I was watching an interview about a past Oprah Winfrey segment on “60 Minutes.”
I had missed the segment, but apparently, from what I was watching, there had been some concern about disturbing photos shown during Oprah’s piece. I couldn’t imagine what on earth Oprah could show that would arouse so much attention.
When I saw what it was, I was shocked that anyone would be “shocked” by the photos. I viewed similar pictures when I was a child and over my lifetime. I’ve even talked to relatives and older people in my childhood neighborhoods who had family members who had died that way.
I’m talking about lynchings, a horrific form of killing people that was practiced and enjoyed a lot in the South.
I wondered why would someone be so surprised about a reality of American life. This is history, as integral to this country’s identity as Mom, apple pie and the New York Yankees.
If seeing pictures of mutilated, burned or dead bodies hanging from ropes shocks you, well, deal with it. This is what America did. The pictures are the story.
Louisiana, at the bottom of most of the good things in life, was a Final Four team for hangings back in the day. On that score, you couldn’t accuse Louisiana of being in the back of the pack. We were like Duke University in basketball and like Roll Tide in football. Louisiana was good at it.
One newspaper account showed that between 1877 and 1950, of the 3,959 (another group estimated over 4,000) “known” victims of “racial terror lynchings” in 12 Southern states, 540 were in Louisiana. Only Georgia and Mississippi had more. You go, Louisiana.
Now, we all know that not all lynchings were recorded, so Louisiana might well be No. 1 or a strong No. 2.
The reasons for the hangings could have been for petty crimes, no crime at all, or because some folks felt slighted by some black person in town. Sometimes, mobs would just go and snatch someone out of a jail and commence to hanging them.
I had to ask myself, why would anyone be upset that photos of this would be shown by Oprah?
For some, the whole lynching ritual was like the excitement of going to a rock concert or the palpable electricity found in the crowd at a championship basketball game. You could see smiling, approving faces all around the hanging victims.
Mamas, daddies, grandpas, grandmas and little children — generally white — came out to see people — generally black — hang from a tree, prepared scaffolding or wherever it could be done. There were times when a black person could be hung just because he was available and black.
Ida B. Wells, a former slave and African-American journalist of the early 1900s, said of lynchings: “Brave men do not gather by thousands to torture and murder a single individual, so gagged and bound he cannot make even feeble resistance or defense.”
I wonder what those folks would have done if they had cell phones back then? Imagine those selfies. But there were pictures taken in some instances to record the cruelty.
As history tells it, sometimes the audience would get a “two-fer,” or a two for one, when the lynching party would string up a person who was already dead.
Also, history shows that a few blacks were lynched by other blacks. But those were extremely rare occasions, according to historians.
New Orleans, the “Big Easy,” checks in as participating in one of the largest one-time lynchings ever, and those on the bad end of the rope were not black. They were Italians, or “dagoes” as some Louisiana whites referred to them. Historians say there was some suspicion among whites about Italians because of their slightly darker skin. Go figure.
While this horrific part of our history was told to me and my generation, my guess is that a lot of millennial African-Americans and other races may not have been taught at all about this horrid part of our state and nation’s history. There is no reason to hide it.
To that end, the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization that investigates the lynchings of African Americans, will open the first national memorial dedicated to victims of racial terror lynchings later this month in Montgomery, Alabama.
Maybe it’s something Louisiana can place in museums, on college campuses and actually teach to our children in classrooms. It’s all part of the fabric of this state and nation. It’s something that we must admit to our young people.
If the pictures of the inhumanity disturb you, they should.
Email Edward Pratt, a former newspaperman who writes a weekly Advocate column, at firstname.lastname@example.org.