The moment haunts me. It resides in my consciousness as a harbinger of stalled progress. It grasps my existence with the tension of every maddening expression of racial othering and inhumanity I have witnessed, studied, experienced.
It was the moment when I saw the slender, round face of a young Black man, gleaming with the innocence of an unsuspecting altruist — the moment I read his last words, filled with the clemency seemingly reserved for an ethereal being. “You are all phenomenal. You are beautiful and I love you,” he averred to police officers as they wrestled him to the ground before he died. It was the moment I realized that Elijah McClain was lynched. I fell back into my chair, crestfallen.
As a professor of African American history and scholar of lynching during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I teach this as a part of the nation’s sordid past, including the destabilizing impact it has on the African American community. In recent years, I had largely shied away from making such historical comparisons out of respect for the unique circumstances that helped define and contribute to the countless lynchings that swept the United States throughout the first half of the 20th century. In recent weeks, however, the comparison has become more prescient as the world has seemingly collapsed onto its own wretched history.
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The last few months have allowed us all to bear witness to a disturbing and unavoidable reality: Lynching is not a relic of a Jim Crow past; it is in fact a modern form of racial terror. The spectacular brutality once preserved and disseminated through photography and corporeal souvenirs is now captured by cell phones and body cameras, allowing society to witness racial terror in all of its modern forms. The recent asphyxiating tide of murders — the aural and visual replaying of death — has left us all gasping for breath. Still writhing from the suffocating reality of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder in Georgia, we were forced to confront the indescribable pain of witnessing George Floyd’s murder in Minnesota. And yet the term “murder” somehow fails to convey the extraordinary cruelty of their killings. Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd were all lynched.
Each case presents a set of facts comparable to the history of lynching in the U.S. as defined by the Tuskegee Institute: a killing that occurs without due process, committed by “three or more persons, done under the pretext of service to justice, race, or tradition.” Lynching victims in the first decades following the Civil War were often white. Their alleged crimes typically involved horse theft, cattle theft or murder. Furthermore, their bodies were frequently found hanging from trees in the hours or days following their deaths, and the parties that lynched them, if seen, were often masked. By stark contrast, after Reconstruction, the lynching of Black bodies was done with a visibility, impunity and fanfare that would come to define a new lynching narrative.
Once a strictly punitive and largely clandestine form of extra-legal punishment, lynching evolved into a wholly racialized, publicly viewed, well-attended, frequently commercialized exhibition of mob violence. The lynching victim was now typically Black, and a mob’s fear of judicial retribution for its murderous efforts nearly disappeared. In the process, the concept of crime shifted. This new lynching narrative punished the crime of Black existence rather than a specific criminal act. Black lives, it said, did not matter.
We tend to think about what defines crime in conventional ways, with a consensus understanding of what constitutes crime (arson, murder, etc.); but the definition of crime changes when race and a racial hierarchy are involved. During the postbellum era, in the absence of a master-slave dyad when whites sought to reinforce white supremacy, a crime committed by a Black person was perceived as particularly egregious misconduct that often signaled a broad call to action. Such incidents not only encouraged but ostensibly required a suspension of due process in an effort to maintain white supremacy.
The list of offenses allegedly committed by African Americans that forced the assemblage of a mob predictably involved crimes against the white body, including murder, rape and assault, even when evidence to support the allegations was thin or non-existent. Dubious allegations, however — such as flippantly responding to a white man, voting, writing a letter to a white woman, suing a white person and being too prosperous for a Black person — were also counted as impudence punishable by mob violence. This gamut of transgressions, wavering between modern interpretations of criminal transgressions and the fiercely ridiculous, exposes the mutability of crime. The idea of what constituted a crime had clearly become something subject to unbelievably racist and horrific interpretations.
When a local sheriff found Ben Little, an African American man arrested in Mount Pleasant, Texas, in October 1885, dead and hanging from a tree after a mob removed him from his cell, a note pinned to Little’s back featured the following message:
This negro was not hanged for the highway robbery he committed in Titus County last Wednesday, but for the slanderous talk he has had about a certain white family in Mount Pleasant, which we deem a scandal to the white race. The family is as innocent and pure as the angels in heaven, and we feel that we have not committed a sin in the sight of God, and furthermore, we feel that we have done a great and noble act for our country as gentlemen. Speak to the dead for further information.
