By Vernon A. Williams, Gary Crusader
Born in Pascagoula, Mississippi, I learned about lynching before I learned lessons on the Civil War or, for that matter, the Revolutionary War or the Holocaust. It was not by design.
A larger paycheck lured my father from the Gulf Coast shipyards to the booming open hearths of U.S. Steel in Gary, located off the shores of another waterfront, Lake Michigan, when I was only six years old.
While that was hardly enough time to become thoroughly familiar with the ways of the South, even then I sensed the difference between Black and white when it came to a shiny, tall water fountain for one and a filthy lower station right next to it, for “colored.”
“White only” signs dominated areas I traveled often in my neighborhood, and downtown, with my parents. After all, I could read. I also knew that when my big brothers took me to the movies, we went in a side door, up a half-lit staircase to the balcony.
Finally, I knew that though white children lived right over the fence from our DuPont Street home and occasionally put on puppet shows from their bedroom window as my brothers and I watched from a stump in our yard, that the two groups of youths could not actually mingle.
I became more acutely aware of the “ways of the South” after the relocation of my family. You see, there was not a summer that passed that we did not make the trek back ‘home’ for a visit – to check on, and enjoy the house my family still owned.
During one of the earlier visits, when I was about eight or nine, I remember reading the Pascagoula newspaper one morning. No, I was not a prodigy.
The latest news did not interest me at all, but I was addicted to the comic strips in every newspaper I could get my hands on at that age. Occasionally, photos caught my attention while I was thumbing through. On this particular morning, the photo in the upper left corner (yes, I remember that) was stunning.
There was the front-page photograph of what appeared to be a teenager or very young African American male, hanging by a rope around his neck from a tree.
When my child’s mind was able to compute what was happening in this grainy black and white photo, I slammed the paper to the floor as hard as I could, as though it was laced with something putrid or toxic; something I needed out of my hands with a sense of urgency.
A moment or two passed. Then curiosity got the better of me and I picked it up gingerly with a scowling expression – reading at arm’s length. I don’t remember the name of the victim, or what the writer wrote to describe any offense of this human being, to merit such a gruesome fate.
The article detailed the organization of the event as though it were a church social. They described the atmosphere in festive terms and there were children milling about happily in the horrendous photo. Milling about the dangling corpse were faces of people untouched by the inhumanity; smiling as though they were at a cookout.
The writer made a point of praising the food served to guests, praising those responsible for preparing and delivering the dishes at this morbid event. It is impossible to convey my confusion over the implications of what was in the paper that morning on the psyche of a child. I knew deep in my spirit something was terribly amiss – God-awful wrong.
It was more shocking than frightening. By the age of nine, most children have overheard enough adult conversations about racism and conflicts and challenges. To have the worst-case scenario thrust in your face at the break of dawn was something altogether different.
After debating whether or not to share with my mother my revelation, I decided against it. I didn’t want her and Aunt Susie – my godmother, with whom we were staying – to feel as upset as I did in that moment. I know now they both had seen worse. But it was undoubtedly the worst thing I had ever seen and I didn’t want them to share my grief.
I also didn’t want to burden them with struggling to find the words to placate, what I know they would have thought, my youthful anxiety. How do you comfort a child who witnesses something he should never have seen? Even at that age, there was nothing they could say to reconcile my angst. Why put them through it.
The bottom line is, I could never “un-see” the horrendous image – no matter what anyone said. Though it made sleep for me a little more restless for the duration of that Pascagoula visit, I knew that eventually I would get over it – but never forget.
Oprah Winfrey used her larger-than-life influence to expose the atrocity during a segment of “60 Minutes” during a visit to the new museum dedicated to one of America’s most shameful chapters – the lynching of African Americans. In some 300 years, estimates approach 5,000 victims. Most think that estimate is modest.
Instead of dialogue on lynching and how it impacted race then and now, viewers opted to challenge the show’s producers for including such graphic photos of victims dangling from limbs.
When arguably the most impactful media figure of our era exposes this bitter truth, using arguably the most respected news programs in history, and there is no buzz generated, no collective outrage or indignation, no need to discuss further, you get a true measure of how much trouble we are in as a nation.
CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference-makers who are forging change in a constantly evolving society. Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City. Send comments or questions to: [email protected].