In 1939, Billie Holliday recorded the powerful song about lynchings of black people in America. Its title is “Strange Fruit.” On June 15, 1920, three black men were lynched in Duluth, MN. They were Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie. In the past two weeks of June 2020, two black men have been found hanging from trees in California. They are Robert Fuller and Malcolm Harsch. These most recent deaths were initially deemed to be suicides, but both are now being independently investigated because both families who have lost a loved member do not believe that explanation.
In Montgomery, Alabama, the civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson has installed an unique museum that houses several hundred rectangular boxes, each bearing the name, county of residence, and year of the lynching involved. This powerful structure memorializes a practice often conducted in broad daylight on the grounds of court houses and jails, assisted or sanctioned or at the least tacitly approved of law enforcement officers. Photographs from southern newspapers or preserved in state historical societies show whites often dressed in their Sunday best, often carrying picnic baskets or young children in their arms. There is an air of festivity and even enjoyment that permeates the paper on which the photographs were taken.
Ironically enough, it was on Memorial Day of this year that George Floyd was murdered by that relaxed white cop with one hand in his pants’ pocket and a look of quiet satisfaction on his face as he heard Mr, Floyd repeatedly say “I can’t breathe.” As several black scholars and commentators have pointed out, this is a contemporary lynching–George Floyd dies horizontally rather than the more conventional way of dangling vertically. I hope Mr. Stevenson will see many of the police shootings of blacks, mostly male, resulting in bodies prone on pavements or patches of grass as still more cases of the inhumane form of killing that just won’t stop happening in this country. He can begin constructing boxes the same size as those hanging in his outdoor museum and placing them on the grass surrounding the building.
There are no new words to be said about all this history that keeps repeating itself. A long time ago, the white southern writer, William Faulkner, who understood the awful legacy of slavery for both whites and blacks wrote in his novel Requiem For a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even pst.”