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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 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.”

Not a good idea dying simultaneously with Steve Jobs: Who is Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth?

An Elder Statesman for Civil Rights, dies at 89 on (October 6, 2011).  Was Rev. Fred L. Shuttleswort marching in King’s Shadow?

I was on and read: “It is a shame that Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth death is going unnoticed after Steve Jobs departure”. I asked: “Who is Fred L. Shuttlesworth?”.  I received this link:

DIANE McWHORTER wrote (with slight editing, my style):

“IF you recognized the name of only one of the two greats who succumbed to cancer on Wednesday, that’s perhaps because the work of the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, who died at 89 in a hospital in Birmingham, Ala., was about as low-tech as it gets.

Using an operating system of unadorned bodily witness, backed by a headlong courage that often tested the grace of his God, Shuttlesworth was the key architect of the civil rights revolution’s turning-point victory in Birmingham, the mass marches of 1963. The internationally infamous climax, the showdown between the movement’s child demonstrators and the city of Birmingham’s fire hoses and police dogs, gave President John F. Kennedy the moral authority he needed to introduce legislation to abolish legal segregation, passed after his death as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (during President Johnson).

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the reluctant leader whom Shuttlesworth virtually goaded into joining him in Birmingham, got the credit — along with the Nobel Peace Prize — for their accomplishment. But that’s partly because Shuttlesworth was the un-King, the product not of polished Atlanta, but of rough, heavy-industrial Birmingham.

As the public face of the movement, King was its ambassador to the white world, while Mr. Shuttlesworth was the man in the trenches.

Without Shuttlesworth’s strategic acumen and troops, justice would have been dramatically delayed.  Shuttlesworth’s failure to get his due may be yet another example of the country’s reluctance to face up to the “class warfare”, which not only animates the current Occupy Wall Street demonstrations (yet another variation on the Birmingham template), but has long roiled the black community as well.

Among his movement colleagues, Shuttlesworth was known as the Wild Man from Birmingham. He had been a lonely pioneer of nonviolent direct action in the 1950s, dispatching his followers to illegal seats in the front of Birmingham’s buses, the day after the Ku Klux Klan bombed his bed out from under him on Christmas night in 1956.  Later, Shuttlesworth would say: “And this is where I was blown into history”)

He became increasingly frustrated trying to prod King, with whom he and two other black ministers founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, to fulfill their organization’s pledge to “redeem the soul of America.”

If King was Hamlet, not quite able to make up his mind and break away from the ceremonial demands of his role, Shuttlesworth sometimes resembled the Road Runner. Shuttlesworth said: “I literally tried to get myself killed”: He was involved in more bodily attacks, arrests, jail sentences and Supreme Court test cases than any other member of the S.C.L.C.

Shuttlesworth, born to young, unmarried parents and raised in hardship, had a long history of challenging not just white privilege, but the prejudices of what he called the “tea sippers” of his own race, who had shunned his largely working-class movement, until its success appeared inevitable, thanks to his efforts.

It was that experience that drove his often-tense relationship with King during the Birmingham protests. At one point, the S.C.L.C.’s “Atlanta crowd” had tried to call off the demonstrations, while Shuttlesworth was in the hospital recovering from injuries inflicted by one of the fire hoses of his equally determined nemesis, the arch-segregationist police commissioner Eugene (Bull) Connor.

Shuttlesworth, who readily acknowledged being a “cussing preacher,” used some hurtful profanity in letting King know what he thought of this capitulation — and overruled him, declaring the demonstrations back on.

When King traveled to Oslo the next year to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, won mainly because of the success in Birmingham, Shuttlesworth was not included in the sizable entourage that accompanied King. There is a sense that he was paying the price for being the first S.C.L.C. leader to buck King’s authority — with the added insult of being right.

Not surprisingly, the man forever being eased out of the limelight, had his own passing superseded within hours by the head-of-state mourning that greeted the death of Steven P. Jobs. Steve Jobs is being remembered as the “the man who invented our world,” in the words of one headline, celebrated for creating objects to which their owners relate as though they were human.

Shuttlesworth’s legacy reminds us of the not-so-distant era when the task of our heroes was to persuade society to regard as human a class of people who had long been treated as things.

A few years ago, after Mr. Shuttlesworth had survived a house fire, I teased him about his continuing record of close calls, saying that, even though the segregationists hadn’t done him in, somebody was going to get him one way or the other.  He replied: “Yeah, and when they do, God’s going to say, ‘They got a man.’ ” End of article.

Once, an officer approached  Shuttlesworth saying: “Reverend, I’ll tell you what I would do. I’d get outta town as quick as I could.”

Shuttlesworth responded: “Officer, you are not me. Tell your clan, if God saved me through all this, I am here for the duration. And the war is just beginning.”

I wonder: “Why President Obama cheated out his constituency from their rights?  Is proving to the White Elite Class that, by not diverging from their policies, he is giving the impression that high ranked Black leaders are for continuity, regardless of ignominy and indignity in the current political morass?

Note: Diane McWhorter is the author of “Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution.”




March 2023

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