Lynching, massacre, racism make a case for reparations

The Argument

New, powerful books on the worst abuses of black Americans demand that the nation say 'I'm sorry.'


July 14, 2002|By M. Dion Thompson | By M. Dion Thompson,Sun Staff

There is a darkness in the heart of humankind, a place of such horror and brutality that we are stunned whenever it reveals itself. We fancy ourselves to be generous souls, kind and forgiving. Then we look upon the terror around us and wonder: How can this be?

A few recent books ask us to look into our own, peculiarly American heart of darkness -- where racism and hatred reside.

Their subjects are the lynching of black Americans and the destruction of the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Okla. Taken together, these books and the stories they tell cry out for more than just a retelling of facts, though there is great value in that.

In The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, by Tim Madigan (St. Martin's Press, 297 pages, $24.95) this question is posed: "How can we heal when we don't know what we're healing from?"

These stories demand reparations, though not in the way that has made the news in recent years, lawsuits filed against corporations, debates over whether a set amount be given to every black American family with slaves in the ancestral bloodline -- including Shaq and Oprah, or even a fund to benefit black America.

This history calls for a very specific and targeted compensation to make amends for grievous wrongs.

The notion of reparations has been making the rounds through black America ever since Gen. William T. Sherman tried to figure out what to do with the thousands of former slaves who trailed his army on its devastating march through the Confederacy.

He wanted to give them 40 acres and an army mule. The understanding was that something was needed for these people. You couldn't simply turn folks loose with nothing. They needed a helping hand. President Andrew Johnson vetoed the idea, but it did not die with the stroke of his pen.

Black Americas regularly step forth with demands that the promise be fulfilled. The response from other quarters is quick and forceful: "No Way! Too expensive! Not my fault!"

Yet, like it or not, the evidence put forth in these books should be enough to turn the heart of anyone. Sadly, it is not.

These books are not for the weak. The cover of At The Hands Of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America by Philip Dray, (Random House, 529 pages, $35) is a sad commentary on American life.

The body of a black man, still hanging from a tree, is shown from the chest down. His arms are bruised. Blood stains his clothes. More disturbing are the white faces, the smiling, curious white faces staring from the cover and into our eyes.

At least 3,417 black Americans were lynched between 1882 and 1944. The time frame is arbitrary, based on the archives at Tuskegee University. There were others. No one knows how many. They were men and women, here and there a child. An 8-year-old was lynched in South Carolina in 1897.

Some of those killed were indeed guilty of brutal crimes, though that does not excuse the mob violence that led to their murders. Others may have been guilty of demanding fair payment for a hard day's work -- if "guilt" is even a word to be used in such circumstances. "Being troublesome" was another reason given.

These books also tell us that many of those who witnessed or survived the grim incidents are still alive, as are the memories.

A photo taken after the July 19, 1935, lynching of Rubin Stacy, and later distributed in an anti-lynching flyer distributed by the NAACP, challenges the reader to look beyond grotesque crime and into the faces of the town.

"Do not look at the Negro," reads the caption. "His earthly problems are ended. Instead, look at the seven WHITE children who gaze at this gruesome spectacle. Is it horror or gloating on the face of the neatly dressed seven-year-old girl on the right? Is the tiny four-year-old on the left old enough, one wonders, to comprehend the barbarism her elders have perpetrated?"

Given their ages, there's a good chance the children in the picture are still living. Who knows if they are haunted by the shouts and screams of that day, the cheer as Stacy's body went up, the creak of the branch swaying from the dead weight. Would they talk, if we asked? Would we listen?

Would those who witnessed or participated in the 1931 lynching of Matthew Williams in Salisbury, Md., or the 1933 lynching of George Armwood in Princess Anne be willing to talk?

Imagine the healing properties of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of what took place in South Africa. Imagine the tears of families, black and white, that kept their stories secret but could now lay their burdens down.

There would have to be an agreement that what is desired is truth and reconciliation, not litigation and a desire for convictions. That would have to be put aside. We've had enough exercises in dishonesty and legal maneuverings to escape responsibility. We don't have to go as far as South Africa to find an example. We need only look at what happened during the recent investigations into the burning of Greenwood.

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