Lynching, Police, and Black Lives Matter

Ideas and Issues
Front page of the New Orleans Daily Picayune, July 28, 1900, after Charles was killed
Front page of the New Orleans Daily Picayune, July 28, 1900, after Charles was killed

New Orleans   A book on lynching is really not the kind of thing that a lot of people would pull off the shelves for a summer read, but they might be wrong for thinking that way, at least if listening to Dr. Karlos Hill on KABF’s Wade’s World is any indication. Dr. Hill, a professor now at the University of Oklahoma and formerly at Texas Tech, was talking about his book Beyond the Rope: The Impact of Lynching on Black Culture and Memory. Although he was writing largely about the history of lynching between 1880 and 1920, he argued that history shapes the crisis in police-community relations that exists to this day and that the roots of these experiences also branch directly to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Although the rural communities of the Mississippi River delta along Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi are infamous as the heartland of racially-based lynching, Hill notes that lynching was a national phenomenon equally feared and a part of community experience and consciousness in cities from Atlanta to New Orleans to Los Angeles. Hill draws direct connections between lynching and vigilantism that many mythologize as part of the Wild West, Gunsmoke, and cattle rustling. In the post-1880 period, such vigilantism meted out rough justice in areas where there was either lawlessness or a sense that white officials would not handle crimes against black individuals. There were cases of blacks being lynched by blacks for major crimes like rape or murder. To put this in perspective, Hill examined the actual cases that he could identify during that period from his research, 14% were black-on-black hangings, while 86% involved blacks being lynched by whites.

Hill also noted that there was a change in the way victims were seen over the 40-year period he studied. In the hands of some, like muckraking reporter Ida B. Wells, victims began to be seen in a different light not in the brutish, “black beast” framework, but more as figures of resistance who were almost heroic. The week long fight of Robert Charles in New Orleans after an altercation with a policeman there was perhaps the best example.

Before anyone dismisses all of this as simply a shameful oddity of long dated history, think for a minute, as Hill and I did, about the powerful legacy such experiences have embedded in the black community and experience. Even more so consider how little modern police force and modern community policing has done to moderate this painful legacy. I can still remember my first arrest at an action in Springfield, Massachusetts. Every one of the members, black, brown and even white, were convinced that if arrested, the police would beat you. Period. No question. In fact, when I was arrested, even though I was going voluntarily and telling people to be calm, there was a tug-of-war between the police and the members with me in the middle, because the members felt this so strongly and felt obligated to provide protection for what they saw as inevitable.

Reflecting on the police killings in Baltimore, Minneapolis, and Baton Rouge and elsewhere, Hill was careful to say that though some have seen these actions as modern “lynchings,” that they are not, but though different he believes they come from the same historical and evil seeds. Before Dallas,  he thought for a brief time there might be a real reassessment of community policing and its impact on minorities, but he fears that moment may have been lost in the confusion between black lives mattering and blue lives mattering.

In truth all lives matter, and change has to come. Hill is right: history matters. For the present we have to accelerate the process to achieve justice, because without justice, as the chant goes, there can be no peace.