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The Witness

SAE and the Lynching Tree

Jarvis Williams

Fifty years ago, a multi-racial group of brave Civil Rights activists marched through Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama for equal voting rights for African-Americans. As many know, the march was met with much violence and opposition from white supremacists. Despite the opposition, the Selma to Montgomery marches were successful. Selma was one of the many historic events that led to voting rights for African-Americans.


One of the most inspiring things to me about the Selma marches is that a multi-racial group of young college and university students participated. These young people left the comfort of their university and college campuses and stood toe-to-toe with death and racist Jim Crow laws as they journeyed hand-in-hand with other freedom marchers through Selma toward Montgomery. The heroic actions of those university and college students stand radically at odds with the recent confirmed reports about an Oklahoma University white fraternity.

Multiple viral YouTube videos show members of the Oklahoma University fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) chanting racist remarks about African-Americans. The videos show a young white male proudly smiling as he leads several members in this chant: “You can hang them from a tree but they’ll never sign with me; there will never be a nigger in SAE.” As this young man and several others joked and repeatedly sang these lyrics, they invoked several offensive racist images from this country’s troubled racist past. The young men used the kind of racist rhetoric that continues to affect this country’s tumultuous present on the race issue. Below, I mention these two images and I point to the hope in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Lynching Tree

First, the young man and his fraternity brothers cheerfully referenced the practice of lynching. Some commentators have estimated that nearly 5,000 blacks were lynched (hanged from a tree) at the hands of white supremacists before the days of the Civil Rights Movement. In his book titled The Cross and the Lynching Tree, black liberation theologian James H. Cone describes in detail the horrors of lynching in this country. Although I disagree with virtually every theological conclusion that Cone makes about the death of Jesus, his thesis regarding the connection African-Americans made between Jesus’ horrific death on a cross and the death of many African-Americans on the lynching tree is quite compelling. Cone’s vivid description and detailed documentation of the function of the lynching tree in white supremacist America should make both whites and blacks pause before invoking the horrific image of the lynching tree in one’s rhetoric.

Some credit Charles Lynch and William Lynch as the creators of the word “lynch.” Others say “lynch” comes from the phrase “Lynch Law,” which referred to punishment without trial. Lynching was not limited to the South, but it was a powerful symbol of white supremacy in the South. It was, in fact, an entertaining spectacle for many whites. There is evidence of white citizens commemorating black lynchings on postcards. Lynchings were painful reminders to blacks in this country of their legalized inferiority to whites in a society in which laws affirmed, supported, and justified violent actions against blacks to keep them in their so-called “place” in a racist and white supremacist culture. After a lynching victim was hanged and died, the white racists would then burn the body with gasoline and light it on fire in a public spectacle. The body would then hang on the tree for days until it deteriorated. This horrific act inspired African-American songstress, Billie Holiday, to write her famous anthem against lynching titled “Strange Fruit,” in which she sang:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

These lyrics articulated the painful reality of what African-Americans faced every day in a racist country dominated by white supremacy; namely, the reality that they could likely lose their lives by means of the lynching tree because they were black and viewed as inferior human beings.

Ironically, on May 25, 1911, a black woman named Ms. Laura Nelson and her son were lynched by white supremacists in Okemah, Oklahoma. The fact that the state of Oklahoma has a stained history of lynching blacks simply because they were black makes the racist remarks of the SAE fraternity at Oklahoma University even more sickening.

The N-Word

Second, the young man leading the racist SAE chant identified blacks as Niggers. White supremacists used the word Nigger as a derogatory term to demoralize and to ostracize black people and to keep them in their “place” in a world that valued whiteness and undermined blackness. Unfortunately, far too many blacks use the word Nigger today as a term of endearment in spite of its racist origins. The young man leading the racist SAE chant both echoed and celebrated the racist rhetoric of white supremacy when he conflated the concepts of lynching tree and Nigger into a chant to accentuate blacks cannot join his white fraternity. This young man’s chant suggests that he believes that blacks are worthy of being lynched on a tree because he thinks they are inferior Niggers, but unworthy of joining his white fraternity because he thinks they are inferior Niggers. White supremacists likely uttered the words, “Let’s lynch those Niggers” far too often before the Civil Rights movement.

The Solution

The solution to racism is STILL, and always will be, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  As I write these words, this country is still recovering from Ferguson and the Eric Garner case. There is a current racial uproar in Wisconsin due to the recent police shooting of a young black man. Unfortunately, neither unbelievers nor some Christians know how to respond to America’s current racial tensions. Some unbelievers respond with anger and hate. Too many evangelical Christians continue to be either clueless about the race issue or respond with the sin of silence. Although understandable, anger that leads to hate is absolutely wrong! Furthermore, those evangelicals who continue to believe and say foolishly that racial reconciliation is not a gospel issue are as useless on the race issue as those evangelicals who never speak about gospel-centered racial reconciliation until it’s politically convenient for them to do so or until certain high profile white evangelicals or certain white celebrity pastors give them permission do so. Silent evangelicals and evangelicals who do not see racial reconciliation as a gospel imperative hinder the cause of gospel-centered racial reconciliation.

The solution to racial tension is still, and always will be, the gospel of a bloody, crucified, resurrected, and glorified Jewish Messiah, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, a Jewish Messiah, died and resurrected from the dead to unify all things and all people to God and to one another (Ephesians 1:4–3:8). In fact, Paul states that the unification of all things and all people in Christ is the mystery of the gospel (Ephesians 1:9-10), and he boldly preached to the Gentiles the good news of this mystery as the inexpressible riches of Christ (Ephesians 3:8; see Ephesians 3:3-8). Racial reconciliation is a gospel issue. To see this defended, read my book One New Man and watch my YouTube sermon (preached at Redeemer Church in Jackson, MS), related to the book, “A New Man in Christ.”

This racist Oklahoma University member of SAE who uttered the egregious and racist words about blacks needs to understand that God can forgive his sins if he repents and believes and follows Jesus Christ by faith. And this racist young man can be recreated and transformed into a new race in Christ along with fellow black Christians and other Christians from many different tongues, tribes, people, and nations if he repents and gives his life to Jesus Christ by faith (Romans 3:21-30; Ephesians 2:11-22; Revelation 5:9). This racist young man can be liberated from the tyranny and slavery of racism if he is transformed by the liberating power of the gospel of Jesus Christ (Romans 6:1-23). The gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes—to the Jew first and to the Greek (Romans 1:16). This is even true of a racist fraternity member if he believes in the gospel of Jesus Christ, because Jesus died to end the hostility between Jews and Gentiles and to reconcile them into one new man (Ephesians 2:11-22).

May God in his grace save this young man by the power of the gospel! I pray that black Christians would NOT respond to his racism with racism, but with the unifying power of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Jewish Messiah. May all of my brothers and sisters in Christ from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation join with me in fervently praying for this young man’s salvation so that he can personally taste, see, and experience the reconciling power of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Jewish Messiah. May this racist young man trust in the cross and resurrection of Jesus and be delivered from his slavery to racism so that he would stop invoking the image of the lynching tree and instead proclaim the reconciling power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

1 Comment

  1. Rachel Bird

    Powerful truth, powerfully written!

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