Senate Votes on Apology for Lack of Lynching Legislation
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GWEN IFILL: It was a shameful period in American history. Between 1882 and 1968, at least 4700 people, most of them black, were lynched, many of them set upon by mobs, shot, hanged. The images captured here in the book “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America” are indelible; and those memories haunt many families as well.
One of those is Doria Johnson, the great, great granddaughter of this man, Anthony Crawford, a prosperous landowner who was lynched in Abbeville, South Carolina in 1916. Nearly 200 pieces of anti-lynching legislation have been introduced into Congress, but over the years, the Senate thwarted by filibusters led by southern lawmakers has never condemned the act.
Until today when the Senate offered a formal apology in the form of a non-binding resolution sponsored by two southern senators, Democrat Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Republican George Allen of Virginia. Doria Johnson, descendants of other lynching victims, and James Cameron, a 91-year-old lynching “survivor,” came to Capitol Hill to witness the vote. I sat down with Johnson earlier.
GWEN IFILL: How did you first hear the story of your great-great-grandfather?
DORIA DEE JOHNSON: In my aunt’s home there’s a big picture of him. And he just looks so dignified. In addition to that, my school was being integrated. But I go home and my grandfather would talk about how much he hated white people, so he sat down and told me the story of Grandpa Crawford.
GWEN IFILL: What did he say?
DORIA DEE JOHNSON: He said that, “You know your great-great grandfather was lynched.” And I go, “what’s a lynching?” And then he proceeded to tell me what happened to him.
GWEN IFILL: How old were you?
DORIA DEE JOHNSON: I was probably in kindergarten. After you got older in the family, you were handed the story, which was the NAACP investigation. And you were also told to walk with your head up, that you come from good stock, and of course these things don’t mean a lot, but you know you’re not to bring any shame upon the family because you are a Crawford; you’re someone special.
GWEN IFILL: Was this something that your family talked about a lot?
DORIA DEE JOHNSON: Yes. At my generation, yes, we can talk about it. But for the first generation of children, Anthony Crawford’s children that it affected, they couldn’t talk about it. It was too painful. They lost so much and were run out of town. So they had to start all over again and from what I understand, talking about it was very painful for them.
GWEN IFILL: Tell me about it. Tell me what happened, what led to the lynching.
DORIA DEE JOHNSON: Yes. Grandpa Crawford was able to accumulate 427 acres of prime cotton land. In addition to that, he was president of the Black Masons of South Carolina. He started a school on his land, called the Abbeville School, for black children. He was a voter. He served on the federal jury and started a union of black farmers; so he was just a very prosperous man. He also had 13 children who all lived on his property and worked for him and had their own homes.
Well, Oct. 21, 1916, Grandpa Crawford went to downtown Abbeville, South Carolina, to sell his cotton seed. He stood in line with the rest of the farmers. But when he got to the front of the line, W.D. Barksdale, who was the storekeeper, offered Grandpa Crawford 85 cents for his cotton seed when it was really worth 90 cents.
GWEN IFILL: This was a white man.
DORIA DEE JOHNSON: It was. Grandpa Crawford told Mr. Barksdale that he was cheating him, and Mr. Barksdale called Grandpa Crawford a liar. At that point someone else in the store came in after Grandpa Crawford. He fought them; in fact, he fought with 12 people backing out of his store and towards the square. But a sheriff had arrested him for cursing a white man; he was taken to jail.
GWEN IFILL: We’ve heard so much about lynchings that usually arise out of a black man whistling at a white woman, in the case of Emmett Till or other cases. In this case, this was about property; this was about land; this was about resources.
DORIA DEE JOHNSON: Yes.
GWEN IFILL: Very different.
DORIA DEE JOHNSON: Well, no. I don’t think so. I think that if you really do the research you’re going to find that a lot of people who were lynched were community leaders, business owners, people who threatened the ethos of white supremacy, people who were going to be respected. And these are the people that were lynched.
GWEN IFILL: So how many people were involved in this lynching and how did it occur?
DORIA DEE JOHNSON: The governor’s report says 400 people. But what they did was probably it gotten up to be about 200 people and Grandpa Crawford was finally taken from the jail. The jail was overtaken from the sheriff. He was drug down the stairs to the back of a buggy.
