I was perusing photos in a book called Without Sanctuary recently and came across a harrowing photograph. Without Sanctuary is an extraordinary visual legacy: photographs and postcards taken as souvenirs at lynchings throughout America collected by James Allen. The photograph was of townspeople gathered for the burning of John Lee on August 13, 1911 in Durant, Oklahoma.
What a day it was back in Oklahoma. A beautiful summer day and folks were anxious to be outside –a good day to lynch a black man. If you were looking through a trunk in the attic and came across a cropped version of this photo, one without the body of John Lee in it, you probably wouldn’t know what held the attention of the crowd that day. It could’ve been anything – politician making a speech, circus in town, who knows. The heinous torture and murder of a man would not naturally spring to mind. But that is exactly what these well dressed citizens of Durant were watching that day, and, by their presence, empowering.
With only a wardrobe change and the addition of a hundred or so hateful signs this crowd could be transformed into a Tea Party rally. Of course their victim is not hanging from a rope or being burned, however, the best metaphor for their actions is a modern day lynching. Both crowds, old and new, are conservative, church going people and sure of their superiority.
The photo of the lynching is an early photo of Sarah Palin’s “Real Americans.” Little has changed in the last century except that the black man on the gallows is now the President of the United States. It is tempting for white Americans to show pride at how far African Americans have come. “Only in America”, you might say. But for a large minority of Americans, it is always a good day to lynch a black man.
Some 3,446 African Americans were lynched between 1882 and 1933 by mobs made up of people looking very much like those I saw in the photo. This is not the final tally. There were certainly many more carried out under cover of darkness in secluded places and down dirt roads now lost from memory.
When the Civil Rights Movement came along, the lynch mobs made a comeback. African Americans marched for their rights and endured threatening crowds of racists who showered them with bricks, drenched them with fire hoses and attacked them with dogs. But they persevered and the angry mobs once more faded into history.
Now, with the election of Barack Obama, the horrors of the past have come back. The culprits are ultra-conservative organizations backed by corporate wealth and a compliant news media. They have been so successful in creating a purpose built organization in the so-called Tea Party that rallies all over the country. All of them are attended by angry mobs whose sole goal is to demonize President Obama. The participants carry signs, not rope, but their aim is still the same – to do the maximum damage they can get away with.
For many Americans, the fear of blacks in positions of power is normally tucked away in a corner of their minds seldom visited. But when Barack Obama came along and won the presidency, that fear was stirred up once again.
Right wing mouthpieces like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity were crouching in the shadows, waiting to turn this fear into hatred and meld it into the Tea Party. Just consider their luck. The country was in a historically bad recession and people were looking for someone to blame. The first African American had just been elected president presenting opportunities to exploit racism. Right wing ideologues were worried about their profits and willing to bankroll any plan to stop Obama’s agenda. Front organizations stepped in with organizational skills and turned the mob loose in the summer of 2009. The lynching culminated in the recent gains made by Republicans in the midterm elections. They recaptured the House of Representatives. In the past, the Ku Klux Klan delivered hatred in person, today Fox News, Hannity, Beck and Rush do it over the airwaves.
The Tea Baggers along with their conservative media leaders are today’s incarnation of the American Lynch Mob. In one generation the American Lynch Mob burned Pequot Indian women and children alive. In another time and place the American Lynch Mob strung up black men. A few decades pass and they can be found calling President Roosevelt a communist, Jew and the anti-Christ. At another time and place the American Lynch Mob call themselves a “Tea Party” and gather to hurl insults and lies at our first black President all to fulfill their mission of ensuring he is not reelected.