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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.”

Dressed as KKK: Israeli teens ready for lynching at school Purim party

A group of Israeli high school boys dressed as members of the Ku Klux Klan and others in black face make up to stage a mock lynching for a class party for the Jewish holiday of Purim.

Photographs of over a dozen teens from Harel High School in Mevasseret Zion, a cushy suburb west of Jerusalem, first surfaced a few days after the holiday, which functionally serves as Israel’s Halloween.

In the photos some of the students are dressed in white robes and armed with a large wooden cross, while three others are in black face make up and afro-style wigs and kneeling as if their arms are shackled.

Israeli teens dressed as KKK and in ‘black face’ for mock lynching at school Purim party

Purim carnival where Israeli teens dressed as members of the KKK and in black face for a mock lynching. (Photo: Mizbala)Purim carnival where Israeli teens dressed as members of the KKK and in black face for a mock lynching. (Photo: Mizbala)
 on March 21, 2014 

The Israeli media outlet Mizbala screen grabbed the images from Facebook, which was then circulated on social media, creating a firestorm of backlash.

A day later Israel’s Channel 2 news followed up, and the school’s principal said she found nothing inappropriate about the youths’ dressing as white supremacists on the verge of a racially motivated vigilante murder. From the Times of Israel:

‘The costume created an interesting and important discussion,’ Rina Even-Tov said, according to Channel 2 News.

‘This act essentially created a platform for discussion, it is no different from a Nazi costume’ she concluded.

Purim carnival, students in KKK robes and black face in the background. (Photo: Harel High School/Flickr)

Purim carnival, students in KKK robes and black face in the background. (Photo: Harel High School/Flickr)

Purim carnival. KKK and black face costumed students in the left corner of the image. (Photo: Harel High School/Flickr)

Purim carnival. KKK and black face costumed students in the left corner of the image. (Photo: Harel High School/Flickr)

Indeed it seems permissiveness towards the students’ costumes was pervasive at Harel High. On the school’s Flickr page I found more images of the youngsters in their KKK gear, except in these they are posed with the students in black face using faux handcuffs, dragging them from the tail end of a wooden platform that the “klansmen” are carrying overhead.

The photograph cuts out what’s above the platform, but from the shoes, pants and top—which are in frame—it looks like they are parading a student costumed as a caged African American.

Students dressed as KKK members at the center of the Harel High Purim party. (Photo: Harel High School/Flickr)

Students dressed as KKK members at the center of the Harel High Purim party. (Photo: Harel High School/Flickr)

In another photograph the robed boys are at the center of scores of teenagers in an outdoor class party, then later they were photographed indoors. It seems they wore the offending outfits throughout the day.

Other images in the photo set show a different group of students dressed as settlers wearing orange shirts with the Hebrew slogan “Jews do not expel Jews!”

"Jews do not expel Jews!" (Photo: Harel High School/Flickr)

“Jews do not expel Jews!” (Photo: Harel High School/Flickr)


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