Anatomy of a Lynching

The political uses of race.

According to President Obama racism is “part of the DNA” of America, transmitted through the generations from its origins right to the present.  This statement is perhaps the most malicious libel ever uttered by an American president against his own country. It is true that racism became one of the rationales for slavery, an institution America inherited from the British Empire before abolishing it. But slavery existed in Africa for a thousand years before a white person ever set foot there, and for 3,000 years in all societies. It is what peoples of all races and ethnicities imposed on their enemies when they conquered them. Moreover, for 3,000 years no one declared slavery to be immoral - not Aristotle, not Moses, not Jesus, not the African slavers - until white Protestant Christians in England did so towards the end of the 18th Century. At that time, in Britain’s North American colonies a white slave owner named Thomas Jefferson wrote into the birth certificate of a new nation the proposition that liberty is a God-given right, which government cannot take away - and equality too. Within little more than a generation, and at the cost of 350,000 Union lives, slavery was abolished in America, and then rapidly throughout the Western hemisphere.

In other words, every black person alive in this country today owes his or her freedom to America – to the Americans who conceived this nation in liberty and gave their lives to make it so. That is the true DNA of America: liberty, not racism. An unappreciated effect of Obama’s libel is to persuade large numbers of black Americans that it is true, and thus to alienate them from their own country and make them feel like outsiders in a land whose heritage they are a part of. Black people are as American as any race or ethnicity who came or were brought to these shores. They arrived in 1619, before the Mayflower and have been an essential part of America’s culture and history ever since. 

Sometimes it takes years to ingest so crucial a fact. Sometimes, even a lifetime is insufficient as President Obama has shown. Even then, the knowledge can be lost through the ignorance or prejudice of the next generations. In the 1960s radicals rallied around the slogan, “You can't trust anyone over 30,” which was an expression of youthful arrogance and poor judgment. Because youth lack real world experience, the slogan “Be cautious about the conclusions of anyone under 30” would have been a more reasonable counsel. 

When I was eleven years old, a book came into our progressive household titled We Charge Genocide. It was published by an organization calling itself the Civil Rights Congress and was a book-length petition calling on the United Nations to condemn the United States for conducting genocide against American Negroes (as they were then referred to). The frontispiece to the book featured a photograph of a lynching that took place in Indiana in August 1930. It was, in fact, the most famous photograph of a lynching, one that was the direct inspiration for Strange Fruit, Billie Holliday’s elegy for the victims. The photograph shows two black men hanging from the limbs of a tree surrounded by a crowd of whites. One man facing the camera points at the hanging bodies with a ghoulish grin.  Everybody who has seen any picture of a lynching has probably seen this photograph. 

The image is horrifying but it took me more than 10 years before I had read enough to understand that lynching was actually not devised for black people. To be sure, as practiced, there was a racial dimension to lynching, and an evil one.  But in its origins lynching had no racial dimension. It was just frontier justice - “Let’s not waste time with trials and get on with the punishment.” In the course of my reading I also learned that a third of all known lynching victims – more than a thousand - were white. This tells us two important things: First, that lynching wasn’t just a practice against black people, and second that the victims were punished because they had allegedly committed crimes worthy of hanging. In other words, most lynchings were not about mobs of white racists grabbing black people and stringing them up because of their skin color. They were extra-judicial hangings to punish people for serious crimes of which they had been accused. This is not to say that racial prejudice was not an important factor, as evident in the fact that two-thirds of the lynching victims were black. There were probably prejudicial aspects to the cases where whites were targeted as well, though less obvious and fewer. That is why we provide due process to all as a constitutional right. In any case, the photograph of one lynching or many is not evidence of genocide.  

The two men hanged in the famous photograph in We Charge Genocide were named Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. A third man with them, James Cameron, who was sixteen and also black was not lynched. The three had been arrested, after being accused of murdering a young white factory worker and raping his girlfriend. A mob 2,000 strong had broken into the jail where they were being held, and taken the three men out, and then hanged Shipp and Smith from the tree. 

I learned these facts by accident nearly fifty years after I first saw the photograph. I had tuned into a National Public Radio program on which James Cameron, who was then an old man, was being interviewed about what had taken place. According to Cameron, Shipp and Smith had actually committed the murder they were accused of. As for the rape, the white woman who was the alleged victim said afterwards that she had not been raped. So the rape charge was spurious. But the murder charge was not. This does not make the lynching right, but it does call into question whether there was a racial dimension to this incident after all. 

