Legacies of Lynching

An interview with On the Courthouse Lawn author Sherrilyn Ifill

Sherrilyn Ifill is a civil rights lawyer who came to see linkages between the discrimination cases she was trying and the history and memories of lynchings fifty or more years in the past. Public Eye editorial board member Tarso Luís Ramos interviewed Ifill, a Professor of Law at the University of Maryland Law School, about her new book on the subject, On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century (New York: Beacon Press, 2007).

As a civil rights lawyer active on such issues as environmental justice and voting rights, what led you to write a book about lynching?

I found while working on many cases in Texas, Louisiana, Nebraska, Arkansas, and here in Maryland, that when I asked my clients about the history of discrimination in their communities, I would very often hear a story about a lynching or another story of racial terrorism, sometimes decades in the past. I was struck by the accuracy and the detail with which the events were described - usually events they didn't see or they weren't even alive at the time.

(Photo: Christian Pound)

When I talked with Whites about the very same incidents, they had vague recollections, particularly where lynchings were concerned. I thought this was alarming because Whites were for the most part the ones who saw lynchings, not Blacks. I'd often seen this in my civil rights work: Whites see their world one way and Blacks see their world a very different way. I thought this disconnect really lies at the heart of race in America.

What legal case brought you to Maryland's Eastern Shore?

The community client was the Jersey Heights Neighborhood Association and we were challenging the decision by the state to build a highway bypass directly next to the Black community in Salisbury.The plan constituted the third time in 60 years that the state had built a major highway through or next to the community. Standing on Route 13, you can see that it cuts right through the community - churches are cut off from where their congregations would be and so forth.

Why did you choose to focus the first part of your book on the stories of Matthew Williams and George Armwood, men killed in separate lynchings in the early 1930s on Maryland's Eastern Shore?

These are the stories that my clients told me about and so I started to look into them. I became fascinated with these men because their stories in some ways were very different. Armwood was a fairly uneducated field laborer, a hard worker on all accounts, who had been loaned out to a family since the 5th grade. His family was very poor and lived in a modest shack in Somerset County. He was accused of assaulting an elderly White woman, apparently in a robbery attempt.

Williams had lost both of his parents and had gone to live with his aunt and uncle in Salisbury and appeared to be living what, at least for that time period, would probably have been a middle class Black life, surrounded by a large family. He is alleged to have killed his boss for reasons that we cannot discern from official accounts. Neither man warranted being hung from a tree on the courthouse lawn in the two different counties where they lived.

Hence the title of the book?

I chose On the Courthouse Lawn because that was the site of a vast majority of lynchings on the Eastern Shore, and I think it was a quite deliberate choice of venue. Lynchings were a message crime directed at the Black community. The White communities that participated in these lynchings and condoned them were making a statement about who was in control of law and order, of the justice system. It was about total and absolute control. The fact that these lynchings were witnessed by, in the case of Matthew Williams, between 500 and 1,000 people and, in the case of George Armwood, perhaps nearly 2,000, means Blacks were also aware that Whites - the people they worked for, the people that they saw in the street - would be complicit. Not everyone in the crowd was actively involved in the lynching but they were willing to watch and say nothing and they were willing later to go before the grand jury and say they didn't recognize anybody.

What was the post-lynching climate like in these communities?

Blacks were faced with the fact that Whites would close ranks and protect each other to maintain White supremacy. The result was that Blacks, for the most part, tried to go along to get along. They went into survival mode, which meant not stepping out of line, not antagonizing Whites by clamoring for political rights, and essentially remaining to themselves.

The Eastern Shore was isolated in this time period. Getting there required a drive of up to six hours from Baltimore, and you had to take a ferry to get across the Chesapeake Bay. During the same period, Blacks on the Western Shore in Baltimore had begun the cases that eventually led to Brown v. Board of Education. Thurgood Marshall was there and, within several years after the lynchings, brought and won a case challenging segregation here at the University of Maryland Law School. That was the first desegregation case in higher education. Meanwhile, Blacks on the Eastern Shore were totally disconnected from this progressive activism.

