Change Becomes You
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Change Becomes You

The American Plan: Lynching in America in 2020

Elmore Bolling (see photo above) was lynched in 1947 in Alabama for becoming a little too prosperous for the liking of some of his neighbors.

I used to live in Alabama. Why did I not know about him? Or even just one example of the several hundred who were executed by mob in my state. Where were the memorials?

“You ask anybody in this country to name one African-American lynched between 1877 and 1950, and they can’t give a single name,” EJI Executive Director Bryan Stevenson said. “We have no consciousness about this history. None.”

What I offer here below — a thumbnail history in ten parts— was assembled as a response to an overheard comment which I will refrain from repeating, but which powered me through the compiling of this piece at a wild (and perhaps not very artful) pace. For those to whom most of this is well trod ground, start with number 5. I would bet that even you are learning about the “American Plan” for the first time.

(First draft of this was written in late 2019. The most recent edit to this piece is a link added in June 2020.)

1. Tulsa Race Riots

After the Civil War, many newly freed people migrated West where they felt the risk of violence and terrorism against them would be less. Many began to settle in Tulsa, Oklahoma and by 1921, one section of Tulsa had the most prosperous and educated black community in America. There were lawyers and activists and business owners, musicians, writers, artists, newspaper owners and schools that any American living today, black or white, would envy. It was as vibrant a place as any middle class place in the country. There were two airports in Oklahoma and six black families owned their own planes. But on May 31 and June 1, 1921, mobs of white Oklahomans — estimated to be about 10,000 people — attacked black residents and businesses in this neighborhood. The attack destroyed more than 35 square blocks of the wealthiest black community in the United States, known as Black Wall Street: “More than 800 people were admitted to hospitals and more than 6,000 black residents were arrested and detained, many for several days.The Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics officially recorded 36 dead, but the American Red Cross declined to provide an estimate. A 2001 state commission examination of events noted estimations from between 36 and 300 killed in the rioting.” What provoked it? It’s not completely clear but the general consensus is that a black man flirted with a white woman and a white man came to the neighborhood to “seek justice” (lynch him) and a scuffle ensued in which the vigilante was shot. There was also a deep resentment at the vision of black wealth and prosperity. As the riots ended, “‘bodies were buried by strangers in mass graves while the decedents’ families remained detained under martial law,’ said Scott Ellsworth, a University of Michigan historian who has worked on the recovery of the Tulsa riot graves for decades.

‘They did not know that their loved ones were dead or they did not know what was happening to them. The authorities never told them where these individuals were buried, and there were never any funerals,’ he said.”

The perpetrators were, obviously, never held to account. There was no justice.

Read more about it HERE.

You might imagine the effect this had on black consciousness as a whole, not to mention the remaining black residents of Tulsa. They never recovered financially or otherwise. Imagine the elementary school-aged Ralph Ellison, living in nearby Oklahoma City. Consider that event when you read his monumental novel, Invisible Man (which was recently banned from a school district in Alaska).

2. Voting Rights Restricted.

A concerted post war effort was made to prevent black Americans from participating in decision making (voting). Legislators increased statutory barriers to voter registration and voting.From 1890 to 1908, many states, starting with Mississippi, created new constitutions specificially to include provisions to prevent former slaves from voting: poll taxes (they had very little money), “literacy” tests (which were usually about complex trickery — click here to take one), and increased residency requirements (most former slaves had no birth certificates or other papers), that effectively disenfranchised most blacks and many poor whites as well. Forcing them off voter registration lists also made it impossible for them to serve on juries. Benjamin Tillman, a governor of South Carolina and a US Sentor, speaking on the floor of the Senate in 1900:

We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be the equal of the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.

There was a particular white hysteria around black men “taking advantage” of white women. It was not based on anything factual but some weird psychological deformation that has been explored by social historians and psychologists.

3.Lynchings (mob execution usually by hanging) began to proliferate to keep these former slaves terrified and cowering at the sight of a white man. There were whites and immigrants lynched during the post war period but the overwhelming majority were blacks.

From 1882–1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States. The “Red Summer” of 1919 was particularly murderous, during which the streets ran with black blood. Once again “provocation” for mob vigilantes was frequently “defending white womanhood.” In Washington DC, “ on the night of July 18th, a young white woman was attacked, and rumors quickly spread that two African American men were guilty. Her husband worked for the Navy, and soon a mob of white servicemen and veterans were descending upon a predominately African American neighborhood, attacking everyone they encountered. The Home Defense League, a civilian vigilance committee officially sanctioned by the war effort to enforce patriotism and “Americanism,” also joined in.

