Blood on the Leaves, Blood on the Roots: The Aftermath of Jim Crow

In today’s world, it is hard to imagine walking down the street and seeing a body hanging from a tree or a light post. However, for African-Americans during the Jim Crow years, the fear was finding the body of loved one, or being the one attached to the rope. America has a long history with lynching. From 1882-1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States and those are only the ones on record.[1] This, with the countless number of Jim Crows beatings and killings, shows the widespread violence African-Americans faced. Yet with such an epidemic of violence, this history is still in the shadows. In understanding this complex history, one has to uncover how the effect of lynching in America has on the racial issues we face today.

Whenever there is a violent crime, the public’s first response is; Who did it? Why did they do it? How is this possible? Rarely is the first thought on the victims of the crime and their families. Scholars are learning as much about the Jim Crow victims and their families as possible. The Civil Rights Restorative Justice Project, a group of Northeastern University law students, look into Jim Crow crimes from the 1930’s thru the 1950’s to help the

man_was_lynched-naacp
A flag announcing a lynching hangs from the window of the NAACP headquarters on 69 Fifth Ave., New York City.

families who have suffered in silence find justice for their lost ones.[2] This serves as a way to bring up the erased history and understand the ways the past continues to resonates, recycles, and reiterate itself through black experiences with the criminal justice system today. It is important to see the similarities of this past since it can still be seen today. From Trayvon Martin to the riots in Ferguson over the shooting of Michael Brown, the events seem to appear as reflections of this past. The public sees these issues today and wonders where they come from when this history has been erased from the textbooks. But learning about this history is one thing; having it told is another.

 

However, there has been one way that has been effective in keeping this history alive. Music has the ability to transform a person’s sadness and anger to create a passion that stirs those who hear it. Such is the case of Billie Holiday and her song Strange Fruit. The powerful imagery of a lynching is portrayed in the song and one cannot help to be horrified and moved by the music [3]. Songs like this keep the memory of these events and remind the public of this forgotten past. Now a new generation of artists has emerged with a power and influence to point the spotlight on these issues. Artist like Kendrik Lamar singing about the struggles facing these issues as an African-American on the national stage at the Grammys. Artists like Beyoncé performing her Civil Rights song at the halftime of Super Bowl 50 and receiving flak from the news calling it offensive. These artists are using their voices to spread their messages and highlight the issues when a fifty years ago no one could.

kendrick-lamar-grammys-performance
Kendrik Lamar preforming at the 2016 Grammy’s.

In the recent years, the nation has been captivated by racial issues. However, instead of meeting it silence, it is met head on with activism. People now will not be ignored like they have been in the past. But the issue remains that justice does not always present and these tragic events keep happening. It seems that this forgotten past is resurfacing at the time we need it most. This is a history we cannot afford to lose. Not only must we learn about this past, we must understand it in hopes of creating a better future were no one has to fear of finding a loved one in a tree or on the street.

References:

[1] “Lynching Statistics.” Lynching in America: Statistics, Information, Images. Accessed February 14, 2016. http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/shipp/lynchstats.html.

[2] “The Goal: To Remember Each Jim Crow Killing, From The ’30s On.” NPR. Accessed February 14, 2016. http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2015/01/03/374564307/the-goal-to-remember-each-jim-crow-killing-from-the-30s-on.

[3] “Billie Holiday-Strange Fruit.” Youtube. Accessed February 14, 2016.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4ZyuULy9zs

Photo Credit:

Cover: https://www.democracynow.org/images/story/70/26970/splash/Lynching-Report.jpg

A Man was Lynched Yesterday: http://billmoyers.com/2015/02/11/new-report-lynching-reveals-sinister-legacy-racial-terrorism-america/

Kendrik Lamar preforming at the 2016 Grammy’s: http://gossiponthis.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/kendrick-lamar-grammys-performance. jpg

15 thoughts on “Blood on the Leaves, Blood on the Roots: The Aftermath of Jim Crow

  1. It’ is a sad truth that Western society has long looked down upon cultures that do not have a written tradition. Verbal or Oral traditions can, as you have argued, provide both historians and the public with a wealth of knowledge. Many people in even the not-so-distant past have been under represented in written works. Sometimes, the only records we have of these underrepresented populations are things they’ve made or stories about them. It is nice to see that history and museums are creating exhibits and programs that focus on non-written sources as not only credible, but valuable as well!

  2. Josh, you bring up some interesting points on the public reaction to racially motivated violence. Some of these reactions have lead to ground breaking art, much like Strange Fruit. I’m curious as to how other artists are examining contemporary injustices. Painters, poets, and performers all have unique means of expressing and commenting on contemporary issues. Subsequently, I’ll be interested to see how these pieces and performance are incorporated into a museum space, exhibit, or program.

  3. Racial violence is sadly not a thing of the past and neither is racism as some try to claim. As you mentioned, many of the victims of lynchings and other racial violence have been forgotten and one aspect that I’ve found the Black Lives Matter and other similar current movements have focused on is remembering the names and stories of the victims. I think this provides a powerful message to the world: “they will not be forgotten.” Public memory includes the act of forgetting, but hopefully these will be harder to forget and therefore harder to repeat in the future. I think integrating these stories into museums’ exhibits, programming, and education is integral to helping ensure that they are not forgotten and that reform makes strides.

    1. The work that The Civil Rights Restorative Justice Project is doing is a powerful and important aspect of keeping the memory alive of those who have suffered at the hands of racial violence. Partnering with a museum or local artists would help insure that their memory is never forgotten.

