Taking Justice Seriously

Praising Lynching in the US House of Representatives

Grounds at Hopsewee Plantation, near the settlement of North Santee, along the Santee River in Georgetown County, South Carolina in June of 2017 - photo: Carol M. Highsmith

Opinion

There are many events which tell us about ourselves. They are mirrors, so to speak. The world sees us, looking at the reflection. And we see ourselves in our response. Lynching has long been one of those things. 

Lynching in our country has become infrequent to the point of vanishing, but only for a half-century or so. The last recognized lynching happened in 1981, in Mobile, Alabama. Several Klansmen killed a young black man and hung his body from a tree. The perpetrators were prosecuted, and one was executed, which was probably the best indication that the era of lynching had run its course.

But memories and the echoes of lynching live on. From 1882 to 1968, at least 4,743 people were lynched in the United States, according to tabulations from contemporary accounts, newspapers, and public records. There were ebbs and flows, of course, but on average a person was lynched every single week for eighty-six years.

Almost all the victims were black, or other minorities; almost all the perpetrators were white. Every lynching was a spectacle. Some were small-scale, carried out in dead of night, in the backwoods or other out-of-the-way places, in front of a handful of accomplices. Many were public events, in which the victims were mutilated and otherwise tortured, and then hung or burned alive—or both—while thousands of spectators looked on.  

Despite being common to the point of banality, lynching took up an infectious residence in our nation’s collective consciousness. It lives there today. The respective moments of those 4,743 murders are lost in time—was it a sunny day? A moonless night? Did dogs bark? Did children stop their playing to watch?

But each of the victims meant something to someone. They, in turn, knew exactly why the victim had been chosen, and that it could have been them, but for some stroke of luck or coincidence. Not because of anything they did. Because of who they were—a shared identity marked by dark skin and a common struggle—thwarted at every turn—for nothing more than the basics of life. 

The stain of nauseous, unrelenting fear and anger—even its chemical signature—overwhelms and embeds itself deeper than individual memory. Nevertheless, a fair share of victims are only a few generations removed from today. They are remembered by the oldest among us, and their photographs reside in the back pages of family albums. If Emmett Till had not been lynched in Mississippi he would turn 80 in July. He could be anyone’s grandfather. 

No one was surprised at the reaction, then, when Congressman Chip Roy, a Republican from the Twenty-first District of Texas, took to the House floor to praise lynching. He spoke at a hearing on violence and discrimination against Asian Americans, using his time to recite a long list of groups he felt were equally deserving of justice. Justice, he made clear, comes in the form of lynching. He said, “There’s an old saying in Texas, find all the rope in Texas and get a tall oak tree . . . .  You know we take justice very seriously. And we ought to do that, round up the bad guys. That’s what we believe.”

It would be easy to write off these remarks as terminal tone-deafness, until we consider not just what Representative Roy was talking about, but the “we” he was talking to. It was clear who heard his words because no one missed the irony that in praising lynching in the context of violence toward Asian Americans he forgot or never knew that the Chinese were historically the victims of the largest mass lynchings in American history. His remarks were widely condemned by Asian-American and black elected officials and commentators, and even criticized by his own state party chair, who is also black. 

Any black person, or anyone familiar with lynching, understands the self-serving fallacy equating lynching with justice. But this was Representative Roy’s basic assumption. He was talking to those who accept that fallacy and, in effect, giving them license to act on it. 

During the first half of the twentieth century, Congress tried nearly 200 times to enact federal legislation against lynching. Southern senators argued such action violated states’ rights, and were unnecessary—nevermind the statistics—since existing laws adequately protected black citizens. They used the filibuster to defeat each and every one of these attempts.

Lynching itself was only defended indirectly—a minor point in the more important stand on principle. It remained, of course, the not so subtle means to their end of suppressing and exploiting the black population. 

In 1907, Senator Ben Tillman of South Carolina took to the Senate floor and mocked the idea of giving black men accused of raping white women a trial and punishment in the regular course of justice. In 2021, Representative Roy was on the House floor calling lynching justice. He spoke to the same believers as Senator Tillman, though separated by 114 years.

In their world, with its historical pedigree, justice is whatever the mob says it is. The result today might not be people hanging from oak trees, but as we look deeply into the mirror can we promise it will be anything different?


Erich Obermayr is an author, community activist, and career archaeologist specializing in sharing historical and archaeological research with the public. He writes about Nevada politics and social issues. He lives in Silver City, Nevada, with his wife.

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