I’ve taken college undergraduate and graduate American history courses, so black-and-white grainy photographs of lynchings are not unfamiliar to me. At times, those photos seem to have been taken in remote places; at other times there is an audience, and those in that audience seem to be taking pleasure in the event.
After my college days, I was introduced to “Strange Fruit,” written by Abel Meeropol (1903-1986). As a college literature professor, I was intrigued by the metaphor and horrified by the image of black bodies, mutilated, burned, and hanging by ropes or chains from trees: “Southern trees bear a strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
Written in 1937, the words in stanzas two and three continue to paint a graphic image of lynching and racial hatred in America: “bulging eyes,” “twisted mouth,” “smell of burning flesh,” “the sun to rot,” “strange and bitter.”
Several years ago I interviewed Pearl Mae Lofton (1944-Present), retired AT&T employee, who knew Emmett Till (1941-1955), the boy who was murdered/lynched by Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam. Till was beaten, shot, mutilated, and thrown into the Tallahatchie River. As a girl, Mrs. Lofton revealed to me she had a crush on Till and peeked from behind the curtains in her living room to watch him play with her older brother.
“U.S News” reported that in June of 2017 “Vandals defaced a historical marker on the Mississippi Freedom Trail explaining the death of civil-right icon Emmett Till, removing most of its text and photographs.”
Fast forward to April of 2018 and the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, a monument frequently referred to as the National Lynching Memorial. The structure has 805 hanging steel rectangles in the size and shape of coffins, which represent counties in the United States where “a documented lynching” took place.
On to the past few weeks when civil rights journalist Lamar White, Jr., released a video in which Senator Cyndi Hyde-Smith, currently campaigning for votes in a special run-off election for U.S. senator scheduled for Nov. 27, said, in part, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” When criticized for this comment, her reply was “…any attempt to turn this into a negative connotation is ridiculous.”
Some might say a backlash against Hyde-Smith’s comments is political correctness gone amuck. I would invite you to examine Hyde-Smith’ biography: born in the south in 1959, a college graduate, and a public official for decades. At her age and with her experience, should she know that her words might be considered racist and offensive?
I’d like to share with you some of the responses of my friends to this incident and her follow-up response:
Retired Edison State Community College professor and poet Jane Kretschman has been researching lynchings in her native state of Alabama and writes, “It is common knowledge that while some of these lynchings were carried out in secret, many others were public spectacles with dozens or hundreds of willing spectators. Some were even advertised in advance to ensure a large crowd. Some profiteers even made post cards from photographs of lynchings or sold souvenirs such as fingers chopped from the person murdered.”
Mother of two adopted African American children and FAC teacher Amber McKinney maintains, “The recent comments from Cyndi Hyde-Smith are not shocking to me at all. Are they awful and infuriating? Absolutely. People are getting ‘off the hook’ for things they say and do because it’s what they have always known. Maya Angelou said that when you know better, you do better. As white folks it’s our job to call out this hateful rhetoric … .”
California college professor Dr. Jessica Ayo Nina McKinney Alabi says, “ I believe her comment was intentional and a subtle type of white terrorism that is still used in Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina and other deep southern states where whites are used to controlling blacks. At this point the stakes are higher than ever, and fear has really set in because privilege and power are being lost. So political correctness and subtleties are being thrown out the window. Now they’re going back to good ole fashion blatant racism.”
Retired Berea College professor and former interim president of Kentucky State University, Dr. William Turner, indicates, “A half century ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his famous “I have a dream” speech described Mississippi as ‘a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, where the governor’s lips are dripping with the words of interposition and nullification.’
“Overt appeals to our country’s racist undercurrents are becoming commonplace. ‘Let’s not monkey this up’ was a reference to the black candidate in the Florida race for governor. Bigoted robo-calls blasted Stacy Abrams, a black woman running for governor in Georgia. Recently, pipe bombs were mailed to Mr. Trump’s critics, and eleven worshipers were murdered in a Pittsburg synagogue.
“We must teach our children that words do matter, that our words can be chosen, and that we accept the consequences of what we say, or not. Again, the words of Dr. King,: ‘We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.’”
In conclusion, it is now up to the voters of Mississippi to determine if they want Cyndi Hyde-Smith to represent them at the nation’s capitol. We, of course, will accept their decision.