What do you mean by Whites closing ranks?

It starts the next day. George Armwood had been taken to Baltimore city for safekeeping and then, on the order of the local judge and state attorney, was returned to Princess Anne the next day, even though there had been talk of a lynch mob forming. On October 18, 1933, he was taken from the Princess Anne jail by a mob and lynched that night. They came with a battering ram, knocked the doors down, and the sheriff was outside facing the mob. Armwood was mutilated and hung from a tree, and then his body was dragged to the courthouse, doused in gasoline, and set on fire.

The next day the sheriff reports, "I looked at every face in that mob and didn't recognize a single one. I think they were foreigners from Virginia." So it starts with the signaling to the community - "here's the story." When the grand jury is called, person after person, witness after witness testifies, "I didn't recognize one person in that mob." We know that's not true because we have affidavits from state police, never introduced to the grand jury, in which they identify many local people who were leaders of the lynch mob.

Did Blacks also close ranks?

There were dissident reactions and this is an important part of the history for us to reclaim. After the lynching of George Armwood, Whites in Salisbury apparently prevailed upon three Black leaders - an undertaker and two others - to write a kind of op-ed in the local paper, which they did, essentially saying that the lynching was the fault of these lawless, criminal Black men, and that the relationship between Blacks and Whites was great.

A week later, another group of nineteen Black men met in Salisbury, which was pretty brave in and of itself, given the climate, and sent a response op-ed in to the Black paper, the Baltimore Afro-American, in which they denounced these three leaders, saying, they don't represent us; they are clearly stooges of the white power structure and the conditions were not harmonious and they should have been man enough to support the idea of anti-lynching legislation. This was very important because it showed a split; there was not a uniform response that "we're going to simply acquiesce and go along to get along." Not everyone knuckled under.

Was anybody prosecuted in these or any other lynchings?


What was the overall impact of lynching?

We know what political disenfranchisement meant and how it continued to reach its tentacles into the 20th and 21st century with the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act. We have no illusions about what legal and enforced segregation did in maintaining white supremacy and the psychology of white supremacy. Well, lynching was a tool also; it was essential because when other things failed, you had to know there was this violent retribution that could happen if you transgressed the social norm that had been set down by Whites.

When we think about it in this context, you can chart some of the ways in which lynching was employed to quell Black unrest or potential unrest. The '30s saw a great deal of lynching all over, not just in the Deep South. The Depression was raging and the more precarious the White man's economic position became, the more lynching loomed as a way of maintaining White supremacy. After the wars, in 1918 and in the 1940s, Black veterans who would not take off their uniforms were lynched. They had been out in the world, fought for their country, handled weapons, been accepted abroad in a way they never had at home, and had a different idea of their manhood than Jim Crow would have recognized. Lynching was used as a method to remind Blacks of who they still were.

One of the last mass lynchings, maybe the last, was in 1946 in Walton County, Georgia, when two Black men and their girlfriends were shot beneath the Moore's Ford Bridge. The case attracted the attention of the federal government because one of the Black men was a veteran. Truman ordered that the FBI come down and investigate. No one was ever convicted.

What is the impact of this silent denial of the history of lynching?

There is an unspoken sense of how to get along in the community that Blacks have internalized. You, for the most part, stay in your place. These communities are decades behind on the basic idea of political representation of even the most marginal kind. This past year a Black county commissioner was elected for the first time in Somerset County, where George Armwood was lynched - even though the Eastern Shore is quite heavily populated by Blacks. The town of Princess Anne is 65 percent African American. The highway siting case that I worked on was in the 1990s, when finally Black communities said, "That's enough and we're going to sue."

In the White community there was a code of silence that is still in place. Even among themselves, Whites who try to talk about these events in a direct way are subject to being ostracized.

