Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 1 October 2020

'Reign of terror': the rule of racism in America

Protesters are continuing a long struggle against racism in the US as they topple symbols of slavery and demand an end to centuries of state-sanctioned violence against black people

25th May 1961: A black woman is directed away from the 'white waiting room' at Jackson, Mississippi. She has arrived on the 'Freedom Bus' to protest against the racial segregation of passengers on the nation's buses. Getty Images
25th May 1961: A black woman is directed away from the 'white waiting room' at Jackson, Mississippi. She has arrived on the 'Freedom Bus' to protest against the racial segregation of passengers on the nation's buses. Getty Images

The only documented lynching in Oregon happened in 1902 in broad daylight. A local newspaper recounted on September 18 of that year how “a body of coal miners, heavily armed” marched into the town of Marshfield the prior evening.

They had come for Alonzo Tucker, a black shoeshine who was in custody for an alleged assault against a white woman.

Mr Tucker, who was never tried, escaped, but the enraged miners searched all night before two boys eventually found him hiding under a local Dean & Co store. “The boys fired at him with air guns and drove him from his hiding place. As he emerged, a ball from a rifle caught him in the right leg,” the newspaper says.

The miners started to string Mr Tucker up in the store, before deciding to hang him from a beam on the South Marshfield Bridge, where the alleged crime took place. He was thrown into a truck with a noose around his neck but died on the way to the lynching site.

No one was ever held accountable for the incident.

In March, a few hundred residents gathered in Coos Bay, Oregon, and dug up soil from the spot where Alonzo Tucker was killed. The project is part of a nationwide effort by The Equal Justice Initiative to memorialise black victims of America’s racist past and prevent thousands of atrocities from being swept aside.

Mr Tucker’s name has now joined rows of others stamped on glass jars bearing the different-coloured dirt of hundreds of lynching sites in a haunting exhibition at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama – once one of the two largest slave-owning states in America.

The extent of the killing stares down from 800 steel columns hanging from the ceiling. Each is stamped with the name of an American county, along with the people lynched there. Unidentified victims appear simply as “unknown.”

The memorial and adjacent museum bear testament to hundreds of histories that risk being forgotten, mapping brutality against black people in America from the roots of the slave trade in the seventeenth century to the present day.

One is Parks Banks, lynched in Mississippi in 1922 for carrying a photograph of a white woman. Another, Warren Powell, was hanged in East Point, Georgia in 1889, for “frightening” a white girl, while Henry Patterson was lynched in Labelle, Florida, in 1926 for asking a white woman for a drink of water.

As Ida B Wells, a black journalist and early civil rights activist, wrote in her 1892 indictment on lynchings entitled Southern Horrors: “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread-bare lie that Negro men rape white women.”

Witness accounts and harrowing photographs at the museum document decades of beatings and bondage as the abolition of slavery in 1865 gave way to the era of mass lynchings and Jim Crow laws, which mandated racial segregation in the southern states until the 1960s.

Giant screens showing black inmates on death row portray the mass incarceration that has defined criminal justice since.

Today, African Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white Americans, accounting in 2018 for almost a third of people in the country’s prisons.

More than 150 years after the Constitution granted equal citizenship to African Americans, tens of thousands are gathering in the streets to demand justice from a system that still fails to uphold black rights. Even after the international outcry over the killing of George Floyd last month, another black man, Rashard Brooks, was murdered by a US officer in Atlanta on June 12.

“The legacy of lynching is evident in racially motivated violence that continues today,” The Equal Justice Initiative, the NGO behind the memorial in Alabama, says in a video on its website.

The organisation has documented almost 6,500 racial terror lynchings in America between the end of slavery in 1865 and 1950. Thousands more may never be discovered.

A new EIJ report, Reconstruction in America, documents the horror following the end of the civil war, when black people were lynched at a rate of almost one every two days as confederate veterans and former enslavers fought to keep them in bondage.

Smoke rises from buildings during the race massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, US in 1921. Via Reuters
Smoke rises from buildings during the race massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, US in 1921. Via Reuters

Slavery was abolished the year the civil war ended in 1865 but the Supreme Court’s refusal to enshrine the rights of black people into law ushered in a “reign of terror.”

“In decision after decision, the Court ceded control to the same white Southerners who used terror and violence to stop black political participation, upheld laws and practices codifying racial hierarchy, and embraced a new constitutional order defined by “states’ rights,” the report says.

In Oregon, local politicians passed a series of exclusion laws banning black people. The first – the notorious ‘lash law’ in 1844 - authorised the public flogging every six months of any black person who dared remain.

The legacy of this state-sanctioned violence lingered into the twentieth century when Oregon was home to over 30,000 Klu Klux Klan members, among them Walter Pierce, who became state governor in 1922.

Circa 1920: A meeting of the hooded members of the American white supremacist movement, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Getty images
Circa 1920: A meeting of the hooded members of the American white supremacist movement, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Getty images

It’s a period most prefer to forget, according to Portland State University student Taylor Stewart, who organised the Coos Bay event. “We don’t talk about black exclusionary laws… We don’t talk about the fact that we had the largest Ku Klux Klan organisation west of Mississippi,” he told local broadcaster OPB.

The memory loss shrouding some of the worst race-motivated massacres in US history has become a defining theme of the Black Lives Matter protests.

Last year, a new HBO series sent shivers through social media as realisation dawned that the opening scenes of carnage on Tulsa’s Black Wall Street chronicled real events. Up to 300 people were murdered here in 1921, most of them black, after a white mob rampaged through the area, torching homes, schools and businesses.

President Donald Trump’s decision to host his post-lockdown campaign rally in Tulsa came as further confirmation of African American suffering being omitted from mainstream narratives.

Hours before Saturday’s event, local black leaders covered up massacre memorials – they didn’t want Mr Trump’s coterie finding photo ops among tributes to the dead.

“It's incredibly important to frame communities of colour not as passive victims but active change-makers,” Oregon-based writer and historian Walidah Imarisha says.

“All of the advances in racial justice, which advances justice as a whole, have come from the determination and courage of communities of colour.”

Black and white people chain themselves in front of New York City Hall on August 23, 1963, during a protest against segregation. 1963 is noted for racial unrest and civil rights demonstrations from California to New York, culminating in the March on Washington on August 1963 with Martin Luther King, Jr. AFP
Black and white people chain themselves in front of New York City Hall on August 23, 1963, during a protest against segregation. 1963 is noted for racial unrest and civil rights demonstrations from California to New York, culminating in the March on Washington on August 1963 with Martin Luther King, Jr. AFP

But the biggest act of honouring those who died resisting white supremacists would be to transform or dismantle ongoing systemic racism and institutional white supremacy, she says, which is why people are calling to defund the police.

“They recognise the institution of policing is a direct descendant and grew out of slavery.”

In Coos Bay, a bronze plaque has been prepared for Alonzo Tucker, ready for installation after the Covid-19 outbreak.

And across America, protesters continue to topple confederate statues, tearing down legacies of a brutal past and reminding the world that racially motivated crimes remain commonplace.

Updated: June 28, 2020 05:07 PM

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