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Radical History Review 85 (2003) 282-285

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Without Sanctuary

Duane J. Corpis and Ian Christopher Fletcher

Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, Atlanta, Georgia, May 1-December 31, 2002.

In the small room one enters before going into the gallery devoted to the lynching photography exhibit currently in Atlanta, there is a large, shaded map showing variations in the number of lynchings in counties of the Southern states. While visitors from the South look for the familiar outline of their home counties, we hear, very softly, Billie Holliday and Cassandra Wilson singing their versions of "Strange Fruit." Atlanta, "the city too busy to hate," actually overlaps two counties, Dekalb and Fulton. According to the map, both counties are in the high range, together accounting for somewhere between 30 and 50 of the at least 4743 lynchings in no fewer than forty-six states between 1882 and 1968. Of course, most lynchings took place in the South, and most victims were black: at least 3446 people. Women were lynched as well as men and, again, most were black. Only Mississippians suffered more lynchings than Georgians.

The black-and-white photographs are extremely painful to view. Some show men, beaten and sometimes stripped naked, on the way to their deaths; others show the bodies of the hanged, the burned, and the mutilated. The settings are quotidian: a dusty country road, a grove of trees, a bridge, a nondescript side street, the courthouse square. Some of the places seem empty except for the lifeless victims, while others are filled with white people, men, women, and children, milling around, [End Page 282] staring, and looking back into the camera. There are no hoods here. The fact that these harrowing scenes are recorded in photographs underlines the complete impunity of the perpetrators and their accomplices. Lynchings were not staged simply to kill specific people; they were spectacles intended to send a message far and wide, including through postcards until banned by the post office in 1908.

Looking at these photographs, one has also to think about who is missing from them. There are no black farm workers in the fields, no black laborers in the streets, no family members, no ministers. The absence of black people, the fact that the black community has been forced into hiding, is yet another sign of the collective nature of the terror on both sides of the color line. Fortunately, the photographs are accompanied by explanatory texts identifying the victims and sometimes telling the stories of their lynchings, few of which had anything to do with actual crimes and none of which had anything to do with justice.

The exhibit effectively highlights the ritualized forms that lynching took. The procedures seem hauntingly akin to the theatrical executions of early modern Europe, with bodies mutilated before and after the individual was killed. In one case, the lynchers ripped the heart from their victim, while in another they severed the man's ears. In yet another instance, the body of an old man was put on display after he had been hanged—someone painted and glued cotton to his face. Lynchers and spectators claimed body parts or scraps of hair as prizes. All of these acts would have seemed familiar to someone living in the sixteenth or seventeenth century. Indeed, the exhibit includes one piece of pro-lynching journalism that describes several victims as "devils incarnate," while a report produced by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) states, "Do you know that the United States is the only land on Earth where human beings are BURNED AT THE STAKE?" Such references hint at some subterranean connection with the history of the early modern witch-hunts, which, like so many lynchings, had roots in anxieties about the crossing of sexual and social boundaries. They suggest that some witnesses to lynchings intuited the premodern brutality of the so-called justice white communities executed on black bodies. Yet the exhibit constantly reminds us that this was the modern world and that lynching constituted an all-too...


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pp. 282-285
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Archived 2004
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