In all the years I have lived in Georgia, lived in Atlanta, I had never visited the King Center.
I had driven by it, seen its fountains and statues, now tucked in the shadows of the rebuilt, palatial Ebenezer Baptist Church. I had walked by it, or rather inched by it, during the crowded, usually jubilatory, endings of some of the King Day Marches I have joined in.
But while I had been to the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum, to the home of the slain Medger Evers, and other monuments and tributes to the lives of, work of, martyrs of the movement towards full justice and freedom for African-Americans, I had taken this monument and symbol for granted.
Even had been reviled by the commercialism, the family infighting, that has surrounded it, it and other “products” and “by-products” of Dr. King.
So, my first visit was occasioned by a special show that has just closed, Without Sanctuary and an accompanying film Strange Fruit.
Not an exotic agricultural exhibit, but a display of blown up snapshots and other depictions — including picture postcards — of lynchings in America, the strange fruit being the grotesque, bloated, and often burnt bodies of, mostly, black men hanging from trees. All kinds of trees, victims of white mobs.
And more chilling, more repugnant still, were the images of the bystanders, the women and children, attending what they saw as a circus of retribution.
We gather that the great blues and jazz singer Billie Holiday had witnessed the “fruits” of one or more lynchings during those years she traveled by train and bus through the American South. Perhaps just a momentary glimpse from a dirt-smudged window in the colored section, or closer as she went through back alleys to back doors of clubs, or to special “colored” bathrooms, or fields to relieve herself.
Wherever it was, and whatever she saw, it haunted her. Sickened her. In some ways, shamed her.
As a child growing up on the edges of the South, I experienced firsthand segregated classrooms, and as a young traveler there, I saw the separate water fountains, separate bathroom stalls. Over those years, those fifties and sixties years, it was hard to avoid seeing newspaper photos or television footage of snarling dogs set on groups of black men, women, and children as they protested. Protested Jim Crow, separate but equal — the dingy classrooms, the squalid urinals, the humiliation, the indignity.
The private and public shame of it all when parents and grandparents had to teach their tiny children to recognize the signs — where they could eat or drink or wash their hands. Where they were forbidden. Where it was dangerous to go.
But what I didn’t see, was prevented or protected from seeing, really, was what Billie Holiday saw, what so many black people witnessed or heard about, or experienced themselves, was those hanging trees with their rotting fruit. Trees by the hundreds, deaths by the thousands. A peculiar American holocaust, as editorial writer Cynthia Tucker, describes it. Black men caught by a frenzied white mob, then castrated, whipped, and burned, as they dangled, helplessly, from a noose.
It was nearly unavoidable for so many years, this magnolia justice (though it didn’t happen exclusively in the South). According to the Constitutional Rights Foundation, between 1882 and 1968, mobs lynched almost 5,000 persons in the United States, over 70 percent of them African-Americans.
Lynching peaked at the end of Reconstruction when federal troops were removed from the South. In one year alone, in 1892, vigilantes lynched 71 whites and 155 blacks.
By the turn of the century, lynching decreased nationwide, becoming a crime of the South. By the late 1920s, 95 percent of the maiming, hanging, and burning took place south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
The white mobs who engaged in ad hoc “justice” (often with the full knowledge and approval of the legal justice system) often justified their actions as a defense of “white womanhood,” because the usual reason for lynching black men was that they had raped white women.
They went after black men, jailed or un-jailed, like Emmett Till, whose murder has been made into a documentary which will be aired on public television several times this week.
His story is told by Stanley Nelson, who was a four-year-old New Yorker in 1955 when the Chicago teenager’s mutilated body was pulled from a Mississippi river.
From my earliest memories, I remember the Emmett Till case, the documentary reporter says. This was the horror of America in the extreme. These two guys came for pretty much no reason, without even trying to hide who they were, in the dark of the night and took him out of his bed. The next time he’s seen, it’s a horribly mutilated death. That’s your worst nightmare as a kid.
The young Midwestern teenager, who had not been told, or didn’t fully understand “the rules,” was lynched 47 years ago because he might have whistled at a white woman.
Apparently, the boy had gone to a local store to buy candy and cold drinks. Apparently, he had whistled at the white owner’s wife, who was working the cash register.
Apparently, she took affront, and his life was already doomed.
The two white men who were charged with his murder were found innocent, released, and then admitted to the murder in a magazine story.
Till’s death, his disfigured face beaten nearly beyond recognition, finally got the attention of major media in this country, and became a major catalyst for the civil rights movement in the years to follow.
Including Martin Luther King, Jr., whose visions of freedom and justice grew more and more expansive: universal and global, over the course of his own tragically short life, but who said at one point that if his non-violent demonstrations and sermons and speeches did something to stop the lynching — so that no more African American boys and men could be hauled off and murdered for no reason, denied the justice they inherently deserved.
I was not able to discover whether King had actually seen a lynching himself, but it was so common in these parts in his growing up years, it is hard to imagine he had not somehow been exposed. So frequent and numerous and open as they were. So common were they, so carnival in atmosphere, that a Mrs. Jessie Daniel Ames, a white Southerner, held a gathering of women in Atlanta in November 1930 to discuss the resurgence of this brutal practice.
The presence of numbers of women, white women, at these executions, jeering and cheering along with the men, whose crimes were excused as being for their benefit — repayment for alleged sexual attacks, rape or attempted rape, or a black man “not knowing his place,” or “improper conduct or insulting language.” These women, before their husbands and fathers, recognized that these murders were not actually committed in protection of white women, but as an excuse used to condone a crime against law, order, and government.
Whether King witnessed or did not witness these horrors, these shameful, shaming acts, they hung in the air, heavy with rot.
Just as the Southern women before him chose to deal with the lynching by lifting them up, by calling for moral and legal change, King chose to use lynching, not to call for physical retribution, a body a body, but to use these undeniable examples of violent racism to point out the root causes — the desire to keep blacks in their political and economic place — and to call for transformation. Transformation of any systems or systems that use power to oppress, and lawless violence to shame and silence.
It is not too farfetched to say, I think that King himself was lynched because his life and work were threatening to those who feared and still fear true freedom and justice, including economic justice. And even while he ultimately could not escape the legacy of lynching, his commitment to non-violence, his teachings that retaliatory hate increases the amount of evil in the world, remained. That revenge, that vengeance, often sets off a chain of destructive acts, he told us, in which each side takes turns avenging a prior injury and calling the results justice.
The outcome, he wrote, is an unending cycle of hatred and violence… adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Martin Luther King also said that the old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind — blind to the fruits of violence, the spoilt lives, the spoilt land.
That’s why his widow, Coretta Scott King, remained opposed to capital punishment, even in the face of her own husband’s murder.
Lynching has not disappeared. In Texas and Alabama and Wyoming. In state and federal courthouses, whenever fair trials are denied and innocent people are put to death.
In a world where lawlessness seems to reign and there are means of murder, individual or mass.
Why this weekend’s marches in recognition of Dr. King’s birthday will be focusing more than ever on alternatives to violence, on opposing retribution, whether by noose or bomb.
May this dream of his also one day come true. May we overcome.