A particular story — recently revived in the national news — conveys the rankest depravity of lynch mobs: In Valdosta, Ga “someone killed Hampton Smith, a white plantation owner. Suspicion fell on Sidney Johnson, an African-American worker said to have had a wage dispute with Smith. A vengeful white mob, unable to find Johnson, killed other black people instead, including a man named Hayes Turner. His wife, outraged beyond self-preservation, loudly vowed to swear out a warrant against the murderers. So the next day, they came for her. Mary Turner was maybe 20 years old. She was eight months pregnant.They strung her up by her ankles in a tree. They doused her with gasoline and motor oil. They set her afire. But that wasn’t the worst of what they did….a man stepped towards the woman and, with his knife, ripped open the abdomen in a crude Caesarean operation. Out tumbled the prematurely born child. Two feeble cries it gave — and received for answer the heel of a stalwart man, as life was ground out of the tiny form.”

What is the collective psychological effect of this kind of terrorism that unfolds for years and decades without end and from which there is no escape? Does it affect the terrorized group’s prospects for a few years? A few decades? How long? And how does it affect them?

In 1955, a 14 year old Emmett Till was lynched for, once again, flirting with a white woman (which turned out not to be true, as if it matters). Here is his open caskett:

I’m sure there were millions of “average middle class people” at the time shaking their heads when this happened, how terrible, how monstrous. But what did it have to do with them? What were they supposed to do about it?

And Yankees often considered racism and civil rights to be a Southern problem, despite the ample evidence.

But it’s all in the past now, yes?

Emmett Till’s memorial marker is regularly vandalized and defiled — as recently as a few months ago (first version of this was written in is Dec 2019). A new “bullet proof” marker was erected within weeks of my writing this.

4. Prison Labor

While these lynchings were technically illegal (no one went to prison for Emmett Till’s murder despite the perpetrator’s being known and tried), there was plenty of legal abuse and brutality and one might even say, slavery. Yes, all the way up to the 1970s. I’m thinking especially of Parchman Farm penitentiary in Mississippi. It was a prison designated specifically for black men and it operated a for-profit farm (a Parchman Plantation as it was often called) for decades as well as a system for leasing prisoners for labor to local enterprises (also for a profit). In first half of the 20th century, there was an unspoken practice of grabbing black men for alleged crimes that were often invented or nonsensical. So for example, for loitering on the train tracks. Often kids (this picture was from a different labor prison — please note the chains on their ankles). For many people, slavery never ended.

5. The American Plan

A mixed race woman named Linda Taylor became a poster child, in the 1970s and 80s, for welfare fraud. Her name and misdeeds were recited thousands of times by a large number of newspapers and then by politicians. She was dubbed the “welfare queen.”

From a book review by Scott Stern in the Boston Review:

“Given how pervasive the trope of the “welfare queen” remains, it’s worth examining its origin in the public shaming of Linda Taylor. Levin’s [book] The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth, is the first full-scale effort to present Taylor’s biography. Levin found that Taylor was indeed a welfare cheat — but also a serial scam artist, a kidnapper, and perhaps even a murderer. She really did drive a Cadillac, use multiple identities, and drape herself in fur coats. But, as all this reveals, she was also about as far from a typical welfare recipient as it is possible to be...

Levin …[attempts] to make some sense of her often bizarre, sometimes violent, constantly mendacious behavior [by putting her life in context]. The daughter of a white mother and black father, she was born in 1926 in Golddust, Tennessee, where her parentage constituted a crime. Christened Martha Louise White, her impoverished white family excluded her because she could not pass for white, and she was expelled from her first school at the age of six. By fourteen, she’d given birth to her first child. [The book tells one heartbreaking story after another, of Linda going with her family to a “family reunion” for example, and being forced to wait in the car for hours on end because some family members did not approve a black child’s presence in their family.] While still a teenager, she fled the Jim Crow South and followed the wartime labor boom to the West Coast. For the rest of her life, she moved continuously, changed her name constantly, and committed a truly astounding number of crimes ...

In the fall of 1974, the Chicago Tribune ran a story about welfare fraud, citing Taylor as an extreme example. … She was indicted for welfare fraud…. Her case led Illinois to aggressively pursue, prosecute, and punish welfare cheats…

[But] Levin’s book … misses a critical [piece of the puzzle]…: she was a victim of something called the American Plan. Understanding the American Plan … helps explains [why] … so many midcentury women, particularly women of color, were excluded from the labor market and forced to rely on public assistance and underground economies.

