Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Who is my neighbor? Terrorism in America

Trigger warning: This entry contains graphic descriptions of lynching.

They say that when the train pulled out of Texarkana, Henry Smith begged the lawmen accompanying him for protection.

Smith had reason to be scared. Only 18 years old, he had fled Paris, Texas, four days earlier, when he was accused of sexually assaulting and murdering the 4-year-old daughter of a sheriff's deputy who had beaten him on the head earlier in the week. The manhunt for him swiftly grew nationwide, with rail companies offering free passage to anyone involved in the hunt.

By the time the train arrived in Texarkana, there was a mob of 5,000 people waiting for him. A committee from Paris, where he was headed, prevailed upon the mob to let them pass so that Smith could face justice there.

Did I mention that Smith was also black?

Smith was never formally charged with a crime, never tried, and never allowed counsel. As for the sexual assault, that never even happened.

None of that mattered. When the train arrived in Paris, a reported 5,000 to 15,000 people were waiting for him. They marched Smith through town to a scaffold they had built, and there they burned him with red-hot iron brands, beginning with the soles of his feet and moving up his body until they finally gouged out his eyes. A writer for the New York Sun reported that every time Smith groaned or screamed, a cheer went up from the crowd.

After 40 minutes, the mob poured oil on Smith and set him alight. Reportedly he ran screaming off the scaffolding and only then did he die. Afterward, the people sifted through the ashes for souvenirs, including charred fragments of bone and pieces of the scaffolding.

This was a scene of horror worthy of ISIS. The perpetrators, it should be noted, were Christians.

Terrorism. That is the only word that adequately describes the scene that unfolded in Paris on Feb. 1, 1893. The horror visited upon Smith is more fitting for a scene from Dante's “Inferno” than it is for anything resembling justice.

If the concern had been for justice, Smith would have been tried and convicted first, or at least charged. But this wasn't justice. There was a message in Smith's execution for the rest of the black community, that the same could happen to them, and the law would do nothing to intervene.

Terror was the message on May 16, 1918, when a mob in Lowndes County, Ga., lynched Hayes Turner and a dozen other black men after a white landowner was shot through his living room window. Their bodies were riddled with bullets and left hanging on trees for days.

When Turner's wife, eight months pregnant at the time, decried her husband's murder, the mob caught up with her, hanged her upside-down from a tree and set her on fire. Most horrifyingly, a member of the mob cut the baby from her belly and stomped it to death. A 1918 report by the NAACP, titled “The Crisis,” notes that the people involved in the lynching wanted to teach her “a lesson.”

Between 1882 and 1964, there were nearly 5,000 recorded lynchings committed across the South, in a region of the country where the people prided themselves on a culture of grace and gentility, to say nothing of religious piety. The persecution of blacks by the larger white culture was so severe that thousands upon thousands of families fled North to Chicago, Cleveland and other major cities not just in search of work, as we commonly are taught, but in an effort to survive.

This was a concerted reign of terror, and the force driving the terrorism wasn't a maladjusted social view of race that led otherwise decent people to look askance at darker-skinned neighbors and to view them with suspicion.

The terrorism that struck in the South from Reconstruction down through the Civil Rights Era didn't have to hide from religious scrutiny that would have ended it. It flourished in the pews. Particularly in the view of those committing the acts of terror, but also in the eyes of their supporters, these were profoundly religious acts.

It has always been this way. Frederick Douglass, a 19th-century abolitionist who grew up on plantations in the South, had a special and well-earned contempt for the piety of the white Christians he knew. In his autobiography, “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” Douglass noted that the cruelest slave owners and overseers invariably were the ones who enjoyed the greatest reputations among white church-goers.

“Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me,” he wrote. “For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.”

Fires burning along Archer and Greenwood
during the Tulsa race riot of 1921.
On May 31, 1921, spurred on by a fallacious report that a male black teen had assaulted a white teen girl in a department store where they both worked, the people of Tulsa, Okla., embarked on a race riot that lasted two days. When it ended, there were 300 people dead, and the Greenwood community was destroyed. Until that point Greenwood had been a center of black commerce and wealth known as the Black Wall Street.

