Monday, November 24, 2008


Today I learned what "lynching" was.

I thought I knew. In fact, I was so sure that I asked my husband what he thought lynching was and he said the same thing that I did - being strung up by the neck and hung until dead. Isn't that what you thought?

Well, the other day I set about to read a book by Phyllis Vine called "One Man's Castle: Clarence Darrow in Defense of the American Dream." Broadly speaking, it is about race relations in Detroit in the 1920s, and is the story of a black man and his family who purchased a small house in Detroit and unintentionally set off race riots, ending up with him and his family and others in jail, and Clarence Darrow, who had just come off the Scopes trial, ultimately stepping in as lawyer for the defense.

The first chapter reflects back on a lynching that a small child named Ossian Sweet, who later would be the one to purchase the house in Detroit, witnessed in Florida. A black man had killed a white woman; there was no doubt about that. The black man was caught, and instead of going through the legal system, the townspeople held a lynching. They built a pyre of wood with a stake in the center of it, tied the man to the stake and roasted him alive. After his screaming had stopped and the fire had done its work, the townspeople gathered the charred remnants as souvenirs.

As I was reading, I kept waiting for the lynching to happen, but when it didn't, I ran for the dictionary. Here I read the definition: Lynch: to put to death by mob action without legal sanction. Lynch law was named after Charles Lynch, an early American Justice of the Peace who presided over an extralegal court to suppress Tory activity; the punishment of presumed crimes or offenses usually by death without due process of law.

So lynching in America wasn't just hanging by the neck until dead, although that is bad enough. We also burned at the stake, clear up into modern times, though this was not an official punishment meted out by our justice system. But that one human being could conceive of doing such a thing to another human being is just beyond understanding.

Some things you learn, but wish you hadn't. This was a sorry example.

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