      1. I was also blown away by the Civil Rights Restorative Justice Project–what a great way to address past (and present) societal wrongs. The video clip about the project was particularly affective–especially the part where the mayor said that he felt reopening these closed cases would reopen old wounds and keep them from healing. That seemed particularly ironic. This project is all about healing. It made me think of where the power rests in these communities; healing has been denied to the families who have never had closure, never even known how their loved ones died. The healing the mayor talks about is for the white community, the descendants of the perpetrators. His “healing” sounds a lot like “forgetting.”

      2. I had the same reaction as Kate to the “healing” the mayor in the video discussed. As someone unaffected by the crime, he should not be the one to define healing. It should not be up to him to decide the best way for the families of the victims to heal. The victims never got justice, their families’ wounds never closed, and it’s impossible to “reopen” a wound that was never closed in the first place. Furthermore, I believe it’s important for communities to talk about and finally recognize these crimes. When justice has been denied and the truth covered up for so long, having the truth come to light can be a form of healing.

  4. Something that stuck out to me in this week’s preparation for discussion, was the intentional focus on the victim vs. focus on the perpetrators. In Ken Gonzalez’s work, he purposefully removes the victims from the images to remind the viewer of the significance of not only the crime, but of those implicit in it. While this is a powerful artistic choice, I find it curious from a social perspective. During my undergrad studies, I was friends with several journalism majors. During the Boston Marathon bombing and several mass shootings, I would constantly hear them criticize the media for running the shooters/bombers names and photos on the screens over and over again for weeks, while the victims were lumped together and all but erased in the wake of sensationalism and public disgust at those responsible. Due to this mindset, I have really come of the opinion that when tragedy strikes, at least from a media/social perspective, the criminals should be mentioned only when necessary, and celebration of the lives of the victims, as well as their personal stories of struggle should be played up. The way in which recent racial incidents have been represented, with the help of popular music and activist movements like Black Lives Matter, is falling into line with that mindset. Names are remembered: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, just to name a few… these names instantly connect us with a specific issue facing our country. It is THEIR names we remember, as much as we remember the names of their killers, if not more.

  5. Reading “The Aftermaths of Lynchings,” I was struck by the idea of how rarely I thought of incidents of lynching in the larger social context of their impact upon family and community. So often, we think of lynchings as these individualized incidents of racial savagery, a tragedy and a tragic smear of the South. But to think of how these communities had to endure and move forward, often still in the town these crimes occurred in. Within the multitude of perspectives that the violence of lynching can be focused upon (victim, perpetrators, the affected), I feel the lives of those in its aftermath is especially compelling given how heavily it weighs on them, while it was violently and quickly forgotten by the murderers behind it. I am intrigued by the possibilities of documenting these histories, as the Restorative Justice Project has done, but beyond this the larger research potential of exploring how these communities were shaped. I think museums should partner with public history organizations, folk life projects, and other repositories of records to try and piece together this difficult tapestry.

  6. I think it’s interesting how you bring artists into the conversation, especially after last week when we spent so much time talking about how comedians address race and what is considered appropriate. Artists have the platform to speak to racial violence and increase awareness through exhibits, music, or art and like with comedians, it may be easier for the public to start grasping the issues surrounding race and violence.

    1. This is really interesting to think about – how artists, comedians, and others can be mediators between issues and difficult content and the public. How these people/communities can make the issues digestible (sorry for the lack of better word…) to the general public.

  7. This post reminded me of Richard Wright’s “Uncle Tom’s Children,” where he wrote short stories depicting life in the Jim Crow south. As you mention in the post seeing a loved one hanging from a tree or burned was an unfortunate everyday reality. Wright writes how the black mothers and fathers tried to instill in the children to simply live by the white man’s rules in order to be safe; and how simply swimming in a pond in a white neighborhood could be cause for death. Society likes to think we have come a long way from this overt racism but as you mention, there still is a long way to go.

  8. Like others, I was surprised by how rarely incidents of lynching are considered from the perspectives of the victim’s families and communities. Instead, these actions are viewed as apart of larger, cultural conversation on racism and violence. Truly considering the reality of such a crime — the hatred, fear, pain, etc. is extremely difficult. But these are emotions that the families of those who were murdered could not turn away from. Without the entire stories of those who paid the ultimate price, the history of lynching, racism, and civil rights does not seem complete.

  9. I agree with Andrew that the Civil Rights Restorative Justice Project is doing amazing work and that it is opening opportunities for local history organizations. I wonder what will happen as communities discover hidden pasts that may include lynchings or racial issues, how will that effect the community as it is now, and how can the community address it. I know when I was young and growing up in Wisconsin I thought that there were never any issues of race where I lived. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I really started to see that those issues did exist. There was nothing and no one who could teach me about them. The local history books didn’t cover it and it wasn’t something that my parents had much understanding of. They didn’t know how to answer my question of “Why are things like this here and how did they come to be this way?” which is a huge question no matter what discipline your in. As the Restorative Justice Project learns more and uncovers more about lynchings I wonder how this information will or won’t be incorporated into local history curriculums and museums.

  10. Like others have said, I was blown away by the Civil Rights Restorative Justice Project. Because we obviously can’t go back in time to right these wrongs, I think that not only uncovering the true story as well as creating signage and monuments to commemorate those who were forgotten by history is such a step forward. This is such a wonderful way to do the best we can to bring justice to those who have passed, as well as their families.

  11. One of the good points of the modern news media is that it’s giving a public voice to the victims’ families. The families of people like Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown have been able to speak up publicly in a way that families affected by older forms of lynchings never safely could. It’s a small step forward, but it’s a step.

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