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Breaking the Silence: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching

General Assembly 2007 Event 3019

Workshop Presenter Sherrilyn Ifill is the author of On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century. She is a civil rights attorney and a professor of law at the University of Maryland.

Whites and blacks had different memories of lynching in the Baltimore and eastern Maryland shore area. Blacks had very specific memories, often heard directly from their parents, as tales of how to survive life. But whites had very vague memories of the lynchings; they had no specific details, even for some of the incidents where there were 1,000 people present in 1931 or 1933. She remarked that some whites were of high school age and could surely remember.

In 1997 Ifill traveled to South Africa when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was in existence. From listening to all the testimony, one could infer there apparently were no whites who had supported the apartheid regime! She then thought she might be able to create a similar Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the U.S. President Clinton called for a "national conversation on race," but it never really took place. He also supported a "One America Commission" led by John Hope Franklin, but it didn't have much impact.

There is most likely an alternative story about your town, wherever you're from, about the blacks living there. For example, Hope, Arkansas, Bill Clinton's boyhood home town, had another deeper story, when it was known as the lynching capital of Arkansas in the 1920s.

Most lynchings in the U.S. were not back-alley events but were public spectacles—hence the title of her book. The two main incidents in her book were these:

  • Matthew Williams, a laborer, in Salisbury Maryland in 1931 was lynched after having been dragged from the hospital to the Courthouse lawn.
  • George Arnwood was accused of assaulting an elderly white woman in 1933. The determination was that he had tried to rape her. He was also lynched.

It was known that lynch mobs were in that area of eastern Maryland; Arnwood was taken from the jail and lynched that night.

After both lynchings occurred, a curtain of silence fell in both communities, a curtain of fear and of shame. For whites, there was safety from prosecution, but more importantly, from facing the truth. The local paper decided NOT to report on the lynching, that reporting would be "superfluous." Silence was couched as an expression of civil unity. White church leaders were largely silent the following Sunday; they were adamant in not mentioning the lynching in their sermons. One pastor was "assured" that none of his congregants were present or had taken part in the killing. Despite 100 witnesses testifying, whites closed ranks to protect their friends and neighbors,

Ifill then read several excerpts from her book. It is fair to say the audience was enraptured. In one of her selections, she read that the official line was that the lynching had been perpetrated by outsiders; this meant the townspeople didn't have to face it.

Iliff said "Many kinds of conversations about race need to be held: inter-racial and intra-racial; some of them need to happen in families, some in churches." She recommended reading Our Town, by Cynthia Carr, who found out her grandfather had been part of a lynch mob in Indiana.

Iliff quoted Polly Stewart, a local (white) professor, from one of her essays, saying that the geographical isolation of the eastern shore determined the people's insularity, their distrust of outsiders. Stewart was rejected by the townspeople when she made a presentation at the local historical society about the lynching. This shows that reconciliation is needed among whites, as well as between blacks and whites.

Reparation is about repairing the harm that has been done, not merely financial remuneration. In the truth and reconciliation process, it is asked, "Is there a truth that we should know about? In the initial creation of the commission, the process was compared to "pulling the scabs off the wounds." They were not prepared for the psychic trauma unleashed. Now they are. There are now efforts, for example, in Rwanda, to provide counseling for women and children who have suffered.

Some of the disconnection that surrounds parent/child relationships regarding their history is because of the silences that have evolved over the years. Giving attention to the psychological domain is really important. The conversations must be local and organic, not generated from the outside, even though outsiders often need to provide the data the community has forgotten.

Part of the question to address is "What is the role of institutions in perpetrating the lynchings?" In South Africa, institutions were invited to come forth and tell what they had done or not done to support the previous system of apartheid. In the U.S., the justice system didn't work; lynching was a "message crime," meant to terrorize the black community. It could not have occurred without the complicity of institutions. That's why it's important for institutions (churches, chambers of commerce, local businesses, etc.) to face their past.

In a comment at the end of Ifill's talk, Jim Loewen, author of Sundown Towns, noted that there were many lynchings in the north that went unrecorded. He suggested attendees check out Southern Truth and Reconciliation­ website, an organization that helps communities face their history.

Reported by Allan Stern; edited by Pat Emery.