in the United States. (It wasn't. The 13th amendment didn't ban slavery so much as it clarified the conditions under which it could exist). The grisly picture of Daniels' death by mob violence came in an era when the ancestors of many Americans already were in this country, enjoying the benefits and privileges of living in a free land.

There's one more thing about that Daniels photo: It was made into a postcard.

Many lynching photos ended up being depicted on postcards. Virgil Jones, Robert Jones, Thomas Jones and Joseph Riley - lynched in Russville, Ky., on July 31, 1908, ended up on one. So did Jesse Washington, murdered by mob in Robinson, Texas, on May 16, 1916.

One such "postcard lynching" had a profound impact on American race relations. Albert Hamilton was all of 18 years old when he drove a horse-drawn carriage for a living in 1912 Cordele, Ga. Accused of assaulting a white woman, Hamilton was carted off to jail. A mob dragged him from his cell, beat him severely, hanged him from a nearby tree and shot him more than 300 times.

Hamilton's best friend, a 15-year-old boy named Elijah Poole, watched the killing in horror. Later, Poole moved to Detroit and started a religious sect known as the Nation of Islam. When Poole changed his last name to Muhammad and preached that whites were devils, he was accused of teaching hate. Nobody bothered to ask who taught Elijah Muhammad to hate. But that mob in Cordele must have been one of his instructors, as were the postcards made after Hamilton's death.

They say much, those postcards, and have much to teach us. We can have no serious discussion about race relations in America without discussing those postcards. What did white Americans tell black Americans by not only lynching them, but by making postcards of the despicable acts? That the hatred of black Americans was not only psychotic but went light years across the line to something beyond madness? What do the postcards reveal about a society that would condone them?

In today's debate on race, many whites proudly boast that their ancestors owned no slaves and hence they shouldn't be burdened with affirmative action. But since they brought up their ancestors, perhaps they should tell us exactly what other things their ancestors did or did not do.

1. Did they ever attend a school that didn't accept blacks?

2. Did they ever work for a company or business that refused to hire blacks?

3. Did they join a labor union that excluded blacks?

4. Did they ever patronize a restaurant, theater or movie house that practiced Jim Crow (legal segregation)?

5. Did they ever realize that despite the fact that they arrived here after slavery ended, they benefited from many white-skin privileges at the expense of blacks? Did they ever protest those privileges and work to end them? Did they ever protest a lynching - or one of those postcards?

6. Finally, did they ever stand in a crowd while someone black was hanged from a tree?

Those questions aren't asked to imply that many whites are guilty. Some, indeed many, did protest. Many Jews did so in numbers way out of their percentage in the population. When Harry Moore, a NAACP leader in Florida, and his wife were killed in a bombing in 1951, many whites sent harsh, sarcastic letters to the governor of that state asking him about his commitment to justice.

No doubt some whites will insist that blacks stop bringing up the past and "just get over" the lynchings and those postcards. Why? Some whites have clearly not "gotten over" the verdict in the O.J. Simpson criminal trial. In fact, they've reacted as if Simpson's acquittal were the greatest injustice of the 20th century. It doesn't even make the top 50. Some lynchings were so gruesome they make the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman look like mercy killings. Read, if you can stomach it, what happened to Claude Neal in Florida in 1934 (in a biography of Harry Moore, entitled "Before His Time'). The details are so ugly and shocking, editors of this paper wouldn't let me begin to describe it. Neal's body also ended up on a postcard, selling for 50 cents a pop.

We should all ask ourselves about those postcards and their meaning. We might also ask ourselves if today's race relations aren't where we want them because those postcards reveal a hatred of blacks so deeply ingrained it will take centuries, not generations, to eradicate it.

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