Hometown America’s Black Book

Pick a horror—perhaps the Bulgarian horror of 1876, which upset Queen Victoria very much, and didn’t help Mr. Gladstone’s lumbago, either. Mr. Gladstone wrote a pamphlet, pointing out that the Turks had done things to the Bulgarians that “might almost make Hell blush.” The Turks, unimpressed, promptly did even worse things to the Armenians. There were more horrors, more pamphlets, including one by the young Arnold Toynbee. All through the twentieth century, as bodies stacked up like posts across the landscapes of Europe, Asia, Africa, earnest commissions trudged off, with cameras and adding machines, to photograph the bodies, count them, compile black books; the commissions are busy still.

We may not know quite the whole story, but we know plenty: what happened to the Polish officers at Katyn, what Hitler did to the Jews, what Stalin did to everybody he could catch, what the Japanese did at Nanking, what—fast-forwarding now—the Khmer Rouge did to the Cambodians, what the Hutus did to the Tutsis, what happened in Bosnia, etc. If we’re schooled at all about our times, we know the bad statistics.

But numbers numb; mass death rarely transmits forcefully to the individual sensibility, unless the individual has actually been to the killing fields and smelled the blood on the ground, or feared to be one of the killed. One horrible death, of the sort shown in the pages of Without Sanctuary, might disturb far more than a big statistic.

Without Sanctuary is the black book of hometown America during the long unchallenged reign of lynch law. It is not encyclopedic: there are only about one hundred photographs of lynchings and the lynched, a small sampling of the kind of things that went on in the 4,742 known lynchings in America between 1882 and 1968. That these were known lynchings—public actions and, in many cases, community actions—is important to emphasize, to distinguish lynchings from the more common but less public forms of racially motivated murder.

The difference might be illustrated by a notorious recent killing, that of James Byrd, a black man, whom three young white men dragged to death behind a pickup, on a rural road in East Texas. It was an exceptionally cruel murder—even a local spokesman for the Klan said that nobody deserves to die that way—but if it had been a lynching, old style, the dragging would have taken place around the public square, after (or before) which James Byrd would have been hanged, burned, castrated, possibly flayed, shot, and dismembered, most of which did happen to a young black man named Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas, May 16, 1916, while an estimated fifteen thousand people watched. Here’s the note:

After the lynching, Washington’s corpse was placed in a burlap bag and dragged around City Hall Plaza, through the main streets of Waco, and seven miles to Robinson, where a large black population resided. His charred corpse was hung for public display in front …

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