…Taylor was first arrested not for welfare fraud, but because authorities suspected her of being sexually promiscuous. In January 1943, when she was sixteen or seventeen years old, Taylor was arrested for “disorderly conduct” in Seattle; in October 1944, she was arrested a few miles west of Seattle for “vagrancy”; and the next month, the Seattle police again booked her for “disorderly conduct.” The biographer notes that the formal charges in all three arrests were euphemisms, part of “ an expansive statute used to detain those suspected of lewd or undesirable behavior,” passed by authorities seeking “to control VD [venereal disease] by controlling women.” In the weeks following her first 1943 arrest, Taylor was denied bail and forced to report to the health department for a VD test. Taylor was forced to undergo more VD tests after her other arrests. In April 1946, she was again arrested on vague morals charges, largely because the police suspected “she might be infected with a venereal disease,” this time in Oakland, California.

…As I wrote in my book, from the 1910s through the 1950s (even into the 1970s in some areas), government officials across the United States detained tens of thousands of women (and virtually no men) on suspicion of promiscuity. These women were forcibly examined for VD, and then incarcerated if found to be infected. They were locked in what some called “concentration camps” — filthy, claustrophobic penal institutions where they were “treated” for VD with poisonous mercury- and arsenic-based drugs. …[These laws were] already in place decades before Taylor was first arrested, and it continued for decades after.

Women detained under the American Plan — and women arrested for “morals offenses” more broadly, including disorderly conduct, vagrancy, waywardness, and prostitution, [usually with none of these offenses proven or even provable] — often had remarkable difficulty getting a job. Community members and potential employers well understood the meaning of their arrests and shunned them. This exclusion from the labor market often pushed women into more dangerous jobs, …. Perversely, authorities often required women to hold down jobs as a condition of their release, so many women who could not do so were forced to flee or hide from parole officers, making it even more difficult to find legal work. Other penal institutions “paroled” women (especially black women) into domestic positions, where wealthy white women would police their conduct and behavior, a situation so stifling that many fled and sought livelihoods in underground economies instead.”

Context is everything isn’t it?

This little known program interleaved potent racism and sexism, and was conveniently left out of most of our collective histories. You can read more about it here.

6. Legal segregation and unequal education

Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896 established legal segregation to begin with. And Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 went a long way to undo this segregation but instructed schools to “proceed with desegregation ‘with all deliberate speed.’ Though well intentioned, the Court’s actions — [that phrase especially] — effectively opened the door to local judicial and political evasion of desegregation. While Kansas and some other states acted in accordance with the verdict, many school and local officials in the South defied it.” Here’s a girl trying to go to high school in Arkansas in 1957:

The picture above was taken in 1957. Between the end of the civil war and the late 1950s, the brutal suppression of black Americans continued. Should we assume it magically evaporated in the years after that?

The benefits of a middle class American life are enjoyed, in some ways, AT THE EXPENSE of others like Emmett Till. A young man out of college, maybe your son, is allowed into an apartment complex that, unbeknowst to you, seems to never accept black applicants. But are you really relieved of responsibility because you didn’t know it was happening?

7.Government sanctioned violence against peaceful protesters

When black Americans started fighting back, it was with superhuman discipline: they did it non-violently. I myself am not sure how you find that kind of self-control. And we have in the congress today, a man, Senator John Lewis, who was on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement. Here he is being beaten for a peaceful protest walking accross Edmund Pettis bridge in 1965:

So we are now at 1965 in the picture above. When should we imagine that equal treatment arrived?

8. Housing discrimination

One part of the civil rights act addressed housing discrimination. And here I quote substantially from an article you can find here.In 1933, faced with a housing shortage, the federal government began a program explicitly designed to increase — and segregate — America’s housing stock. Author Richard Rothstein says the housing programs begun under the New Deal were tantamount to a ‘state-sponsored system of segregation.’ The government’s efforts were ‘primarily designed to provide housing to white, middle-class, lower-middle-class families,’ he says. African-Americans and other people of color were left out of the new suburban communities — and pushed instead into urban housing projects.

