History is the best teacher because we can use the experiences of the past as present-day educational tools. However, in order to receive the best, most effective lessons we must honor the truth of our past and that means acknowledging and accepting the good and bad of yesteryear.
That hasn’t been the case as it relates to the lynching of Blacks in America.
Last week, “60 Minutes” broadcast a report by Oprah Winfrey that not only detailed lynchings across America, but also aired graphic photographs of those images. She and her team of producers were intentional in their efforts to show such deplorable acts because lynchings are an integral part of this country’s history that the majority of Americans know very little about.
“That’s reality; that’s what happened,” said Jeff Fager, executive producer of the broadcast. “Our story is about a part of history, really almost 80 years of American history, that isn’t in the history books. We don’t see these pictures. We don’t talk about it.”
Fager is Caucasian. My only reasoning for disclosing his race is because sometimes people lose or ignore the message because of the messenger. Having a Caucasian man speak compassionately about the extreme maltreatment Blacks endured at the hands of whites helps non-minorities become more open to learning, or rather, believing the truth about America’s ugly past.
In the “60 Minutes” report, Fager went on to say, “I really thought most lynchings were in the cover of night and Klan outfits, and not that it was a part of life to that degree — that the town would turn out to watch it happen in broad daylight.”
The image that resulted in Fager’s comment was of the lynching of Jesse Washington, a 17-year-old Black boy who was charged with the murder of a white woman. While Blacks questioned Washington’s true involvement with the crime at the time and still today, he was found guilty.
As soon as the verdict was read, a crowd of whites gathered in the courthouse swarmed forward and carried Washington out of the back door. They then dragged him to City Hall. While he was still alive, the killers cut off his fingers, ears and toes.
The Waco Times Herald also reported at the time, “other parts of the negro’s body were cut off by members of the mob.” Those other parts were likely his genitals —something whites also did to emasculate Black men.
They yanked Washington into the air and then threw him on a woodpile. The killers poured coal all over him. They set him on fire. THEY. SET. HIM. ON. FIRE.
As all this occurred, a crowd of nearly 10,000 people watched. There are pictures from that day. The pictures show white men, women and children dressed in their Sunday best to witness this deplorable act. Parents propped their children onto their shoulders so the little ones had a better view. The crowd cheered as Washington was tortured. Smiles covered the faces of many in the crowd.
Washington burned for two hours — until his flesh was gone — leaving only a skull, a torso and limb stumps.Washington’s remains were then dragged through town until the skull popped off. A report details “some boys extracted Jesse’s teeth and sold them for $5 each.”
Washington was just one of the nearly 4,000 lynchings that Winfrey and her team discovered. No doubt, there are significantly more that we will never know about.
The “60 Minutes” documentary also shows an image of a woman, Laura Nelson, hanging from a bridge. On the opposite side of the bridge, her teenage son was also hanged.
These types of images need to be seen because for too long, the ugly realities of America’s dark past and present are ignored. Too often history has been rewritten to conceal the horrors of the yesterday. And even today, in 2018, people try to intimidate and discredit media by making claims of “fake news.” It is all in an effort to keep Americans — good, upstanding compassionate Americans who believe in equality, justice and truth — from being educated. Because when people are educated about wrongdoings, most will work toward righting those wrongs. That is what happened when the Civil Rights Movement gained national attention and it is what happened when citizen journalists throughout the country began recording and publishing the maltreatment of Blacks by law enforcement.
Seeing the ugly realities of this country — past and present — will open the eyes of the American people. My prayer is that as we see those realities, more of us will work to eliminate them by constantly fighting for the same tenants this country says it values: truth, justice and freedom.