The ghastly story of lynching, by the coauthor of We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, Chaney, and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi.
“Is it possible for white America to really understand blacks’ distrust of the legal system, their fear of racial profiling and the police, without understanding how cheap a black life was for so long a time in our nation’s history?” asks Dray (African-American History/New School), who suggests the answer is no and draws on recent scholarship that sees lynching as a systematic means of maintaining white power. The text begins with an account of the 1899 lynching of Sam Hose, a particularly brutal case—Hose was chained to a tree, tortured, emasculated, and burned alive before a cheering crowd—which so profoundly disgusted W.E.B. Du Bois that he resolved to devote himself to the anti-lynching cause. Dray’s narrative then moves back to 1835, year of the first widely publicized lynching, and proceeds chronologically to summarize some of the darkest moments in the annals of human depravity, ending with a brief account of the 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas. Interspersed are accounts of the heroes of the anti-lynching movement (some of whom had close encounters with lynch mobs themselves), including Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Booker T. Washington, James Weldon Johnson, Lillian Smith, Walter White, and Thurgood Marshall. Dray does a particularly effective job relating the scandalous behavior of legislative, law-enforcement, and judiciary systems in the South and North, providing a much-needed historical and psychosocial context for the lynching phenomenon.
This is history most fundamental, the kind that forces us to ponder the very nature of humanity.