The note was signed “CITIZENS OF MOUNT PLEASANT TO THE NUMBER OF SIXTY-EIGHT.”
The white patrolling of Black people’s “place” has too often served as the superlative entity in an algorithm for what renders a crime a crime; expressions of freedom, sovereignty and advancement by Black people continue to function as crime in the same manner as violent misconduct. What appear as seemingly benign activities continue to gain potency when the perceived aggressor is Black and the racial hierarchy is ostensibly threatened.
Over the last few years, we have seen increasingly that freedom expressions of Black people are still criminalized. White citizens who believe they are patrolling their local environments are in fact patrolling racial boundaries. They have in recent months called the police on Black people who are, for instance, giving a dog a treat, hosting a lemonade stand, having a barbeque, attempting to use the gym in their own residential building, picking up trash in their front yard or simply jogging. Crime, then, is still something defined by historically specific phenomena, by the nuances of an everyday existence, by social interactions, and ideas about race and identity, by sheer racism. At times, the outcome is death.
McClain was returning from the store in Aurora, Colorado, after purchasing iced tea for his brother. Donning a ski mask — a choice his sister said he often made because “he had anemia and would sometimes get cold” — McClain was approached by several police officers who ordered him to stop. The person who called the police reported that McClain seemed suspicious. Officers placed McClain in a carotid hold. “I can’t breathe. I have my ID right here. My name is Elijah McClain. That’s my house. I was just going home,” McClain exclaimed in vain. First responders administered an injection of ketamine to McClain in an alleged effort to sedate him. McClain suffered a heart attack en route to the hospital and passed away days later on August 30, 2019.
The outcomes for Arbery and Floyd were similar. When Gregory McDaniel contacted 911 after seeing Arbery, the operator inquired of McDaniel the nature of the crime being committed. He replied in part, “There’s a black male running down the street.” We can imagine that in the minds of the men who killed Arbery, he was not a young man innocently jogging down a neighborhood street on a sunny day. He was the conflation of Blackness and criminality that has pervaded an American consciousness and has been produced and reproduced across time and space. Two months following the death of Arbery, four officers apprehended and killed Floyd for allegedly attempting to use a counterfeit $20 bill to purchase cigarettes. Each death points to a seemingly undeniably conclusion: The extraordinary violence exacted upon McClain, Arbery and Floyd was done so to punish the criminal act of Black existence, to demonstrate the triumph of white over black.
During the heyday of lynching, local citizens and law enforcement agents could (and did) act without — although at times with — sanction from the court and public administrators because they assumed their ultimate authority to be judge, juror and executioner of last resort. Lynchers settled into a knowledge, a comfort that their actions would not be disrupted, and they would not be prosecuted. In 1916, after the lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas, NAACP investigator Elisabeth Freeman asked Sheriff S. S. Fleming why the 50 deputies he had recently sworn in were not present to shield Washington from the crowd that removed him from the courthouse and burned him on the lawn of City Hall. Fleming rhetorically responded, “Would you want to protect the nigger?” The men who killed McClain, Arbery and Floyd similarly acted as judge, jury and executioners. None of the three victims were afforded due process nor the opportunity to demonstrate their innocence, and each of the killers seemed confident that they would not be prosecuted for their actions.
Indeed, the police killings of Floyd and McClain sit squarely on a historical continuum of lynchings committed by police officers, a reality that runs counter to many people’s notion that lynchers often acted in opposition to law enforcement. In 1892, 18-year-old William Sullivan was hanged by a mob, led by Deputy Sheriff James Augus, in Plantersville, Texas, after Sullivan claimed that a white woman was his wife. Augus chained Sullivan to a ceiling column then traveled around the area inviting local residents to witness Sullivan’s death: “This young nigger is smart and talks back to white people, and now is a good chance to remove him,” he shouted.
