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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.”

“The Black Salon” in Prehistoric grottoes

As of the year 2000, archaeologists and other searchers have discovered about 350 grottoes in Europe, many of them emerged to large Black Salon, after crawling for at least 50 yards.

Prehistoric men are the current and latest mankind species called Homo Sapiens, who  originating in the Near East (in current Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine) 100,000 years ago.

Mind you that prehistoric Homo Sapiens barely accounted to 50,000 in total and didn’t increase substantially, until 10,000 years ago. In the (Neolithic period) mankind settled in urban centers to plant and harvest and the population started to increase in 10 to 20 folds on good harvest and climate conditions…

Mankind was on the brink of extinction on many occasions, and the fact that they split in smaller conglomeration increased the probability of Not vanishing from epidemics and natural calamities.

The Black Salons were reserved for the initiates, expert artists that modern painters, engravers, and sculptors have rediscovered the same methods, techniques, and array of possibilities, except the digital technologies.

Even 50,000 years ago, the new species left their artistic potentials and marks in caves and grottoes, sheltered from the ravage of time and climatic changes… Artists had worked on skins, woods, clay… Even today, tribes draw and paint on sands on their body…

All these work of arts have disappeared. The essential of the first culture is lost for ever. External work of arts were preponderant, but have disappeared.

What is left are fantastic frescoes, deep in the Black Salons, in the grottoes of Lascaux, Cosquer (underwater grotto, studded with frescoes of penguins, seals…), Niaux, Chauvet, Domme…

Marcelino Sanz of Sautuola was examining a grotto in Altamira and his kid daughter screamed “Padre, hay toros“. The frescoes were of bison, and Marcelino was the first to coin “prehistoric art”. 

Only searchers started to look closely for images on ceiling, from different perspectives and angles, and contour representations of animals, where the artist made use of every rock shape matching what they were drawing and sculpting…

For example, in the grotto of Domme, a speleologue had the idea of beaming at the ceiling from a particular angle and discovered the sculpture of a mammoth, a meter large. Thousands had passed under that fantastic sculpture, but they missed this sculpture since they were looking for engraved works of art…

Homo Sapiens lived at the entrance of caves and outside, but the deep dark recesses of the grottoes were reserved for the initiates, where the spirits resided, and they erecting their scaffolding (holes of implantation are visible) and working amid the shadows of their torches…

Rare were the representation of human: The spirits were in the shadow of darkness, in the fissures inside the deep recesses of the caves…

They used all the gamut of paints, colors, and perspectives that current painters, sculptors, and artists use. Nothing new in techniques were discovered since prehistoric art: Just rediscovering the wheel… charcoal drawings, pigments, brushes… Prehistoric artists knew how to translate 3 dimensions works into 2 dimensions…

Oil painting is frequent, using animal and vegetable fat.

Stones of bi-oxide of iron were crushed and mixed with clay to obtain ochre color

Bi-oxide of manganese or charcoal were used for black color

The red color was extracted from oxide of iron stones

Colors were applied by blowing through emptied bones, by fingers, brushes of horse hair… They used palettes of stone or wood…

Prehistoric artists applied binding materials and inert materials called “charge” to economize on pigments (30%) and obtain a more unified painting

Homo Sapiens had the same nervous system, same faculties for abstraction, of synthesis, and they were Not more primitive than we currently are…

A colored stroke, the body of a bison, a horse… engraved in stones… There are traces of “non-utilitarian” actions as far back as 300,000 years ago… They assembled stones, shellfish necklaces, little statues of men done in mammoth bones were found in the Jura…

Animal marks on the soil played a preponderant role in the genesis of art: The hunter/gatherer could recognize their preys from the imprints and sketching these imprints was a good start to communicate during the hunting season…

Frescoes and paintings are the most spectacular artifacts, since they take advantage of natural contours in order to model the supplementary reliefs.

The tribes and clans traveled hundred of miles to meet on particular events to celebrate, exchange gifts, shellfish necklaces, and seek partners…

There is an outstanding similarity in the ornamented Black Salons, grottoes distant thousand of miles away: Proof that prehistoric men had religious rituals, strictly regulated and learned from generation to generation, over 30,000 years span...

Note: The French book “The most beautiful story of mankind“, (Edition du Seuil, 1998) was contributed by 3 famous scientists and experts in various fields of specialties.

Andre Langaney is expert in genetic and population. He was one of the pioneers to apply modern methods of biology in order to comprehend the Past. He chased human genes from Senegal (Africa) to the cold island of Groenland (Greenland). He has responsibilities at the museum of Man in Paris and teaches at the Univ. of Geneva

Jean Clottes is world expert in ornate caves and the general conservator of France caves and grottoes such as Niaux, Cosquer, Chauvet...

Jean Guilaine is professor at the College de France and expert in Neolithic Age, as Homo Sapiens settled down to plant and harvest, 10,000 years ago,


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September 2021
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