Actions like that, or the Aug. 7, 1930, lynchings of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Ind., weren't just terrorism. They were specifically Christian terrorism. That is a bold and even offensive assertion, but it's one I stand by. Let's break it down.

First, like much else in the South, segregation itself was profoundly religious in nature. As late as 1960, radio preacher Bob Jones Sr. took to the airwaves to argue that segregation was both biblical and essential for a well-functional society.

In his sermon "Is Segregation Scriptural?" which he delivered on Easter Sunday, Jones rooted his argument almost entirely on Acts 17:26, where the Apostle Paul declares “From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries” (RSV).

Organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, which worked to uphold this separation of the races by driving out blacks who ventured too far into white society or into positions deemed more appropriate for whites than blacks to hold, held themselves as definitively Protestant Christian organizations. Cross-burning was considered a religious gesture of positioning the light of the Cross against the darkness, and Klan rallies often were (and still are) treated as religious services, with prayers and hymns.

In this religion, every virtue accumulated to the white and every vice to the black. These views linger to this day, with unwarranted stereotypes of the black man who is lazy, predatory and angry; and the wanton black woman who tempts the virtue of white men and boys.

That's one reason why, when George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, discussion quickly shifted from Zimmerman's actions to Trayvon's. Allegations of drug use immediately surfaced, along with claims that he brutally had attacked Zimmerman, and other details that served to define him as the aggressor rather than as a teen who was headed back to the home of his father's girlfriend after buying Skittles and iced tea. All this served to justify what essentially was an extrajudicial lynching.

At its essence, segregation was about protecting the purity of the white race, and particularly the purity of white women from black men. A segregationist like Strom Thurmond could — and did — have children with a black woman, and that was no shame to him; but a white woman who had a child with a black man was shamed for the rest of her life. Her children and her grandchildren forever would be viewed as black and tainted, as less than pure white. Lynchings were a way to avenge the stain brought upon the white victim, and a way to warn the rest of the black community to stay within their God-ordained borders.

And that is the reason why, when Henry Smith was lynched, it wasn't enough to accuse him of killing a child. It was necessary to invent the fiction that he also had sexually assaulted her. It wasn't enough for him to be accused of strangling 4-year-old Myrtle Vance; his crime had to be so horrible that murderous outrage was the only acceptable response.

A month after Smith's lynching, the Paris Daily News published a 184-page account of the event, called "The Facts in the Case of the Horrible Murder of Little Myrtle Vance and the Fearful Expiation at Paris, Texas February 1st, 1893,” with the intent of setting the record against Smith for all time.

To read this account, Myrtle Vance could not have been more angelic, nor Smith more demonic. No adjective was too pure to apply to the one, and none to foul too fit the second. Clearly, his lynching had divine sanction.

I know what some will say to all this. Some are going to argue that while lynching and race riots are horrible and inexcusable, they don't rise to the level of terrorism. Others will say that members of the Ku Klux Klan or other such organizations in America, Uganda or anywhere else, have no legitimate claim to a basis in the Christian faith for what they do and stand for.

The 16th Street Baptist Church
in Birmingham, Ala., was bombed
by terrorists on Sept. 15, 1963
Still others will say that terrorist actions like bombing churches, threatening people's lives to force them to convert, blowing up abortion clinics and murdering people are so contrary to the way of Christ, that those who engage in them cannot possibly be Christians.

A few may allow a wider dispensation and agree that the offender still could be a Christian, but one who has been horribly misled and deceived about what it means to follow Christ.

I'd agree with all those people on this one point. Christianity is a religion of love, not hatred. It's a perversion of the Christian faith to engage in actions like the ones I've just recounted.

Can anyone think of another religion, besides Christianity, that's been perverted by a small faction for spreading hatred and terror?

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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