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A heinous act: lynching is America's dirty secret of racial injustice and hatred.

BOTH W.E.B. DU BOIS AND MARCUS GARVEY, TWO TITANS in the fight for human rights for blacks, shared one thing for certain--the unbridled rage they felt when the topic of lynching was mentioned. To this day, historians are unable to measure accurately the toll of this terrible and cowardly act of mob rule against innocent black people in the history of this country. Some experts estimate the number of blacks lynched to be more than 165,000, although there was no record maintained before 1860.

Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America by James Allen, Hilton Als, John Lewis and Leon F. Litwack (Twin Palms Publishers, 2000) is one of the first books to capture the horrors of lynching; its graphic images are both disturbing and shocking. "Without Sanctuary brings to life one of darkest and sickest periods in American history," writes United States Representative Lewis in the book's Foreword.

Within a scant two years, numerous books regarding lynching and all it entails have been published and provide more information than any rational black person probably wants to know. One of the most accessible of this lot is Our Town: A Heartland Lynching, a Haunted Town, and the Hidden History of White America (Crown, March 2006) by former Village Voice writer Cynthia Carr. Her book investigates the depth of racial prejudice that caused two young black men to be murdered at a sanctioned social event by the Ku Klux Klan on August 7, 1930, in Marion, Indiana. Earlier this year, James Cameron, the sole survivor of that killing spree, died at 92, but not before giving interviews for the book. While he escaped the noose that day, he never forgot his debt, as he founded America's Black Holocaust Museum in 1988. Cameron published numerous articles and booklets that chronicle racial injustices; and in 1993, he went on to publish A Time of Terror: A Survivor's Story (Black Classic Press).

Her Grandfather, the Klansman

The real value of Carr's book is not uncovering that her grandfather was a member of the Klan or the deep wellspring of white apathy and inhumanity that fostered this race crime. The book speaks to the reader--no matter what race or gender--of the capacity for cruelty and the evil that can be inflicted on another human. A photograph of the Indiana lynching party, complete with gleeful whites, still has the emotional clout of watching the video of the brutal beating of Rodney King by the L.A. policemen. On all fronts, this book is worth reading.

Michael J. Pfeifer, a professor of American history at the University of Western Ontario, adds a telling footnote to lynching scholarship when he discusses the concept of rough justice, a barbaric cousin of mob violence and the antithesis of state-sanctioned death penalties in the United States, with his book Rough Justice: Lynching and American Society, 1874-1947 (University of Illinois Press, August 2006). Pfeifer's insight, both logical and incisive, shows how the American collective will revamped the notion of lynching into easily digestible solutions of state-mandated death by lethal injection and high voltage.

On every page of the book, the American need for a timelier version of justice, often wrong, cries out in the fine print, along with the theories of revenge and retribution. If anything supports this idea of retaliation, it is Ken Gonzales- Day's Lynching in the West, 1850-1935 (Duke University Press, November 2006), which includes articles, photos, court records and souvenir postcards of those years of carnage, highlighting 350 hangings of blacks, Native Americans, Asians or anybody with a brown face who was handy.

State-Sanctioned Killing

Along those same lines of thought into the morphing of the old-fashioned bloodthirsty crowd with a rope to insensitive judges with a hunger for vengeance, Charles J. Olgetree Jr., a law professor and executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, and Austin Sarat, a law professor at Amherst College, combine the most severe criminal punishment with the bugaboo of racial class and prejudice in their book From Lynch Mobs to the Killing State: Race and the Death Penalty in America (New York University Press, May 2006). The professors astutely note that the death penalty is often used as a club to keep poor and desperate minorities in line in the larger white society.

While the New England college professors target racial prejudice in the legal arena, New Jersey scholar and historian William D. Carrigan explodes the nature of the white mob as well as the elements and practices of the legitimate lynching with his book The Making of a Lynching Culture: Violence and Vigilantism in Central Texas, 1836-1916 (University of Illinois Press, August 2006).

Another book, University of California professor Jonathan Markovitz's Legacies of Lynching: Racial Violence and Memory (University of Minnesota Press, 2004), covers much of the territory of the other previous books, except he's very blunt about the harsh mechanics of a white supremacist society that preaches individual freedom yet still worships at the altar of Jim Crow.

Lynchings in Mississippi: A History, 1865-1965 by Julius E. Thompson (McFarland, March 2007), director of the Black Studies Programs at the University of Missouri, Columbia, looks at the gruesomeness of lynching in Mississippi from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Movement. Thompson uses timetables to point out how lynching unfolded in that state.

But the overall gem in this grim collection of racial vigilantism is A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature (University of Chicago Press, September 2006) by Jacqueline Goldsby. The author, an associate professor of English at the University of Chicago, chronicles the national tragedy of racist politics and lynching upon our literature in a completely fascinating and informative approach. A Spectacular Secret engages both the conscience and the heart, while fortifying the mind with facts and concepts.

In general, all of these books are designed to make the reader understand the bitter truths of racism--both in the past and present--and they should not be overlooked.

Robert Fleming is a contributing editor at Black Issues Book Review. He is the author of Fever in the Blood (Kensington Publishing Corp., 2006), and he is finishing a collection of interviews of literary, musical and business icons and wrapping up a short fiction collection, Evil Never Sleeps, scheduled to be published in 2007.
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Author:Fleming, Robert
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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