The moral arc bends
The Herald (Australia)
Fifteen photographs of the lynching became postcards. The atmosphere was described as “circus-like”.
James didn’t die by hanging. The rope broke and he fell to the ground where he was “riddled with bullets”, before his body was dragged for several kilometres and finally burnt.
He wasn’t the only man lynched on November 11, 1909. After the mob killed James it turned on a white man, Henry Salzner, who was awaiting trial for murder. He was lynched, but not shot, mutilated or burnt. His body, hanging from the pole, was also photographed, and the image became a postcard.
In his book about lynching, Without Sanctuary, published in 2000, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Leon F. Litwack noted the men and women who “tortured, dismembered and murdered in this fashion understood perfectly well what they were doing”.
“This was not the outburst of crazed men or uncontrolled barbarians but the triumph of a belief system that defined one people as less human than another,” he said. Nearly 90 per cent of lynching victims were black.
Lynching postcards did a roaring trade until the US postmaster general banned them from the mail system.
In 1909 100 years before a black American man was to become president federal legislators initiated the first of many attempts to make lynching a federal crime, because of the extent of lynching and the failure of states to act.
Typical of state representatives was Benjamin Tillman, governor of South Carolina from 1890-94, who said in 1900: “We have done our level best (to prevent blacks from voting) . . . we have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate the last one of them. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it.”
Also Tillman: “We of the South have never recognised the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will.”
The sound we might hear today even at this distance, over and above the celebrations as Barack Obama is made 44th US president, is of Tillman and his like, turning in their graves, not to mention the angry cries of some who never will recognise “the right of the negro to govern white men”. But they’re a minority. The majority feel jubilation, relief and astonishment.
Cairo, Illinois Barack Obama’s home state is a town with one of America’s worst racial records. Its population is predominantly black. By 2000 it had an infant mortality rate of 15.4 per cent, which was, shockingly, only the state’s second-worst. Industrialised nations have an average infant mortality rate of 6 per cent, according to UNICEF.
About half the town’s children live in poverty and in Cairo “poverty can’t be separated from the issue of race”, said Cairo resident Sarah Gatewood, in an article about its history.
When integration was forced on Cairo in the 1960s and 1970s, city elders filled the local swimming pool with concrete rather than allow black people to use it. When white shopkeepers refused to hire black workers and black residents boycotted stores, shop owners closed rather than change.
There were violent clashes and lynchings, and the white supremacist group White Citizens Council, known as the “white collar Klan”, ruled.
Barack Obama visited Cairo a few years ago while running for the US Senate. He was met by 300 people, one-third black, two-thirds white, wearing “Obama for US Senate” badges, supporting “a black guy born in Hawaii, with a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas”.
When he returned to Cairo in July 2005, Obama quoted Dr Martin Luther King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” and noted that the arc “bends because each of us in our own small way tries to bend it in that direction”.
Obama’s election is more than an American triumph. It is a human triumph.
It took more than the 100 years between Will James and Barack Obama, but the minority of individuals black and white who showed courage and sought justice for all, became the majority bending the moral arc today.