Confronting the Past: Lynchings in America

February 17, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


ROGER ROSENBLATT: Glimpses of human depravity take on even greater horror when they are attached to a system, when they are civilized. The point of Claude Landsman’s film, “Shoah,” was that the Nazis ran the extermination camps as an orderly business.


ROGER ROSENBLATT: Records were kept, schedules followed. The apparatus of government abetted the apparatus of justification, with an overlay of pseudoscientific claptrap. Certain people were biologically inferior; they had to be eliminated; it was the duty of respectable society to purify itself through murder. All this comes storming back in an exhibit of photographs at the Roth-Horowitz Gallery in Manhattan, and in an accompanying book called “Without Sanctuary,” pictures selected by James Allen and John Littlefield of lynchings that occurred in America between 1883 and 1960. The effect of these terrible images of bodies dismembered, charred and hung is equally repellent and hypnotic; an effect burnished by the fact that many of the images are on postcards. The people who approved of or participated in these crimes sent photos of them via the U.S. mail, to share their subhuman pleasure with others. One of the postcards reads: “This is the barbecue we had last night.” The barbecue was a man. As awful as the sight of the victims is, the pictures of the surrounding and avid crowds are more awful still. Richard Wright wrote a short story called “Big Boy Leaves Home,” in which a mob treats the burning of a black young man as both a social event and a sexual act. Women draw close to their men as the flames rise. One murmurs, “Sweetheart.”

In these pictures, one especially notices the hats of the on looking men– symbols of formality of a time past. The spectators at the lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas, 1916– the Stetsons, the straw skimmers; all civilized society gathered around a tortured naked man and a rope. The hats on the people at the lynching of Leo Frank, and at those of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, Isaac McGhie and Frank Embry. There was both formality and method to these atrocities: Red hot pokers applied to eyes and genitals; bodies roasted over flames; souvenirs of fingers, toes and ears taken by the crowds, so many of whom were dressed to the nines for the occasions. At the burning of John Lee in Durrant, Oklahoma, 1911, the crowd looks as if it had been gathering for an outdoor town meeting. In another picture, a man is cooked like food before smiling men wearing hats.

Sometimes we like to think we’re all the same animal. Sometimes we don’t. And sometimes the evidence of behavior is so appalling, we don’t know what to think. Thanks to these pictures, we have a record of these atrocities, but the original purpose for keeping these pictures was self- congratulatory. People were glad these lynchings had occurred. They sought an archive to certify their satisfaction, to establish in pictures that this was the way they wanted America to be.

That ordinary people did these things is deeply disturbing; that they manufactured a social rationale for their acts is more disturbing still. Look for a while at the picture of the lynching of Rubin Stacy, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 1930. Look first at Stacy, then turn to the little girl in the summer dress, looking at Stacy, and then to the man behind her, perhaps her father, in the spotless white shirt and slacks and the clean white skimmer. They will stand there forever, admiring the proof of their civilization.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.

JIM LEHRER: The lynching exhibit moves to the New York Historical Society on March 15.