The American South practiced its own brand of racial terrorism and hate crime for a period of more than 70 years during the Jim Crow era. We continue to feel its effect today in myriad ways. During this Reign of Terror, lynching of African American men, and sometimes women, was almost an everyday occurrence. Only rarely have we paused to contemplate and acknowledge the profound effect that the atrocities of the Jim Crow era continue to have upon our society today, particularly in our criminal justice system.
A new report from the Equal Justice Initiative documents nearly 4,000 lynchings in the South between 1877 and 1950. More than 100 were in North Carolina.
For the most minor transgressions – knocking on a white woman’s door, whistling at a white woman, referring to a police officer without the title “Mister” – any African American could be kidnapped by an angry mob and tortured to death. Some were accused of more serious crimes, but never got the benefit of a trial to determine their guilt. Lynching often became a surrogate for a trial, accepted, if not officially sanctioned, by many public officials.
Some of these lynchings were every bit as outrageous, atrocious, heinous and brutal as the killings claimed by ISIS today. The report describes a 1904 lynching where a man, believed to have killed a white landowner, was captured and tied to a tree, along with his wife. Their fingers and ears were chopped off and distributed as souvenirs to the crowd. The man was beaten so badly that his skull cracked and his eyeball hung from its socket. A large corkscrew was used to drill out hunks of their flesh. Only then were they thrown into a fire and burned to death. Meanwhile, spectators, including children, ate deviled eggs and drank lemonade.
Death penalty flawed
A mass crime as sadistic and pervasive as lynching in the South does not disappear without a trace. If there is one place where its ghosts still roam, it is in our capital punishment system. The end of lynchings was followed by an immediate increase in the use of the death penalty.
We would like to believe that things are different today. It is true that bodies are no longer publicly hung from trees, dismembered and burned alive. We have enacted countless reforms in an attempt to sanitize death when imposed by the state.
Yet, just a few decades ago, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, two poor, intellectually disabled black teenagers had their lives hung from a tree, dismembered and destroyed when they were, essentially, kidnapped from their homes by police, pressured into signing false confessions, sentenced to death and imprisoned for nearly four decades.
Leon, just 15 at the time of the crime, was eventually resentenced to life in prison. However, the State of North Carolina continued its efforts to execute Henry until just this past September, when DNA testing proved that he and Leon were innocent.
North Carolina cannot look at Henry McCollum and say that the legacy of the past no longer stains our capital punishment system. In fact, we have powerful proof that it does. In 2009, North Carolina passed the Racial Justice Act and became the only state in the nation to attempt to find the threads that connect the modern death penalty to our racist past.
A rigorous study found irrefutable evidence that racial bias still infects North Carolina’s death penalty. Researchers studied the years 1990 to 2010, and discovered that people who committed crimes against whites were nearly three times more likely to get the death penalty.
The Racial Justice Act allowed death row inmates who could prove that bias infected their trials to be resentenced to life in prison without parole. It was a visionary effort to exorcise the ghosts of the past, and it made North Carolina a trailblazer in confronting the South’s shameful history of racism. Sadly, the legislature repealed the Act in 2013.
Supreme Court ruling
Now, we await a decision from the N.C. Supreme Court about whether the four people who were removed from death row under the Racial Justice Act – after proving that racial bias tainted their trials – are entitled to the relief they received. It remains unclear whether any of North Carolina’s remaining 150 death row inmates will get the benefit of the Racial Justice Act.
The Equal Justice Initiative’s lynching report should remind us all that we must continue to shine the light of truth on racism whether past or present.
As Southerners and as human beings, we have inherited a history of racist executions – one that still threatens the lives of African-Americans, excludes them from serving on juries, and devalues their lives when they are crime victims.
Only by acknowledging the continuing effects of the racism of the past can we begin to heal the wounds.
James E. Ferguson II is a civil rights attorney in Charlotte.