The state failed, in the killings of McClain, Arbery and Floyd, to exact justice initially or at all, and instead validated racial vigilantism as a viable form of justice. Mike Freeman, the county attorney for Hennepin County who first investigated the death of Floyd, said during a press conference that his job “is to prove that [officer Derek Chauvin] violated criminal statute — but there is other evidence that doesn’t support a criminal charge.” Similarly, when Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael and William Bryan murdered Arbery on February 23, 2020, after they saw him jogging down the street, District Attorney George E. Barnhill, who early on investigated the case, penned a letter that sought to exonerate Arbery’s murderers. “It is my professional belief the autopsy confirms what we had already viewed as shown in the videotape, with the photographs and from the witness statements taken immediately at the scene,” Barnhill stated, insisting that, “we do not see grounds for an arrest of any of the three parties.” He added that they were in “hot pursuit” of a criminal due to the baseless claim that break-ins had recently occurred in the neighborhood. Charges were eventually brought against those involved in the deaths of Arbery and Floyd. As of today, however, no charges have been filed in the death of McClain.
An autopsy conducted by the Adams County coroner declared that the cause of McClain’s death was inconclusive. His death, the coroner argued, could have been caused by the carotid hold or natural causes. As a result, District Attorney Dave Young cleared the officers involved in McClain’s death of any wrongdoing. “The forensic evidence revealed that the cause of death was undetermined,” Young argued. “Specifically, the pathologist who conducted the autopsy stated that he was unable to conclude that the actions of any law enforcement officer caused Mr. McClain’s death…. Based on the facts and evidence of this investigation I cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers involved in this incident were not justified in their actions.”
In the cases of Arbery and Floyd, the initial, state-sanctioned autopsies similarly failed to provide clear culpability for the men who murdered them. This conclusion is reminiscent of lynchings from the past when coroners’ reports worked to absolve lynchers of any wrongdoing.
In 1895, T.D. Hightower, acting coroner at the time of Nelson Calhoun’s lynching, exonerated the individuals responsible for the murder by publicly stating that Calhoun died “in the hands of parties unknown to me,” despite the fact that the lynching was committed by unmasked individuals. Hightower added that the death was “deserved.”
After completing a formal inquest into John Henderson’s mob death by burning in 1901, Justice of the Peace and Coroner H.G. Roberts, sworn to uphold the majesty of the law, drafted his ruling: “I find that the deceased came to his death at the hands of the incensed and outraged feelings of the best people in the United States, the citizens of Navarro and adjoining counties…. His death was fully merited and commendable.”
Over the course of the last several months, the bodies of at three men and one transgender woman — all African American — have been found hanging from trees in public spaces in four states. Local citizens have called into the question the veracity of official claims that the deaths were suicides, due largely to evidence that suggests medical examiners and law enforcement rushed to judgement.
Such rulings were not unusual during the mid-20th century when the hangings of dozens of Black men were ruled suicides, claims that frequently sought to absolve local authorities from further investigating what was likely a lynching. The claims also revealed the dismissive value of Black lives.
We have witnessed the passage of civil rights legislation, the election of a Black president, the slow establishment of new social and moral paradigms that have rendered such things as murdering a person for attempting to vote a relic of an iniquitous past. None of these has resulted in systemic change to prevent the type of violence and brutality that attended the murders of McClain, Arbery and Floyd, largely because some realities remain as unfalteringly timeless as the magnetic pull that drags the ocean’s waves to the shores. The Black body has historically been seen as less than — at times good only for profit, at other times as a source of terror. What these modern lynchings reveal is that for some white people in the U.S., a challenge to the supposed racial hierarchy continues to be a criminal act.
Why does this matter? Because Black lives matter.
Some things have changed, however. These brutal deaths have engendered an unprecedented call for reform. We have witnessed in the past months people come together across racial, ethnic, generational and religious boundaries, flooding streets around the world, taking to social media and calling on corporations to demand change. What a beautiful reality, one that renders the past distinct. They demonstrate the veracity of the words spoken by the late John Lewis: “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to continue to speak up, to speak out.”
May we all continue to speak up and speak out.