Rothstein’s … book, The Color of Law, examines the local, state and federal housing policies that mandated segregation. He notes that the Federal Housing Administration, which was established in 1934, furthered the segregation efforts by refusing to insure mortgages in and near African-American neighborhoods — a policy known as ‘redlining.’ At the same time, the FHA was subsidizing builders who were mass-producing entire subdivisions for whites — with the requirement that none of the homes be sold to African-Americans. Rothstein says these decades-old housing policies have had a lasting effect on American society. ‘The segregation of our metropolitan areas today leads … to stagnant inequality, because families are much less able to be upwardly mobile when they’re living in segregated neighborhoods where opportunity is absent,’ he says.

The wealth that was built by white Americans over the decades SPECIFICALLY through home ownership was mostly denied to black people who were already in a death struggle with insurrmountable odds and trauma. The stability and wealth-generation of home ownership is not something that just affects one generation. It unfolds over 2 or 3 generations at minimum.

( A new “documentary” of sorts about segregated housing.)

45.8 percent of young black children (under age 6) live in poverty, compared to 14.5 percent of white children.

And the way we measure poverty for everyone is horribly outdated. In realistic terms, the number is much higher. The mortality rate of pregnant black women is over 3 times that of white women. Are these the natural order of things? Is there something deeper going on? Black students receive— as a whole nationally — a dramatically inferior education in this country and they are less prepared to go to college or vocational school (both educationally or financially). The trades (construction, electrician, plumbing, etc.), which tend to be highly compensated and very stable professions, have proportionally extremely few black people. Is this pure coincidence? The justice system treats black defendants more harshly than white defendants, more arrests, more convictions, longer sentences for the same crimes.

Why do black parents live in constant fear for their sons, even when their sons are living an absolutely average middle class American life, free from any involvement with the justice system? Why is it that they talk to their sons about making sure to SUBMIT IMMEDIATELY AND OBVIOUSLY, DON’T REACH FOR ANYTHING during any type of encounter with the police?

9. Vietnam, a moment of leveling

This war was a calamity for so many groups and individuals — and in so many diverse ways. But starting in 1967, the percentages of black to white men sent into the inferno in South Asia was very disproportionate: “Of the 246,000 men recruited under Project 100,000 between October 1966 and June 1969, 41% were black, although black Americans represented only 11% of the US population.”

From a fantastic article in the Guardian: “Wallace Terry, the Vietnam correspondent for Time magazine between 1967 and 1969, taped black soldiers airing their anger in the summer of 1969. Throughout the recording, their rage is tangible. Speaking about his team-mates, one black soldier declares, “What they been through in the bush, plus what they have to go through back in the world [America], they can’t face it. They’re ready to just get down and start another civil war.” Another adds, “Why should I fight for prejudice?” When Terry inquires, “Tell me what you think the white man should be called?” a chorus of “devil… beast” erupts from the group.

Black Americans felt that they were in the grip of the devil himself.

To poor conscripts of whatever race, the Vietnam War was ruinous — and to all returning veterans. In a deeply perverse sense, this was a moment of leveling. For a (white) soldier to be drafted into a war he did not consent to fight in, to be brutalized for years in a terrifying landscape and then to return to the derision and mockery of his fellow countryman was at last a bitter taste of the black American experience.

10. Chattel Slavery

Now we return to the beginning. The headwaters. But does anything more really need be said about the period of legal slavery in the US? This part has been well covered, no? Surely we know what we need to know about it. Or perhaps the opposite is true. We tend to remember our lessons on slavery in broad brushstrokes: “Families were torn apart.” We are generally light on specifics.

The last person born into slavery died in 1948. Her name was Eliza Moore and her parents — to the degree that she knew them — were handled as objects. Since slave owners were “deprived of their property” when slaves were freed, they were compensated by the government for this injury. And how about the newly freed? What kind of recompense were they given for their decades of torture? They were offered primarily contempt (I encourage you to read about the BLACK LIKE ME experiment — linked at the very bottom of this page). What about the new skills required for living in a free and literate society? Nothing. No support, no advantages and in fact they were actively disenfranchised. They were not even considered full citizens long after the period of institutional slavery. How does one convey, with great immediacy, the excrutiating emotional/ psychological condition of living in this time? White people were to be feared with the greatest intensity. White people could, and did, turn violent at any moment. They could imprison you for “loitering on the train tracks.” They could kill with impunity. But on the miniature level — the level of the tenderest human emotion — this historical artifact below comes to mind. It lives at the National Museum of African American History and Culture:

Ruth Middleton, whoever she was, lived with this memory her whole life. It’s true that trauma is very common — most people have experienced trauma — but most people have not experienced a torture that stretches over vast amounts of time and over generations: her children and her grandchildren, excluded from the privileges and opportunities of the broader society, ridiculed publicly in newspapers and other popular media, and characterized as stupid and lazy (people who were forbidden from having an education (stupid) and people who were worked literally to death(lazy)).

