Sunday Lynchings: The Church’s Role in Our Nation’s Legacy of Racism

This week’s pulse comes from pastor Dominique Gilliard:

In continuing with our Black History Month reflections, this week we are going to make a connection between what many are calling a modern day manifestation of lynching—the prison industrial complex—and the historical practice of lynching which was so pervasive in our nation less than a century ago.

Since this heinous practice is both an extremely difficult aspect of our national history & a subject matter that most people quite honestly would rather not deal with, most people know little to nothing about this period of American history. Lynching and its horrors are not covered in our nation’s textbooks, nor are they acknowledged or even lamented by the broader Church. This unfortunate reality has left the Black Church isolated in its grief over the reality that during a fifty year period ranging from 1890 to 1940, approximately 5,500 African Americans were documented as lynch victims. Lynching reached its peak in 1892, shortly after reconstruction with 155 African Americans lynched in this year alone.

In fact, the practice of lynching was so widespread that the Tuskegee Institute, a predominately black institution in Alabama, decided in 1881 to begin issuing annual reports on the incidents of lynching within the country, and it was not until 1952 that the institution was able to report that there was not a single lynching to report within a given year. Popular belief holds that lynching only occurred in the South; however, while lynching was particularly prevalent in the South, it was not exclusively a Southern horror, but was one that was enacted as far north and west as Minnesota, Illinois, California, and Oregon.

A major reason why lynching is connected to Christianity is that most lynchings actually occurred on Sunday afternoons, shortly after church services concluded. After Sunday services were let out, these executions were well attended by Christians. This harsh reality is not only beyond frightening, but it also serves to prove the necessity of beginning this conversation. In fact, many of those believers who were present at lynchings did not consider themselves to be racist, because in their minds the racist were the ones actually conducting the lynching. These individuals would avoid the stigma of racism and the conviction of the Holy Spirit by rationalizing their presence as purely spectators; arguing that they just happened to be present at the scene of the hanging, which in their minds did not make them culpable.

Lynchings were photographed and turned into postcards, which would then be used to promote future lynchings. People would send these postcards to their friends inviting them to attend the next lynching as if it were a social soiree.  According to historian Ralph Ginzberg, “lynching [which also frequently included burning, castrating, & disfiguring the victim,] were spectacles, announced in advance, attended by whites including women and children, and covered on assignment by newspaper reporters in a manner not unlike contemporary coverage of sporting events.”[1] The most disturbing part about this spiritually is that people who self-identified as Christians played a significant role in these events, in both the promotion and execution of lynchings. Dr. James Cone interview helped us think through the implications of this harsh reality in the interview we posted Friday (2-22) and his most recent book The Cross & the Lynching Tree.

Theologically, this exists as the most disturbing part of the lynching phenomenon. Believers’ lack of values and ethical response to God’s love was so nonexistent that it was commonly acceptable within the last one hundred years of this nation to watch someone be tortured, burned, castrated, and killed for sport just because of the color of their skin. Moreover, one’s faith was thought to have nothing to do with coming to the defense of these helpless victims. In fact, one’s faith did not even prohibit Christians from participating as enthusiastic observers within the crowds. Furthermore, it was normative for infants and children to be taken by their parents to see these spectacle lynchings. Imagine the psychological trauma of growing up seeing this sort of barbarism on a semi-regular basis. This had to have had a profound impact on these young minds. Being taken to public executions, where African Americans were looked upon as a kind of game animal to be caught and executed for pleasure, had to permanently hallmark the image of black inferiority within the young, impressionable minds of children.

Thus, the psychological impact of these pervasively grotesque images cannot be divorced from the racial imagination that exists in this country. The remnants of racism that exist within our society, many of which have become institutionalized, have to be understood in relation to the reverberating effects of the trauma of the lynching tree. Although racism today seeks to hide behind its institutionalized manifestations, which makes the facade of colorblindness a tempting one for many citizens, it is our inability to talk about race, to confront the legacy of the lynching tree, which forces us to deal with this country’s history of black bodies swinging from trees, which undergirds the existence of racism in the U.S. today.

Pastor Dominique

[1] Ralph Ginzberg. 100 Years of Lynching (New York, NY: Lancer publishing: 1962), 46. Lynching frequently included ritualized burning at the stake, castration, and mutilation in addition to the victim being hung from a tree.