Ten years ago, amidst the 90th anniversary of the notorious Waco lynching of an African-American teen convicted of the rape and murder of a local white woman, community leaders debated some sort of formal acknowledgement of the event, played out on May 15, 1916, before thousands in the town square. For instance, some of our leaders a decade ago wondered: Should we apologize for a calamity we ourselves had nothing to do with?
At one point, then-Waco City Councilman Randy Riggs summed up for many the strong and conflicting emotions in trying to make public amends for something so removed by time and generations: “I have heard people say it would be closure. I have heard that it is a wound that has healed and that you would be reopening that wound. I don’t think anybody knows how you make it right.”
In the end, no public apology emerged from the Waco City Council and McLennan County Commissioners Court in 2006, though both did make formal condemnations of the mobocracy that prevailed 100 years ago today when Jesse Washington — hastily convicted of murdering Lucy Fryer, a white woman in Robinson — was dragged from the courthouse and burned, mutilated and hanged.
So what now of the 100th anniversary of Washington’s grisly public death — one in which his severed fingers were distributed as souvenirs and photos of the spectacle were sold as postcards? What, too, of history’s marking of Central Texas then as a place of ignorance, injustice and hate where lynchings were occasional happenings? And how do our words and actions today reflect a dramatically different and enlightened society?
Tragically, racial relations — never completely stable in our nation — are in worse shape today than just 10 years ago. And that conjures up an important lesson about lynching: While in Central Texas it is commonly viewed as a repulsive, inexcusable transgression driven by racist motives, it also has been employed across our land against others because of their religions, politics or ethnic backgrounds. And it has been used against whites by other whites.
In fact, lynching ultimately represents the violent usurping of rights and protections guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and those enlightened men who conceived it. Sadly, given the hateful, prejudicial rhetoric of politicians on the stump and some people on social media today, the environment is increasingly ripe for a return of such violence.
How quick, for example, some of us are to viciously condemn all Muslims, even though some Muslims in our own community are distinguished by service in the U.S. armed forces — a patriotic duty that many of their most relentless critics were unwilling to undertake for their country. And how quick this bigotry is employed to deny sanctuary to the most miserable victims of Islamic radicalism abroad.
None of us condones illegal immigration, yet to readily target desperate Hispanics crossing without permission into the United States to escape the murder and slavery of drug cartels and the utter despair of economic blight — to summarily disparage them all as diseased or as rapists to win elections or to justify mass deportation — says something more horrific about us as Americans.
Ten years ago, some leading citizens in Waco argued that focusing on a long-ago lynching ripped open a wound best left to heal. But the venomous politics of today and the fact that mercilessly vilifying people different from us is now more socially acceptable convince us the hate, cruelty and lawlessness of 100 years ago are forgotten at America’s very peril. Burying those sordid elements of our past and gazing around the lessons they yield only plant the seeds for their destructive and ungodly rebirth. We must face hard truths and, without hesitation, battle the mentality that encourages and condones such awful malignancy.
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