Freed slaves, and their children, did not speak about slavery even amongst themselves. Because they felt shamed by the experience. It’s not hard for abusers to instill their victims with a sense of shame for their own abuse. It’s a well known phenomenon to survivors of domestic violence throughout the world.The shame that rightly belongs to the perpetrator is absorbed instead by the victim.

It has been, for most of American history, a reign of terror for black people.

So when did all of this end?

Was it after the 1970 Jackson State massacre in Mississippi when the local police department and highway patrol fired 400 rounds in all directions on a college campus that was majority black? Was it after private beach associations and “town only” parking at the beach mandates ended (which were clever mechanisms for keeping out people of color)? The beaches were almost entirely white in Connecticut well into the 1970s — it took activism to “free the beaches.” Or was it after the USDA stopped actively discriminating against tens of thousands of black farmers, denying them loans that were offered to white farmers in identical situations. This (appears to have) ended in 1997. Maybe it was after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — a subject so large and complex, it’s not wise to even bring it up really — when black New Orleaneans were literally prevented from leaving the destroyed city, mostly on foot, by a blockade that included shots being fired over their heads? The neighboring town did not want them. How about the 2020 murder of Ahmaud Arbery by 2 white men, one a former cop, who were NOT arrested for nearly 3 months and only after national uproar.

What I have set down here is far from a comprehensive account of institutional racism in the US. But all are part of the general historical record, all well-documented. And these mostly systematic forms of racism do not even touch on the more subtle and underground forms which proliferate everywhere.

“Why dredge all this up?”

That seems to be the standard question offered as a response to a truthful historical account by those who enjoy a particular vision of their society handed down to them as young people. But what about this often-submerged history detailed above? Does it matter? Does it matter as much as the great feats of American innovation and governance? It’s entirely up to you to decide.

Should these events and patterns of American history be elided when we set school curricula? When I was a kid, we read about Thomas Jefferson’s “mistress” Sally Hemmings. Please take note of how this historical detail is framed. She wasn’t a mistress, she was a sex slave. She had no options. She lived a real life Handmaid’s Tale. But it was framed to improve our opinion of Jefferson. And it didn’t occur to me until last year how disturbed this representation was. This was in a textbook read by millions of students. If you want to know what institutional racism looks like, here’s one of the more minor examples. Should we ocntinue to call Sally Hemmings, Jefferson’s “mistress”?

But before you make a decision, please take a moment to put yourself in the position of a little black girl in public school who is given the highly redacted version of American history. Who then looks around and wonders, “why are my people struggling so much, falling behind so often? is there something inherently wrong with us?” Maybe what she sees has a history — a history that has not come to a close — and without knowledge of that history, she will come to a terrible, and incorrect, conclusion about herself and her community. And so will her white peers.

To be explicit, the pattern of abuse remains unbroken. It looks different now. It takes different forms. It’s usually (but not always) less transparently obvious. There have been positive gains, but there’s a reason that racial inequality persists and it’s not because “well it just takes time for black people to adjust.” It does take time for one group to adjust, but it’s not the people at the small end of the power imbalance. The pattern persists and you can only see the pattern if you know about it — if you look. It hurts to look. It often hits us in the pit of our identities. But how do we repair this if we don’t look? And that is, after all, the implicit or explicit goal of everyone of good faith.

SO LOOK.

I’ll end this piece as I began it. With a picture of man — Ahmaud Arbery — lynched in Georgia in 2020. It seems likely that his murderers, a father and son, will be indicted but as of now — May — they have not been arrested for a murder that took place in February. And if someone (a third person at the scene who wanted to “join in the hunt” — and clearly a real genius) hadn’t taken video of this incident, which has been released online, you or I would remain ignorant of this case and the murderers would have a good chance of not being charged.

One of the executioners was former local law enforcement. Please pause to reflect on what the implications of that fact are.

Apologies for the extensive quotations. This piece is as much a compilation as it is an original piece of writing. All quotations are marked as such.

A visually narrativized reading of an unpublished James Baldwin work. It’s quite beautiful, full of nuance and I strongly encourage you to see it.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Blackballed by Darryl Pinckney

The Condemnation of Blackness by Khalil Gibran Muhammad

Dying of Whiteness by Jonathan Metzl

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