What do these conspiracies of silence mean for dealing with persistent racial inequality today?

When I give talks, invariably someone will say, "Aren't we just talking about this stuff all the time? Do we have to rehash these events again?" And what's fascinating is that we've never talked about them. People are exhausted by a conversation that we've never had. People presume that, because we've talked about slavery somewhat, we must have spoken about lynching. You have a generation that is totally ill equipped for talking candidly about this history and that's what I'm trying to break through with the book.

Your book describes a climate of red menace that accompanied fears of Black insurrection.

Even as Whites terrorized the Black communities which lived in fear for their lives, Whites created this fantasy that it was actually Blacks who were the aggressors. What set it off is that Euel Lee, a Black man accused of killing a White farm family, came to be represented by a White communist lawyer named Bernard Ades, who worked for International Labor Defense, the same organization representing the Scottsboro Boys in the same time period. Lee had nearly been lynched and was taken to the Baltimore city jail for safekeeping. Ades vigorously defended Lee, got a change of venue for his trial, and managed to have Lee's first conviction thrown out. Euel Lee was tried again, convicted a second time, and ultimately executed, but the representation that Ades provided infuriated Whites on the Shore who felt that this was communist interference and that Lee was getting a free pass, having gotten this lawyer and having gotten his first conviction thrown out and the trial moved from the East Shore. The trial, in fact, had been moved because when Ades went out there to file notice that he was representing this client, his car was surrounded by an angry mob and he and his secretary were themselves nearly lynched. The three Black leaders whose op-ed blamed lawless Black men for the Eastern Shore lynchings also blamed Ades.

What are some other legacies of lynching and racial terrorism?

The stories that parents tell their children after a lynching, the survival story - i.e. don't get too educated; don't go to that side of town; don't look at that kind of woman; don't make too much money; don't show off in front of The Man; all that kind of stuff - are strikingly similar to the stories that I hear many of my friends and family members tell their sons about how to treat the police: it doesn't matter if they're right; keep your mouth shut; put both hands on the dashboard; don't tell him you know your constitutional rights; don't argue with him. These survival conversations are almost entirely identical.

The dehumanizing imagery when we talk about criminal defendants is very, very similar. If we refer to a group of young Black boys as a "wolf pack," as they were called in the case of the Central Park jogger - these boys who were later found to be innocent - it sets the public up to overlook discrepancies in the alleged confessions that they made. The same was true in the cases of lynching. As soon as Matthew Williams was arrested for killing his boss, the headlines in the paper described him as "negro slayer." His name was often incorrect in the paper. It didn't matter what his name was. He was "negro slayer," and that enabled people after the lynching to say, "Yes but he killed his boss," without asking why this man, who was very close to his boss and who his boss really liked, who was living a middle class life, suddenly one day shot his boss.

What do you make of the various racial reconciliation efforts currently underway in the U.S.?

They've first of all uncovered an aspect of U.S. history that has remained hidden, so they are producing that dialogue and are forcing it out into the public, which is critically important. I've been asked, "What if we find some people who are still alive who were active in the lynching?" Well, I think they should be prosecuted. In fact, I think criminal prosecution is a form of reparation. I would like to see all of these efforts become much more dynamic and multi-pronged.

I talk in the book about addressing questions of exonerating people who are innocent, naming public places to acknowledge these events, changing educational curricula, providing financial remuneration where appropriate to the family of lynching victims. These are all on the table and there have been a number of groups trying to help communities think through how dynamic this process could be. I have been working with STAR, Southern Truth and Reconciliation. They and other groups have come together to create a national consortium called the Alliance for Truth and Reconciliation. We regard reparation as a key part of reconciliation and we broaden the term so that we're not merely talking about money, which is such a limited and sometimes counterproductive way to think about reparations. It has to be locally driven and the appropriate means of reparation has to be responsive to the particular way in which these events harmed the local community. It remains to be seen and it will vary from place to place. I'm very hopeful. We're only at the beginning of the process, but I'm glad we are at least at the beginning.

