Of the manifold atrocities heaped upon black Americans in their long struggle for equality in the United States, I can’t imagine anything that compares to lynching, the ultimate expression of white supremacists’ brutal and violent inhumanity.
Given its horrific history and the way it continues to roil the collective memory of black Americans, lynching — whether in imagery or rhetorically — should never be bandied about in a cavalier fashion, least of all by black men.
It behooves us to recall some specifics.
Lynching refers to the mob violence — typically meted out in an extrajudicial fashion — that was visited most often, although not exclusively, upon black men in southern states from the years immediately following the Civil War all the way through the middle of the 20th century. More often than not, a public execution followed trumped-up claims of sexual activity between a white woman and a black man.
But in an ahistorical trend that dishonors their martyred ancestors, a succession of prominent black men have invoked metaphorical lynchings, in a self-serving effort to push back against inflammatory public allegations of sexual impropriety and illegal behavior raised against them by, in many cases, black women.
Actor-comedian Bill Cosby and his publicity team claimed in social media posts that his conviction last year of sexual assault amounted to a “public lynching.” So, too, did R. Kelly’s media sycophants, who responded to mounting calls for boycotts of the R&B singer’s music and concerts by sending out a press release announcing that they would “vigorously resist this attempted public lynching of a black man who has made extraordinary contributions to our culture.”
More recently, Jussie Smollett, an actor on the “Empire” television series, is accused of hiring a pair of brothers to stage an attack against him that featured motifs of a lynching — he appeared in the original police report with his alleged attackers’ noose still dangling around his neck.
In defending himself against separate accusations of sexual assault and rape leveled at him last month by two women, Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax delivered a speech before the Commonwealth’s Senate, in which he conjured the imagery of lynching while strenuously professing his innocence and expressing concern that his due process rights might be violated.
“If we allow for political lynchings without any due process, any facts, any evidence being heard, then I think we do a disservice to this very body in which we all serve,” Fairfax said.
And then, there is the most famous and enduring example: In 1991, during his Senate confirmation hearings, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas rejected allegations that he had sexually harassed Anita Hill during the time they worked together at the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
In dramatic, televised testimony, Thomas described the charges against him as a politically motivated “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.”
Lynching involved real and deadly physical violence, not simply contentious allegations that threatened damning impact to personal reputations.
I offer here no opinion on the guilt or innocence of any of these men, nor do I wish to litigate the minute details of their specific situations. However, attention should be paid to the improper rhetorical use of the term “lynching” to characterize their troubles.
Indeed, proffering an emotionally-charged “lynching” defense for the sake of rallying sympathy in the court of public opinion — or within the greater black community — is a disturbing trend. A fair and accurate recollection of the awful role that lynchings played in our history should demand better of us. Lynching involved real and deadly physical violence, not simply contentious allegations that threatened damning impact to personal reputations.
Ersula J. Ore, the Lincoln Professor of Ethics in the School of Transformation and assistant professor of African and African American studies and rhetoric at Arizona State University, expressed outrage that black men would so shamefully use lynching imagery in self-defense.
“These comparisons are not only grossly anachronistic, but also dangerous as they participate in a longer tradition of racist patriarchy,” Ore told ThinkProgress.
“When men like Lt. Gov. Fairfax, Bill Cosby, and R. Kelly invoke the history of lynching as a defense against evidenced history of misconduct, they not only undermine the fight for social justice, they do so through the bodies of the very women who have, from history to the contemporary moment, so diligently fought for them, for their sons, and for our futures.”
Ore said these men use the rhetoric of lynching because it packs an emotional wallop capable of provoking sympathy among some black observers.
“The metaphor also has resonance as a defense against the myth of the hypersexual black beast,” she continued.
“In claiming that they are being lynched, these men are claiming (and grossly distorting history as they do) that they are being persecuted by false narratives of sexual misconduct akin to the kind that white women and white men used to justify various acts of anti-Black violence and dispossession.”
But Ore believes doing so causes greater harm to the black community than the effort to preserve the reputations of aggrieved black men.
“Black women led the fight against lynching,” she said. “Anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells spearheaded America’s anti-lynching campaign. It was Wells’s anti-lynching pamphlets, articles, and speeches alongside the contributions of the NAACP and newspapers such as the Chicago Defender that led to the decrease in lynchings and the overall forgetting of its practice.”
Indeed, Wells’ activism spurred the nascent National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which was formed in 1909, to take up her campaign against lynching.
Nevertheless, more than a century of repeated efforts to pass a federal law that might outlaw the practice of lynching continually foundered in Congress, beginning in 1900 with North Carolina Rep. George H. White’s bill to ban the practice. White, the only black man in Congress at the time, saw his legislation die in committee.
In 1918, Rep. Leonidas Dyer, a Republican from Missouri, embarked upon an effort, repeatedly introducing measures to outlaw lynching, only to watch them fail. In 1922, he managed to secure passage from the House only to see the Senate — then dominated by southern states — filibuster the effort, preventing it from becoming law.
Meanwhile, this deadly form of domestic terrorism continued, largely unabated and almost without consequences for its perpetrators. Research conducted by the NAACP and Tuskegee University found that some 4,475 lynchings took place in the United States between 1882 and 1968. Most occurred in the South, but lynchings were reported in all but four states. In nearly 99 percent of the known cases, nobody was prosecuted for the lynchings, the researchers found.
At long last, federal action to acknowledge and criminalize lynching is on the national horizon. Last year, three black U.S. senators — Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Tim Scott (R-SC) — introduced the Justice for Lynching Act of 2018, a bill to designate lynching as a federal hate crime. While the Senate bill passed in December, the House failed to act on a companion bill, introduced in the U.S. House by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL), before the session ended.
Earlier this month, the Senate unanimously passed the Booker-Harris-Scott bill once again and the House version is expected to pass later in the current session. If and when that happens, along with an expected signing into law by President Donald Trump, it will be the culmination of a century of efforts, after some 200 past failed legislative attempts to criminalize lynching.
As a black man who was born in a southern state during the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement, I came of age with a wary awareness that breaches of society’s segregationist-minded norms could easily tempt fate and lead to tragic consequences.
For that reason alone, it’s outrageous and baffling to me why any black man in the United States would summon the imagery of lynching in so careless and callous an affront to our shared history.