GWEN IFILL: And he was killed. He was hanged. He was shot.
DORIA DEE JOHNSON: He was stabbed, beaten and hung from a tree. And his children were ordered to leave town. And they had to start all over again wherever they ended up. Sorry.
GWEN IFILL: So all the land that he owned went away. The family inherited nothing. How did the community…
DORIA DEE JOHNSON: That’s right.
GWEN IFILL: How did the community react of Abbeville?
DORIA DEE JOHNSON: A lot of blacks of Abbeville left.
GWEN IFILL: Because they felt unsafe there?
DORIA DEE JOHNSON: That’s right. If Mr. Crawford were lynched like that, then how safe are the rest of us?
GWEN IFILL: In 1990, you decided to visit the scene of the lynching.
DORIA DEE JOHNSON: I did.
GWEN IFILL: What was that like?
DORIA DEE JOHNSON: It was mixed feelings. I was so excited to find out I have family members in Abbeville and surrounding areas, and I was going to finally have an opportunity to meet everyone. I was surprised at the number of us that were there, but I remember driving in from Anderson, South Carolina, which was the largest town close to Abbeville. And it’s a two-lane highway, which goes into Abbeville.
I also remember it being very, very hot that day. And I just became very aware that, you know, that’s where 20,000 slaves once lived. And I could just look out in the fields and see pregnant women and children and men out there working in the hot sun, and here I am in this air conditioned car. And then I became aware of what had happened there, the history there. And then I felt terror for some reason. I felt a little better once I got to the town square and met my cousin. But it was just a surreal feeling for me that day.
GWEN IFILL: And when you met your family and relatives down there, were they still talking about it? Did they still…those who remain?
DORIA DEE JOHNSON: Yes, it was still the number one subject and it still is today at our family reunion some 15 years later, the number one subject for the Crawford family.
GWEN IFILL: After 200 efforts over the years to try do this, finally this is on the floor of the Senate, in part because of your efforts. Why didn’t you just walk away from it? It would have been so easy just to say well that’s part of history, but this is now.
DORIA DEE JOHNSON: It’s not easy for a Crawford. None of us have walked away from this. Never. We were told to never do that. To honor Grandpa Crawford. And when you see his picture you’re going to see a very dignified man. He died for us. And so…when he said “give my bank book to my children,” that meant not only his bank book, but his heritage. And we are to honor that and to talk about it as much as we can.
GWEN IFILL: Are you surprised that the Senate is acting on this now?
DORIA DEE JOHNSON: I’m not surprised by anything anymore, no. Again, Grandpa Crawford’s blood has never dried. And as far as we’re concerned we were going to get something for this: vindication, apologies, this is something we prayed for. And so we are not surprised that our prayers are being answered.
GWEN IFILL: What do you get out of this? If they decide to pass this on a voice vote, it’s a hugely symbolic act. What difference does it make?
DORIA DEE JOHNSON: I mean, as a victim it makes a difference when someone apologizes for something that they could have done something about. You know, if you don’t you have blood on your hands. It’s never too late to make amends.
GWEN IFILL: What do you say to people who say, “Let’s move on. That was then, this is now?”
DORIA DEE JOHNSON: I would say that because of Anthony Crawford’s demise, someone got rich. And the Crawford family suffered behind that. So that needs to be discussed.
GWEN IFILL: And how does that get discussed?
DORIA DEE JOHNSON: By one way is to start with this apology from the United States Senate, but certainly we’d like to sit down with the state of South Carolina and hear an apology from them, the city of Abbeville and possibly people who know that their families were involved in this.
GWEN IFILL: What do you say to people who say that an apology is not enough?
DORIA DEE JOHNSON: I would say that we need to start with an apology and then perhaps if you admit that you’re wrong, perhaps you’re open to dialogue about some of the other atrocities that have happened and how they affect people. But I certainly think it’s okay to start with the apology.
GWEN IFILL: Doria Dee Johnson, thank you so much for telling us your story.
DORIA DEE JOHNSON: Thank you very much for having me.
GWEN IFILL: Senators agreed to pass the anti-lynching resolution by a voice vote. That means there will be no roll call record of who was for it or against it.