Liberty and Justice for... All?
America’s history of lynching continues
*this post is about the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery*
In 1890 Henry Smith was lynched by a mob. The next day a man publicly protested his death. That night he was also lynched. The mans name has been lost to history.
In 1892 three Black men opened The Peoples Grocery Story becoming competition for the only white grocery store in town. Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and William "Henry" Stewart defended their store from being attacked, wounding three white men. It was not long before Thomas, Calvin and William were lynched.
In 1896 William Wardley came to town with a crisp $2 bill. The local white people were convinced it was counterfeit and a lynch mob killed him. Later an investigation was done only to find the money was real. At that point, the town members changed their story about what happened claiming that Wardley must have ended his own life or his own gun must discharged and killed him.
In 1899 Sam Hose asked his employer for advanced wages and time off to visit his sick mother. His employer refused getting into a shouting match with Hose. The next day, the employer resume the argument, this time producing a gun. Hose threw an ax in self-defense instantly killing the man. A mob formed to lynch Hose and cut his body apart for souvenirs. The story written in the paper was that Hose attacked his employer while eating dinner, then proceeded to pillage the house and the employers wife. The story encouraged everyone to remember how religious and just the townspeople are.
In 1918 Mary Turner’s husband was lynched. Mary vowed to get justice for husband. The next day she was lynched and her unborn child too.
In Alabama in 1940, O. D. Henderson was lynched outside a police office because he bumped into a white coworker and knocked him down.
I must stop writing this list because I cannot bear to keep reading the details of these stories. But know that I could. I could keep going. For pages and pages and pages, I could keep going. I could reach back before 1890. I could fill in every decade. I could name almost every state. Just from the 1880s to the 1960s there were more than 4500 recorded lynchings in the US. And though I grew up under the impression that lynchings ended with the Civil Rights Movement, I now know that was a lie.
Over the last few years, I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to humanize the victims of white aggression. I’ve written about men and boys who could be a person in my own life and women and girls who could be me. I’ve tried to restore their dignity by giving shape to their humanity. But this time I cannot. This time I will not try to humanize Ahmaud Arbery. Because it is not he who is lacking. It has always been white people drunk on their own power who have lost their humanity.
No. This time I will give Arbery the dignity of the assumption of his likeability, relatability, kindness, generosity, big heart, hopes and dreams. I will not dig for evidence; today we are going to assume all that is true about Arbery. Because Arbery is one person in a centuries old line of Black people who must prove they are human in order to call their murders unjust.
Today I came here to do one thing. And that is to call bullshit again. Bullshit on “liberty and justice for all” again. Bullshit on equality. Bullshit on fairness. Bullshit on law and order. Bullshit on the “justice system”. Bullshit on your celebration of racial progress again and again and again. Bullshit from 1619 to this morning.
In February, two white men knew they would be given the right to jump in a pick-up truck with guns and hunt down a Black man with the singular defense that they thought he might be someone who had previously committed a crime against property in their neighborhood.
How did they know? Because of Henry Smith, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, William "Henry" Stewart, William Wardley, Sam Hose, Mary Turner, O.D. Henderson, and centuries of examples in which white people can destroy Black bodies for any infraction they deem important enough. And they were right.
For months, the law was used to protect them from even being arrested. No charges. The police called Arbery’s mother already framing her sons death as the result of him committing a crime. The victim was framed as being the aggressor which means the white men with a vehicle and guns had the right to protect themselves from the jogger. The white men were able to dance around a law that allows a citizens arrest during the progress of a crime. They had seen no crime, but if the person you’re arresting is Black, who needs an actual crime? An actual crime has never been necessary; all white people need is a story.
And so. Across this country, we must make ourselves responsible for the imaginations, the stories white people tell themselves. And that is frightening because it is impossible.
Across the country, we must now manage our exacerbated fears of leaving our homes- of doing regular shit- but being deemed suspicious.
The purpose of lynchings isn’t just to punish an individual Black person. The purpose of a lynching is to make clear to a community, the Black community, who is in power and who is not. Lynchings are a public spectacle to confirm that white people can exact terror without fear of the law. The purpose of a lynching is to inspire fear and control.
And it is not to our shame that we fear how to protect ourselves, how to protect our parents, how to protect our children, how to protect our partners and nieces and nephews and cousins and friends. It is not to our shame to fear because fear makes sense in the midst of racial terror. Despite the very real evidence for being afraid, we keep going. We keep fighting. We keep raising our voices. We keep falling in love. We keep cooking and eating and sharing meals. We keep praying and burning sage. We keep tickling the bellies of our kiddos. We keep dancing and singing and creating culture. We keep going. We cannot be controlled.
Lynchings are still here, but so are we. They haven’t been able to destroy us. The fear hasn’t kept us from showing up, from experiencing joy, from demanding more from America.
May the family of Arbery be given justice. May they be given peace. May they experience joy. May they know that we are witnesses; we are watching. And whatever fears we may harbor will never outweigh our expectation for justice for Arbery.
List of some references for the stories of lynching victims:
Details of Aberey’s murder can be found on The New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post and more. These stories continue to be updated as the NAACP, local and national activists continue to push for justice in this case.