- I Investigate Lynchings
In 1918, a Negro woman, about to give birth to a child, was lynched with almost unmentionable brutality along with ten men in Georgia. I reached the scene shortly after the butchery and while excitement yet ran high. It was a prosperous community. Forests of pine trees gave rich returns in turpentine, tar, and pitch. The small towns where the farmers and turpentine hands traded were fat and rich. The main streets of the largest of these towns were well paved and lighted. The stores were well stocked. The white inhabitants belonged to the class of Georgia crackers—lanky, slow of movement and of speech, long-necked, with small eyes set close together, and skin tanned by the hot sun to a reddish-yellow hue.
As I was born in Georgia and spent twenty years of my life there, my accent is sufficiently Southern to enable me to talk with Southerners and not arouse their suspicion that I am an outsider. (In the rural South hatred of Yankees is not much less than hatred of Negroes.) On the morning of my arrival in the town I casually dropped into the store of one of the general merchants who, I had been informed, had been one of the leaders of the mob. After making a small purchase I engaged the merchant in conversation. There was, at the time, no other customer in the store. We spoke of the weather, the possibility of good crops in the fall, the political situation, the latest news from the war in Europe. As his manner became more and more friendly I ventured to mention guardedly the recent lynchings.
Instantly he became cautious—until I hinted that I had great admiration for the manly spirit the men of the town had exhibited. I mentioned the newspaper accounts I had read and confessed that I had never been so fortunate as to see a lynching. My words or tone seemed to disarm his suspicions. He offered me a box on which to sit, drew up another one for himself, and gave me a bottle of Coca-Cola.
“You’ll pardon me, Mister,” he began, “for seeming suspicious but we have to be careful. In ordinary times we wouldn’t have anything to worry about, but with the war there’s been some talk of the federal government looking into lynchings. It seems there’s some sort of law during wartime making it treason to lower the manpower of the country.” [End Page 129]
“In that case I don’t blame you for being careful,” I assured him. “But couldn’t the federal government do something if it wanted to when a lynching takes place, even if no war is going on at the moment?”
“Naw,” he said, confidently, proud of the opportunity of displaying his store of information to one who he assumed knew nothing whatever about the subject. “There’s no such law, in spite of all the agitation by a lot of fools who don’t know the niggers as we do. States’ rights won’t permit Congress to meddle in lynching in peace time.”
“But what about your State government—your governor, your sheriff, your police officers?”
“Humph! Them? We elected them to office, didn’t we? And the niggers, we’ve got them disfranchised, ain’t we? Sheriffs and police and governors and prosecuting attorneys have got too much sense to mix in lynching-bees. If they do they know they might as well give up all idea of running for office any more—if something worse don’t happen to them—.” This last with a tightening of the lips and a hard look in the eyes.
I sought to lead the conversation into less dangerous channels. “Who was the white man who was killed—whose killing caused the lynchings?” I asked.
“Oh, he was a hard one, all right. Never paid his debts to white men or niggers and wasn’t liked much around here. He was a mean ’un all right, all right.”
“Why, then, did you lynch the niggers for killing such a man?”
“It’s a matter of safety—we gotta show niggers...