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.

4 Responses to The Last Lynching?

  1. Karah says:

    Thanks for reminding us of this stuff, Kris. I’ll remind my students, in case they need reminding.

    I saw lots of threats on Obama’s life when I went to YouTube to find clips of interviews with the founders of “Rednecks for Obama,” . At age 74, in a baseball cap, this guy — let me approvingly grant him the title of “Old Coot,” which must be earned through audacity and blithe disregard for what other folks think, along with age and canniness — this guy Tony who founded the movement is my new hero. They showed up with a banner at the convention in Denver and there’s a great pic in NYTimes of Obama going over to them with hand outstretched and this goofy delighted grin on his face.

  2. Krystal says:

    I haven’t heard of those recent lynchings. The Disillusionment of Krystal continues.

    What do you do when your stuck in the trenches of “family tradition” style racism. A recent racial slur made by my own grandfather about Obama didn’t quite surprise me, but did leave me rattled. The sheer sound of this type of venom is enough to make my heart drop. After I excused my daughter and myself from the room, I felt heartened to quicken my resolve to stop this “genetic” perpetuation of racism. Not my daughter.

    My mother said to me that she’s very afraid that Obama will become president. I know why she is afraid, and I want to tell her that her mind is small and her heart is hateful.

    In a way, it’s like living in a family of alcoholics. But there’s no AA for racism. No intervention (believe me I tried).

    And then recently –

    My daughter came home from school one day and told me that you shouldn’t go trick-or-treating at black people’s houses. “Why,” I asked her.”

    “Because they’ll take a bite out of the candy before they give it to you,” she replied.

    Huh? “Where did you hear that?”

    “Someone on the bus told me.”

    I want to live on Sesame Street!

  3. Kris says:

    Oh man, me too. Sunny days, sweet air, friendly neighbors . . . can you tell me how to get there again?

    The bus story is great (er, I mean as a story–not the sentiment from the kids on the bus). It shows, I think, how racism gets spread around (through the bus) and how it gets stopped (you, and parents like you, doing right things)

    A President Barack Obama would be a powerful symbol — of an America where, as film critic Stephanie Zacharek said, “no one in real life can say definitively what an American looks like.”

    Of course, she was talking about the America presented in “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay.” But we could get there for real, maybe.

    What I mean is, if Barack steps into the white house, it won’t magically eradicate racism. But imagine a world where Kenzie, and millions of other kids, grow up with a black President.

    That would be a big step towards breaking that “genetic” racism, and help an entire generation “get” their parents (or grandparents) prejudice a little less.

  4. Krystal says:

    I just reread your post Kris, and I find it rather poignant as Kenzie (in kindergarten) voted in a mock election at school – and of course she voted for Obama. The reason why? Because I did. And that is a powerful lesson.

    However, she came home that day repeating nasty things kids had said of him. The funniest was when we were at Daisy Scouts on election night and another little girl told the group that she had voted for Obama. Well, the troop leader’s little girl blurted out, “But Obama is a liiaaarrr!” To which her mother quickly told her to hush.

    The morale is, kids really do pick up everything, from what you say to the sentiment behind it. I feel confident that I will never be embarassed by anything Kenzie repeats from my mouth (aside from the errant road-rage expletive). I think there is an appropriate way to have these discussions that don’t involve character assaults and meanery. And this translates to the discussion we have with our children about race. Kenzie is already keenly aware of race-relations – well as much as her white-washed little world could be. And I talk openly with her about our differences, and her hesitations, and what it means to be a global citizen. But when speaking to her now it comes down to the same mantra, “we’re all special, we’re all beautiful.” These are words she can understand and words I hope she repeats to all who hear her.

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