The Last Lynching?

The Discovery Channel is running a documentary tonight about the 1981 lynching of Michael A. Donald in Mobile, AL.

(Mobile is my home town, where my mom and dad still live. I didn’t like living in Mobile, but just because of its suburban ickiness—I didn’t know I had other reasons to get out of there, like a disturbingly recent history of Klan violence.)

Michael Donald was a 19-year old African American who ended up the random recipient—and medium—of the Klan’s usual message of murder and hate. Two Klansmen beat Michael Donald, slit his throat, and hung him from a tree outside the local Klan leader’s house.

Was this the last lynching?

No, actually—the murder of James Byrd, Jr., in Texas in 1998, probably, could be called the most recent lynching. I’m scared to say last.

All this I learned on the radio this afternoon, in an NPR interview with Ted Koppel, the host of the documentary, and Artur Davis, a congressman from Alabama, among others.

What astounds most about the Michael Donald murder is the date. This wasn’t the 1930s. This was 1981. MTV was on the air. I was alive.

A friend who teaches at the University of Minnesota said (as I’ve quoted before on this blog) that his students often have the mistaken impression that racism, and certainly racial violence like lynching, was something that happened a long time ago. And then Dr. King came and fixed it for us. Didn’t you see the movie?

Michael Donald’s murder in 1981 (and James Byrd’s in 1998, and many more incidences of violence) reminds us that racism, even in its most blatant and visible form, is alive and well. Never mind the secreted racism of the job application slush pile, or the divisive lies parents pass on to their children.

But the most recent lynching might be this: a couple of weeks ago, four students at a small religious school in Oregon hung a cardboard effigy of Sen. Barack Obama from a tree.

Which brings me to: what do the appalling deaths of Michael Donald and James Byrd mean to us now, as Barack Obama campaigns for the white house?

Many things, but here’s one; that when John MCain and Sarah Palin condone hatred and violent speech from their supporters—when they stand quietly by as rally-ers yell “Kill him!” and “Off with his head!” (not to mention “treason” and “terrorist”)—it’s way, way beyond “negative campaigning,” or irresponsible. It’s fast approaching a lynch mob.

As long-awaited as Barack Obama’s nomination for president has been, and as proud every American should be of it—we haven’t moved beyond racial violence. We’re not immune to it, and we’re not above it.

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