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Recently a congressman from Mississippi, Karl Oliver, posted a comment on his Facebook page that encouraged lynching as the consequence for removing Confederate memorials. His ridiculous post reminds us that lynching should never be taken lightly.

The full post, which has since been removed, said:
“The destruction of these monuments, erected in the loving memory of our family and fellow Southern Americans, is both heinous and horrific. If the, and I use this term extremely loosely, “leadership” of Louisiana wishes to, in a Nazi-ish fashion, burn books or destroy historical monuments of OUR HISTORY, they should be LYNCHED! Let it be known, I will do all in my power to prevent this from happening in our State.”

Oliver’s comments come in the context of the removal of four Confederate monuments in New Orleans and the planned removal of similar statues in Charlottesville, Virginia. Taking down the monuments has met with strong opposition from some segments of the American populace who insist that taking down the symbols is erasing history and dishonors a noble heritage.

However strongly one feels about preserving Confederate monuments and emblems, no one should ever flippantly mention lynching. The only way people can talk about lynching in jest or in an instance (I hope) of hyperbole is if they neglect the brutality of practice.

What is Lynching?

Lynching is an extra-legal, violent, and deadly form of terrorism that was widely practiced in the Jim Crow era in the United States, especially in the South. While records are scant, nearly 4,000 lynchings took place in the period between 1880-1930. What many people don’t realize is that there are different forms of lynching. Some attacks were spontaneously carried out by mobs who descended upon black individuals accused of some wrongdoing. Other lynchings were private mobs of two or three people who took it upon themselves to enact their own brand of justice. The lynching of fourteen-year old Emmet Till is one example.

Lynching served a public purpose. These murders were designed to instill a sense of fear in black populations so that even after slavery, a racial caste system that favored white men and locked minorities into subordinate roles would remain in place. Some of the most effective lynchings were premeditated affairs in which the whole community was invited to observe the spectacle of black death.

The Lynching of Luther and Mary Holbert (warning: graphic description)

The events surrounding the murder of Luther and Mary Holbert illustrate the detestable nature of lynching. Here are the details as related by historian, Chris Myers Asch, in his book, The Senator and the Sharecropper: The Freedom Struggles of James O. Eastland and Fannie Lou Hamer.

The exact nature of the conflict leading to the lynching of the Holberts in February, 1904 is not precisely clear, but it had to do with love. Luther Holbert, a worker on the James Eastland plantation in Sunflower County, Mississippi, had been living with Mary who was the wife or ex-wife of another worker, Albert Carr. Holbert and Carr had a dispute over the romance and eventually Eastland intervened. Carr and Eastland went to the Holbert’s cabin armed with guns. Only the results, not the details, of the encounter are known. At the end of the altercation at the cabin, both Eastland and Carr lay dead at the hands of Luther Holbert.

Jim Crow “justice” was quick and certain for any black man who killed a white man. Fearing for their lives, Luther and Mary Holbert went on the run. Led by Eastland’s brother, Woods Caperton Eastland, the alleged crime ignited the white population and hundreds of white men who pursued the Holberts with bloodhounds guiding them. Despite Mary disguising herself as a man and taking to the swamps, the Holberts were captured three days later. What happened next is a horror of inhumanity.

The lynching didn’t happen immediately. It was planned for the next day, a Sunday afternoon after church so a large crowd could gather. The murderers strategically chose a location for maximum intimidation. It took place on the property of a black church in Doddsville, MS. The black church has historically been the locus of religious and communal life for black people. Performing a lynching on church grounds sent a message to all black people in the area that no place was safe from white supremacy.

More than a thousand people showed up to gawk at the lynching of Luther and Mary Holbert. The lynchers tied up the Holberts and commenced with “the most fiendish tortures.” First, the white murderers cut off each of the fingers and toes of their victims and gave them out as souvenirs. Then they beat them so mercilessly that one of Luther Holbert’s eyes hung only by a shred from its socket. Then came the most fiendish abuse. The Vicksburg Evening Post reported, “The most excruciating form of punishment consisted in the use of a large corkscrew in the hands of some of the mob. This instrument was bored into the flesh of the man and woman, in the arms, legs, and body, and then pulled out, the spirals tearing out big pieces of raw quivering flesh every time it was withdrawn.”

Finally, the Holberts, who were still alive, were taken to a pyre. The white men cruelly forced two black men under threat of death to drag the Holberts to the fires. They burned Mary first so Luther could see his beloved killed. Then they burned him.

The tragic and infuriating lynching of the Holberts is just one of literally thousands of similar examples. Although the details vary, the broad contours remain the same. Lynchings usually took place because of some perceived slight. Anti-lynching crusader, Ida B. Wells, found that lynchings were often over economic disputes. But imagined sexual predation on the part of black men was frequently an excuse.

Almost no white people who participated in the lynching of black citizens ever faced a legal consequence. Woods Eastland, who led the mob, actually faced charges in the murder. But his acquittal was a foregone conclusion. After the all-white jury found him innocent, Eastland hosted a party on his plantation to celebrate.

What Can We Learn from the History of Lynching?

Most people wouldn’t refer to lynching at all, let alone do so in the frivolous and insensitive manner that Karl Oliver did. But for citizens who still adhere to basic standards of decency this memory of lynching serves an important function.

First, it reminds us that the brutality of lynching cannot be understated. Americans have a notoriously bad memory of their own history, especially when it comes to racism. We should never forget just how grisly and blatantly evil lynching was.

In addition to the gruesomeness and violence of lynching itself, these spectacles remind us of the everyday nature of racism. The participants and observers of lynchings were homemakers, sheriffs, and church members and leaders. These were “decent folks” who descended into the depths of degeneracy. Lynchings show us that racism is never exclusive only to the most extreme elements of society.

Lynchings also remind us of the depravity of humanity. The depths of evil that seemingly normal men and women can sink in their allegiance to racial idolatry should never drift from our attention. Although after long battles legal and moral battles lynching became illegal, the darkness in our hearts still lingers and lynchings still happen.

Those who are horrified by the facts of lynching should be vocal in their condemnation of those who, either in public or private, make light of it. This horrendous crime cannot be normalized. It should not be spoken of except in the most somber of tones. Karl Oliver’s comments remind us of that memories are short, racism is real, and the journey of justice continues.

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