Tag Archives: lynching

Don’t Know Much About History?

stylized images of lynching victims from the National Memorial for Peace and Justice
The national lynching memorial

Laurie and Debbie say:

Yesterday’s news had several reports about a new study of what younger Americans know about the Holocaust, conducted by The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference). The results are certainly disturbing. Harriet Sherwood wrote about the survey for The Guardian:

The survey, the first to drill down to state level in the US, ranks states according to a score based on three criteria: whether young people [defined as adults aged 18-39]  have definitely heard about the Holocaust; whether they can name one concentration camp, death camp or ghetto; and whether they know 6 million Jews were killed.

Nationally, 63% of respondents did not know 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, and more than one in three (36%) thought 2 million or fewer had been killed.

Eleven per cent of respondents across the US believed that Jews had caused the Holocaust.

Some statewide data is available in the article, and more at the ClaimsCon site. Perhaps more upsetting than the main data is this gem:

More than half (56%) said they had seen Nazi symbols on their social media platforms and/or in their communities, and almost half (49%) had seen Holocaust denial or distortion posts on social media or elsewhere online.

As two Jews substantially older than the survey respondents, we have a lot of reactions:

ClaimsCon is clearly doing good work, and is doing it very explicitly for “Jewish victims of the Holocaust.” Thus, their survey tells us nothing about the millions of other direct Holocaust victims, including people with disabilities, homosexuals (to use the language of the times), the Rom. and other ethnic, religious and social minorities, not to mention civilians in various countries including Poland, the Soviet Union, and Serbia. While the 6 million number is very familiar to people of our generation, the actual number of Nazi victims is certainly more than 11 million people; the awareness of those horrifying casualty statistics is undoubtedly much more limited than the awareness of what happened to the Jews. We’ve also been reminded frequently since the murder of George Floyd about how much Americans don’t know about our own racist history: what if this survey had also asked “how many Black people were lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1968?” (answer: at least 5,000).

It is in the nature of time and history that people know less about what happened before our parents were alive, and in the nature of governments and school systems that many historical atrocities are ignored, if not erased. Americans between the ages of 18 and 36 have no shortage of more recent genocides and social calamities to concern them: they are, after all, the generations that grew up with school shooter drills. The younger half of the group has also grown up with videos of Black men being killed by police. These survey respondents cannot be dismissed as either ignorant or callous, though their teachers and parents could and should certainly have done much better.

What is different about this historical period from previous ones is the ubiquity of social media. Disinformation and conspiracy theory are as old as human civilization, and anti-Semitic conspiracy theory in particular is easily traced back hundreds of years. Social media, however, at least in its current infancy, has proved to be astonishingly efficient at spreading lies, rumors, conspiracies, and paranoia. We’d love to see data on what proportion of those 49-56% of survey respondents who’ve seen Nazi symbols or Holocaust denial felt compelled to take a stand, let them go by as ridiculous, or admired/believed what they saw (as well as all the shades of reaction in between).

After putting the survey results in context, we are still galvanized. In a time of rising anti-Semitism, racism, and violent “nativism” around the world. Hate speech is normalizing in many countries, and white/Christian supremacists are gaining traction. Every one of us who cares about historical truth and contemporary justice should be talking to the people we know — especially the people in the survey age group and younger. Information wants to be shared; our knowledge is all have to drive out a lot of the dangerous untruths — when we make the commitment to speak.

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Harvesting Strange Fruit: Humanizing the Victims of Lynching

Columns represent lynching victims at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Debbie says:

The Equal Justice Initiative opened The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2018. By all accounts, both are moving and memorable. The exhibit that seems to get the most coverage is the memorial structure on the center of the Memorial site, which …

… is constructed of over 800 corten steel monuments, one for each county in the United States where a racial terror lynching took place. The names of the lynching victims are engraved on the columns. The memorial is more than a static monument. In the six-acre park surrounding the memorial is a field of identical monuments, waiting to be claimed and installed in the counties they represent. Over time, the national memorial will serve as a report on which parts of the country have confronted the truth of this terror and which have not.

Perhaps because the Memorial is a fresh reminder of old and very tender wounds, I have recently heard the specific stories of two victims of lynching, Thomas Finch and Claude Neal: even though I’ve been aware of the history of lynching all my adult life, I don’t know that I had ever before heard the names and circumstances of any particular event.

Thomas Finch’s story was featured on Reveal. Finch was shot and killed in 1936 by an Atlanta police officer. Finch, who was an orderly at an Atlanta hospital, was accused of rape by a white female patient (not the story of every lynching, but it occurs again and again). The layout of the hospital makes this accusation very unlikely. Finch was arrested by the Atlanta police, but they killed him before they took him to the police station. The policeman who shot him became a leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Atlanta has never acknowledged Finch’s death as a lynching, and the officer’s grandson (interviewed on the podcast) struggles with finding explanations for his grandfather’s behavior (“He was Grand Imperial Wizard for only a year to 18 months, so it wasn’t very long.”)

Claude Neal’s story was told on CodeSwitch. While lynching stories are potentially triggering by definition, be warned that this particular story is told in substantial and starkly horrifying detail. Neal was killed in Jackson County, Florida in 1934. He has the gruesome distinction of being the victim of one of the most well-attended lynchings in American history–somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 people were present at his death. This appears to be because he was arrested in Alabama, freed by a lynch mob, and brought back to Florida to be killed, which gave the killers the time to advertise his death rather like a concert or a race. Like Finch two years later, he was accused of raping and killing a white woman, though some people at the time believed the two had a consensual secret relationship.

Side note: the concept of “lynching” refers to taking prisoners out of formal police custody and due process to kill them rather than try them. Since the mid-1980s, some police departments have interpreted this to mean that pressuring the police at a demonstration or riot to keep arrests from happening can be called “lynching” and in fact people who tear themselves out of police custody can be charged with lynching … themselves. “the definition of “lynching” was broadened [in 1999] in the First District Court of Appeal’s decision in People v. Anthony J.: “We conclude that a person who takes part in a riot leading to his escape from custody can be convicted of his own lynching.” This is ridiculous in its own right and inexcusably trivializes the mob terror Black people suffered for decades.

Historically, we have heard more about the anti-lynching activists than about the victims: I could tell you a fair amount about Walter White and Ida B. Wells long before I ever heard of Thomas Finch and Claude Neal. For me, knowing about these men, being able to say their names, learn their stories, and recognize the suffering still alive in their descendants is an essential element of acknowledging the reality of this degrading American behavior.

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