Is the focus on extreme acts of racial violence a bridge or a potential barrier to addressing more structural or everyday forms of racism?

Part of the problem with our conversations about race is that they're too big. We try to talk about slavery, affirmative action, police brutality, the middle passage, lynching, racism in sports, and Condoleezza Rice in one conversation. It's overwhelming. You have to get your hands around something real and concrete, a historical event, a fact, and use that as a way to pull the thread and it will lead you inevitably to all the structural problems that are really the most important for the 21st century.

Lynching has won more attention over the last few years, in part due to the "Without Sanctuary" exhibit of lynching photographs and postcards, which emphasized the festively public character of many of these crimes.

The exhibit had a tremendous effect. It had a lot to do with Senator Mary Landrieu's [D-LA] efforts to push the Senate apology for the failure to pass anti-lynching legislation. In Atlanta the exhibit was shown at the King Center, which was the appropriate context for it. But I confess I had some concerns. I am extremely sensitive to the voyeuristic quality of lynching. In real time, a good part of participating in lynching was watching - watching and doing nothing. I was very concerned about the possibility of the exhibit replicating that, that people could come and watch the photographs and do nothing. It's important that an action agenda be connected with the exhibit.

There were many things - the lynching of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming - that came together at the same time to get people stirred up and thinking about this. When I started writing my book, suddenly six books on lynching came out. I'm a religious person, and so I believe there was a divine hand in bringing this conversation to many people at the same time, to push many people to have the same idea: that now is the moment to force this history into the center and make people begin to look at it.

A measure to establish an unsolved crimes section in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department is currently before Congress. It's been dubbed the "Till Bill" in honor of Emmet Till, the Chicago teen brutality beaten and murdered in the Mississippi Delta in 1955 after allegedly whistling at a White woman.

There are a number of such cases during the Civil Rights Movement in which Black activists and others were murdered and no one was either prosecuted or - as in Till's case - convicted. An all-White jury acquitted two men who, soon after, admitted to murdering Till - knowing they could not be retried on the same charges. Those men have since died, and others implicated in the crime were never properly investigated. The reopening and solving of such cases is necessary, in part because a critical aspect of the conversation on reconciliation is the current distrust that many African Americans feel towards the justice system - a distrust that derives directly from the knowledge that the police, prosecutors, and even judges, were often complicit in failing to properly investigate and prosecute Civil Rights-era violent crimes. The justice system has legitimacy because people believe in it, and many African Americans simply don't believe in the criminal justice system of our country.

That also relates to the legacy of lynching. We have this history in which people could be killed publicly with thousands of people on the street watching and no one ever convicted. There are nearly 5,000 lynchings in the history of the United States and from communities all over the country, from Price, Utah to Duluth, Minnesota to the Eastern Shore of Maryland to the Deep South, and yet we have no record of actual convictions for lynching itself. You have this complicity of the legal system in communities all over the U.S. to basically sanction the public murder of Blacks.

Without an acknowledgment and without some effort to repair that, it's very hard to ask for African Americans to trust and believe in an institution that has refused to confront this history. People say, "Should we be prosecuting these old men, taking them out of their trailers? They're on oxygen, these old Klansmen." And I say, "Yes." The only reason we are prosecuting old men, some of whom are now in ill-health, is because we failed to prosecute and convict them when they were young men. Despite their crimes, they were permitted to live the most productive years of their lives in freedom, instead of behind bars. Better justice delayed than no justice at all. Moreover, it's not only about them. The failure to prosecute these men when they were on their rampage of terror was a failure of the rule of law, and the victim was not just the one who was killed, but the entire Black community. They were essentially told that the rule of law would not be advanced on their behalf. That has to be corrected.

Fall 2007
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