Disempowering an ugly symbol

September 20, 2007|By Sherrilyn A. Ifill

Nooses have been much in the news lately. This month, a noose was found hanging from a tree outside the black cultural center at the University of Maryland, College Park. In Jena, La., a noose hung by white high school students from a tree known on campus as "the white tree" set off a series of fights and assaults that have left several black students facing serious charges and years in prison, and has exposed the disturbing and archaic racial culture of a small town.

What is it about the noose that gives it such lasting symbolic power in American culture? The hanging noose invokes the history of lynching and the nearly 5,000 African-American men and women who were hanged, burned and tortured by whites between 1890 and the 1960s, in this uniquely American form of racial terrorism.

Yet despite this legacy, lynching remains one of the least-examined aspects of this country's history. Today, it's fairly common to find discussions about the history of Jim Crow segregation and the struggles of the civil rights movement in school texts or on television programs. And thanks to the relentless push of surviving family members that has resulted in the reopening of racial murder cases from the early 1960s, renewed interest has been generated in civil rights-era violent crimes. But there are virtually no school curriculums, no Hollywood films and no PBS miniseries about lynching, and little public discussion.

Perhaps lynching has remained such an untouchable subject for mainstream consumption because lynchings were, in many instances, such mainstream events. Most lynchings were public spectacles that took place in the center of town. Some, like that in Waco, Texas, in 1916, were attended by as many as 10,000 onlookers.

Moreover, lynching crowds were not, as popular lore would suggest, composed of just the marginalized, the desperately poor and the ignorant. Photos of lynching crowds and contemporaneous accounts of lynchings reveal that those who came to watch and cheer on the public hanging and burning of blacks were surprisingly diverse. The crowd that watched the lynching of Matthew Williams in 1931 in downtown Salisbury, for example, was made up of law students, newspaper publishers, store owners, housewives and high school football players. Many whites today of all backgrounds have grandparents and great-uncles and great-aunts who witnessed these events.

Community institutions were also complicit in condoning lynching and in protecting perpetrators. Some local papers refused to report about lynchings that happened in their communities. Others wrote stories that virtually advertised a coming lynching, guaranteeing huge crowds. Local law enforcement, prosecutors and even judges often abdicated their obligation to find and punish lynchers. Police directed traffic while the lynch mob did its work in Salisbury, and the local prosecutor refused to indict individuals who had been identified as leaders of the mob that lynched George Armwood in Somerset County in 1933, the last reported lynching in Maryland.

The conspiracy of silence among white townspeople - the refusal to talk about lynching even today - can largely be traced to the shame and fear engendered by this shared complicity. White people closed ranks to protect their friends and neighbors, or just to protect themselves from confronting the most hideous aspects of the racism that so many accepted and condoned as a part of life. Fear kept most black people silent. Some elderly African-Americans are unwilling to talk openly about lynching today, even within their own families.

And yet, despite this silence, the power of lynching retains its currency. The sight of the noose hanging from a tree is among the most recognized symbols in American culture. It is an emblem of intimidation so potent that it can set off a fierce reaction. But the threatening symbol of the noose also has the potential to provoke productive, important and much-needed dialogue about race. Learning more about lynching and its powerful effect on black and white people has the potential to unlock the key to family silences. Talking about lynching compels those who live in towns where these events occurred to confront the cost of individual complicity with injustice. Institutions such as newspapers, businesses and churches can examine their obligation to promote a culture of respect, tolerance and diversity in their communities.

In some places, such as Duluth, Minn., and Walton County, Ga., residents and leaders have begun to engage in this difficult but important dialogue, trying to come to terms with infamous lynchings that occurred in those towns in 1922 and 1946. Other communities, from Salisbury to Waco, should do the same. Perhaps then the image of the noose will lose its power.

Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a professor of law at the University of Maryland School of Law and the author of "On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century." Her e-mail is sifill@law.umaryland.edu.

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