When Claude Clegg saw a photograph of a lynching that took place in his home town of Salisbury, North Carolina, he was shocked. He had to know more. What he learned was wrenching, disgraceful, and typical
- sadly typical of the racial “justice” that was meted out in the so-called “new” South after the Civil War, a vigilante justice with multi-layered purpose. One was to make an example out of any alleged African American miscreant so that the black community would know, really know on a visceral level, what happened to those who stepped out of line. But there were other dynamics at play: pure race hatred, fear, and sadism.
North Carolina was perhaps not the worst of the
Southern states in terms of its race history, but its incidents of terrorism in the name of white supremacy are notable. For one notable example, an insurrection by enraged whites in Wilmington resulted in the killing of at least one hundred blacks and a takeover of government by the whites, who soon afterwards were instrumental in electing Charles Aycock, a Democratic candidate for governor who ran a scathingly racist campaign. It seems not insignificant, then, that in Salisbury’s Rowan County just four years later, two black children ages 11 and 13 were lynched for the alleged murder of a white woman.
Four years after that, in the incident which is the focus of Clegg’s book, three black men
(one of them just 16) were dragged from jail, hanged, shot and mutilated as an “example” to the blacks of the surrounding community. The message was clear: the law in North Carolina had a white face.
One of the aftermaths of this 1906 event made it unique, however. Clegg recounts in detail how, in an unprecedented move, the alleged ringleader in the 1906 lynching was brought to trial and jailed (though many others involved in the illegal and barbaric act were tried and exonerated). This was a first, and though North Carolina did not pass an anti-lynching law as it should have, lynchings did die down for many years, seeing a resurgence after World War II. It was not until 2005 that the U.S. Congress, which had left the prosecution of lynch mobs in the hands of the individual states, issued an apology for its blatant failure to pass anti-lynching legislation. And in 2008, North Carolina was one of four
Southern states to vote into office President Barack Obama.
Clegg’s book is timely and well worth studying. He points out that even as the practice of lynching laid low in North Carolina after the trial of Salisbury’s ringleader, North Carolina, like all
Southern states, had a systematic if not officially stated policy of racist tactics to keep its African American population from succeeding, indeed from feeling any sense of power or pride. Cruel, humiliating daily reminders of their presumed inferior status confronted blacks at every turn, often reinforced by the fear of and memory of lynchings such as the ones that happened in Rowan County. It is well that future generations remember this. I am from North Carolina, and I do not forget.