Why didn't the lynch mob hang James Cameron, who was also black and who was accused of the same crime? The answer is that Cameron claimed he didn’t want to participate in the robbery and murder, and stayed in the car. It is possible that he would have been hanged by the lynch mob anyway but the reason he wasn’t was this:  A member of the lynch mob, a white man, stood up for him and affirmed his innocence. Afterwards, Cameron was tried in court and convicted of being an accessory to the crime before the fact. He served four years in prison, and then spent the rest of his life fighting for civil rights, founding three chapters of the NAACP in Indiana. In 1991, the State of Indiana pardoned him. One can find all this out on Wikipedia, if one just looks up “Marion Indiana lynching.”

We Charge Genocide featured the photograph of this lynching as a symbol of America’s racism – of its genocidal white racism. But once the facts are known, this claim is shown to be an unscrupulous misrepresentation of a troubled but more complicated reality. Other facts complicate it more. The genocide petition was presented to the U.N. in December 1951. But at this time a great civil rights revolution in America had already begun, in large part because Americans had just defeated an enemy dedicated to the idea of a “master race.” The conscience of a nation had been awakened, and racial barriers had begun to fall. In 1947 the military was integrated along with the civil service, and Jackie Robinson became the first black athlete allowed to participate in America's national sport. It was only a couple of years before Brown v. Board of Education integrated the nation’s school systems, and only a few more before segregation and racial discrimination were banned by the Civil Rights Acts. 

So why the charge of genocide -- a campaign to exterminate an entire people – since it is obviously a malicious libel? It took me 40 years to put together all the facts to arrive at the answer: The Civil Rights Congress, the organization responsible for the petition, was a Communist Party front, and thus the genocide campaign was designed by people who wanted to create a “Soviet America” and help Russia - America’s mortal enemy - to win the Cold War. The extent of Moscow’s control of the American Communist Party was something that the world only learned as a result of the opening of the Soviet archives after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

At the same time the We Charge Genocide petition was being put together, Moscow was conducting a series of arrests in its East European satellites, followed by purge trials and executions many of whose targets were Jews. In Czechoslovakia these purges climaxed in a show trial of the top leaders of the Czech Communist Party who were accused of being part of a “Trotskyite-Titoite-Zionist conspiracy.” Of the thirteen Czech leaders hanged, eleven were Jews, which prompted an international outcry in which the Kremlin was accused of anti-Semitism, a charge it was desperate to counteract. In other words, the "We Charge Genocide" campaign was not about black Americans at all. It was about using blacks as a battering ram against the United States as part of a Kremlin effort to neutralize the bad publicity Moscow was getting for its purges of Jews in Eastern Europe, which then spread to the Soviet Union itself. 

The use of blacks as a battering ram against opponents of the left is a progressive tradition that lives on today in the Democratic Party, and the latest version of the Civil Rights Congress is the heavily funded organization called Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter is officially endorsed by the Democratic Party and Democratic funders like George Soros have raised tens of millions of dollars to create a professional army to support its divisive mission. A month before the 2016 elections 100 of Black Lives Matter activists gathered at the University of California Irvine to attack the Los Angeles police department with this chant: “LAPD what you say? How many people have you killed today? LAPD you can’t hide. We charge you with genocide.” 

The protest was one of hundreds in the last couple of years conducted across the nation to attack police departments for an alleged “genocidal” war against blacks. There is no factual basis for this charge. According to the Washington Post, for example, police shootings make up 12% of all white and Hispanic homicide deaths, which is three times the proportion of black deaths resulting from police shootings. According to FBI data, over the last 10 years 40% of cop killers have been black, while police officers are killed by blacks at a rate 2.5 times higher  than the rate at which blacks are killed by police.

Equally preposterous is Black Lives Matter’s claim – echoed by many Democrats – that America is a “white supremacist” nation. This is a racist claim, implicating all whites, and particularly absurd since America - now completing the two terms of a black presidency - is perhaps the most tolerant nation on earth. Since the 1990s, America has had two black Secretaries of State, a black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, three black heads of the National Security Council, and thousands of black elected officials at state and municipal levels. Major American cities like Atlanta, Philadelphia and Baltimore are run by blacks, and many more are governed by black mayors, black police chiefs, black judges, non-white majority city councils and black superintendents of schools. How ironic that more than half a century after the end of segregation and the passage of the Civil Rights Acts, after the integration of America’s military and schools and popular culture, this racist incitement should be the emblem of a movement for “social justice.”

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