One of the central themes in my debut novel, “Havasu Means Blue Water”, is the question posed by the protagonist, Lyla Amir, a feisty bi-racial graduate student, as she shifts through the murky history surrounding the 1918 lynching of a black farmer and his wife in the fictional town of Wilburn, Arizona—can a society regain its moral footing after a fall from grace?
Lyla frames the question this way:
“In the aftermath of such savagery (a lynching) can a community recover its moral compass when it has strayed so far from the bounds of civilized behavior?”
She then delves into the group pathology that develops to mitigate the horror of historical crimes:
I expect to find a community of people in Wilburn who are in active denial of the barbarity of the acts committed by their ‘own’; such denial allows them to protect and preserve the semblance of a moral identity. Likewise, I expect them to attempt to avoid responsibility for the sins of their fathers and mothers by treating these historical crimes as aberrant behavior committed by ‘others’ long dead. By portraying the guilty as victims of a way of thinking relegated to the past, the living use the passage of time to cleanse the bloody handprints of their forbearers from the pages of history. Justice deprived, however, leaves another type of bloody trail; a crimson stain on white snow, a defect of spirit carried by the descendants of murdered victims buried but not forgotten that prevents them from moving forward until the festering wound of injustice is cured.” (excerpt from Havasu Means Blue Water, page 78)
Lyla soon embarks on a journey that leads her into the heart of evil where she discovers the answer to this compelling question. She discovers, as I believe, the passage of time alone can’t restore a community or nation’s moral footing once it violates the sacred covenants upon which it is founded.
When a nation fails to protect and preserve the lives of its citizens, its legitimacy as a sovereign power is called into question. The lynching of Black Americans at the “hands of persons unknown” for several decades, a form of domestic terrorism used by the white majority to deprive black people of their rights as American citizens, was a breach of the most sacred covenant the United States made to its black citizens upon their emancipation from bondage but it was a sacred right that belonged to them even as slaves.
On July 10th, 2011, I hosted an online chat to explore the pros and cons of seeking a measure of justice for the thousands of black lynching victims murdered in the United States. If the election of the first African-American President means we have truly become a post-racial society, perhaps we have achieved a level of national sanity that allows us to examine the issue of black lynchings and the legacy of injustice with an eye toward recovering our moral footing. I want to share a few of the ideas presented on this topic during the online chat.
“What legal, moral or political justification do we have for resurrecting the cases of black lynching victims or other historic civil rights cases?”
Some communities in the United States are unearthing the dark secrets of their past, exposing them to the harsh light of truth and painful, public discourse. These grassroots resurrections of black lynching cases give communities the opportunity to cleanse festering racial wounds caused by unresolved historic crimes. Such commemorative ceremonies, while promoting community healing through a cathartic process of “owning up to grievous moral failures”, rarely seek accountability from local governments for the structural failures that made it so easy to surrender black defendants to vigilante justice. An examination and comparison of the structural weakness in local governance systems, then and now, could be a true litmus test of social progress and a real cause for celebration if meaningful change has been made.
Case Study A—Duluth, Minnesota
In June of 2003, nearly 80 years after one of the most infamous lynchings in America, the city of Duluth, Minnesota erected a moment in memory of 3 black men seized from police custody by a mob of 5,000 to 10,000 residents and hanged from nearby lampposts. The men were arrested after a white woman claimed a black man raped her. All three victims proclaimed their innocence at time of their arrest. Photographs of the victims hanging from city lampposts were turned into postcards that spectators sent to friends and family across the U.S. . In erecting the memorial to the victims members of the commemorative committee said Duluth was dealing with its past. The committee also used the memorial ceremony to sound a call for compassion, reconciliation and racial harmony in Duluth and across the United States.
