Aug 2, 2004
There is an exhibit on lynching at the African-American Museum in Detroit. Its images are shocking and abhorrent – but they need to be seen because they show in the most clear way the terrorism that was carried out against the black population of this country.
What is often not told is how it really started. Lynching was first organized as one of the terrorist means to stop a mobilization of laboring people in the South. During Reconstruction following the Civil War, freed black slaves and poor whites established new communities, organized state governments, sent representatives to Congress. But their real and lasting accomplishment was the establishment of free public schools open to all children. It was the first time anywhere in this country that public schools were widely organized – the first time that the children of poor working people, black or white, had the chance for a formal education.
The former slave-holders set up terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and the White Leagues to destroy this mobilization of the poor, recapturing the governments of the Southern states. Once back in power, they imposed a new form of slavery – share-cropping – on the poor.
The Klan and lynching surged up again when populist movements of poor farmers and sharecroppers, black and white, developed at the end of the 1800s and early 1900s – and then again in the 1930s with the attempts to organize unions in the South.
Although white organizers of these movements were also lynched, it was the black population that suffered the most virulent attacks. The racism fomented in the poor white population – another weapon used by the wealthy to break the mobilization of the poor laboring people – ended up making any black person a target of violence. Almost every black family today knows of someone in their own background, a family member or friend of an earlier generation, who was lynched.
This violence and hatred has left a legacy of racism that still exists today. Both black and white workers have reason to try to understand it and make sure it never happens again.
The exhibit focuses mostly on the 20th century, given the lack of photographs from earlier years. But it nonetheless gives a sense of this history. The exhibit continues until February 27, 2005.