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Were they religious rituals?  These lynching and torture of blacks in the Jim Crow South

The cliché is that Americans have a short memory, but since Saturday, a number of us have been arguing over medieval religious wars and whether they have any lessons for today’s violence in the Middle East.

Jamelle BouieJAMELLE BOUIE

Jamelle Bouie is a Slate staff writer covering politics, policy, and race.

The lynching and torture of blacks in the Jim Crow South weren’t just acts of racism.

They were religious rituals.

A Ku Klux Klan rally in Frederick, Maryland, 1980.
A Ku Klux Klan rally in Frederick, Maryland, in 1980.

For those still unaware, this debate comes after President Obama’s comments at the annual National Prayer Breakfast, where—after condemning Islamic radical group ISIS as a “death cult”—he offered a moderating thought.

“Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ … So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.”

It’s a straightforward point—“no faith has a particular monopoly on religious arrogance”—that’s become a partisan flashpoint, as conservatives harangue the president for “equating” crusading Christians to Islamic radicals, accuse him of anti-Christian beliefs, and wonder why he would mention a centuries-old conflict, even if it has some analogies to the present day.

What we have missed in the argument over the Crusades, however, is Obama’s mention of slavery and Jim Crow.

At the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates puts his focus on religious justifications for American bondage, and it’s worth doing the same for its post-bellum successor. And since we’re thinking in terms of religious violence, our eyes should turn toward the most brutal spectacle of Jim Crow’s reign, the lynching.

For most of the century between the two Reconstructions, the bulk of the white South condoned and sanctioned terrorist violence against black Americans.

In a new report, the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative documents nearly 4,000 lynching of black people in 12 Southern states—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia—between 1877 and 1950, which the group notes is “at least 700 more lynching in these states than previously reported.”

For his victims, “Judge Lynch”—journalist Ida B. Wells’ name for the lynch mob—was capricious, merciless, and barbaric.

C.J. Miller, falsely accused of killing two teenaged white sisters in western Kentucky, was “dragged through the streets to a crude platform of old barrel staves and other kindling,” writes historian Philip Dray in At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America.

Miller’s assailants hanged him from a telephone pole, and while “the first fall broke his neck … the body was repeatedly raised and lowered while the crowd peppered it with small-arms fire.” For two hours his corpse hung above the street, during which he was photographed and mutilated by onlookers. Finally, he was cut down and burned.

More savage was the lynching of Mary Turner and her unborn child, killed for protesting her husband’s murder. “[B]efore a crowd that included women and children,” writes Dray, “Mary was stripped, hung upside down by the ankles, soaked with gasoline, and roasted to death. In the midst of this torment, a white man opened her swollen belly with a hunting knife and her infant fell to the ground, gave a cry, and was stomped to death.”

These lynching weren’t just vigilante punishments or, as the Equal Justice Initiative notes, “celebratory acts of racial control and domination.” They were rituals.

And specifically, they were rituals of Southern evangelicalism and its then-dogma of purity, literalism, and white supremacy. “Christianity was the primary lens through which most southerners conceptualized and made sense of suffering and death of any sort,” writes historian Amy Louise Wood in Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890–1940.

“It would be inconceivable that they could inflict pain and torment on the bodies of black men without imagining that violence as a religious act, laden with Christian symbolism and significance.”


adonis49

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September 2021
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