Case Study B—Monroe, Georgia
On July 25, 1946, twelve to fifteen unmasked white men shot George and Mae Murray Dorsey and Roger and Dorothy Malcolm, all African American, hundreds of times in broad daylight at Moore's Ford bridge. No one was ever prosecuted for these murders. Civil rights activists and the Walton County NAACP formed the Moore's Ford Memorial Committee in August 1997. This large biracial group of Georgians seeks to tell the story of the murders of the Dorseys and the Malcolms and to create a permanent living memorial. Several hundred Georgians searched for the missing graves of the lynching victims. Finding three of the four, they worked twenty-five days to restore two cemeteries and installed grave monuments at the gravesites. The group offers annual scholarships to local students who learn of the lynching and who are inspired to fight for justice and racial reconciliation.
Another more controversial strategy for resolving historic civil rights case has been the reinstitution of legal proceedings. While this approach at first glance seems to offer the best chance for achieving real closure for the victims and/or their families, it isn’t. Delays in bringing “decades-old” cases to trial create evidentiary and due process problems that make it harder to convict the guilty. However, as the discussion that follows shows, there are valid arguments for re-opening historic civil rights cases.
The Re-Opening of the Emmett Till Case
In May 2004, The U.S. Justice Department announced it was re-opening the Emmett Till murder case. Emmett Till was the 14-year-old teenager from Chicago, Illinois whose mutilated body was thrown into the Tallahatchie River near Money, Mississippi after two white men abducted him from the home of relatives. He was killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman.
Margaret Russell, a law professor at Fordham University and a critical race theorist, wrote a law review article entitled, Reopening the Emmett Till Case: Lessons and Challenges for Critical Race Practice (Fordham University, 2005). In it she discusses the merits of reopening the Emmett Till case. Using a harm-based analysis, she examines whether the reopening of historic civil rights cases (which would include lynchings) can achieve hoped for “cleansing moments that might lead to deeper truths … and a just future”.
Russell identified 3 categories of harm that justify the re-opening of historic civil right cases:
1. To achieve justice for the victim’s(s’) family(ies) and/or surviving relatives. (Not a strong argument Russell states because many of the perpetrators of the original crimes are deceased; In addition, meeting the legal burden to convict or prevail after the passage of so much time could prove to be insurmountable.)
2. To redress (remedy) the de-legitimization of the justice system that occurred because individuals responsible for these hate crimes were either never prosecuted or, if tried, were acquitted. (Critical race theorists debunk the notion of a fair and just court system when it comes to black people. They argue individual case victories don’t normally lead to meaningful structural changes in the justice system. Such changes, when they occur, result from the intersecting interests of the powerful and those seeking legal reforms.)
3. To liberate black people as a "targeted victim group" from the psychological terror many of them experienced because of lynchings and other anti-black civil rights violence. (Russell argues this is the most persuasive reason for prosecuting these cases. Black people are re-empowered by exposing and defeating the individuals and groups who conspired to deprive them of their civil rights through acts of domestic terrorism.)
This latter argument refers to the restoration of peace and well-being individuals members of a "victim group" experience after a perceived threat has been neutralized. The jubilation of thousands of Americans as they partied in the streets following the death of Osama Bin Laden is an example of the “freeing power of justice”. His death signaled the end of the terror many Americans had lived with since 9/11. Similarly, the prosecution, trials and conviction of individuals and groups who conspired to deprive Black Americans of their civil rights through acts of domestic terrorism, serve the same purpose—breaking the psychological hold these acts had over generations of blacks who lived in fear of being lynched or subjected to violence by white people.
The discussion points and arguments presented in this article are intended to spur conversation about “black lynchings and the legacy of injustice”. It’s the beginning of an important dialog we need to have as Americans about race and racism—an insidious sickness that has caused this country to loose its moral footing and fall from grace. Americans will discover, like the citizens of Wilburn, Arizona, that the road to redemption begins with giving justice to those who suffered the pain of injustice. (Ivory Simone is an author, poet, blogger and talk radio host. She lives in Bangkok, Thailand. Copies of her debut novel, Havasu Means Blue Water, can be purchased at Amazon.com and lulu.com.)