By Chris Richardson
“I could not suppress the thought, that this earth had acquired its color from the blood that had dripped down from these trees.”
– James Baldwin, “A Letter From the South”
In the summer of 1918, in Valdosta, Georgia, a white planter named Hampton Smith was gunned down in his home. When the shooting began, Smith’s terrified wife ran into the woods, wandering around for hours before her neighbors found her. In tears, she accused a black farmhand, Sidney Johnson, of the gruesome murder. When a lynch mob could not find Johnson, they instead lynched several innocent black men who had quarreled with Smith, including a man named Haynes Turner.
Mary Turner, Haynes’ wife, eight months pregnant, lost her temper in public, according to the Associated Press, and made “unwise remarks” that angered the local townspeople. Those “unwise” remarks led a mob to drag her into a wooded area and, before a crowd of hundreds, strip her naked, hang her upside down by the ankles, soak her in gasoline, and roast her to death. During the horrific ordeal, a white man opened her belly with a hunting knife. Once the infant fell from her womb, members of the crowd stomped baby to death.
In April of last year, Alabama’s Montgomery Advertiser apologized after carefully culling its own archives and taking account for its own role in promoting the ideological underpinnings of lynching in Alabama. That same reckoning has not happened with other newspapers in the South, and stories like Mary Turner’s are long forgotten but need to be revived. Newspapers across the South should take the same approach as the Montgomery Advertiser by searching their own archives and letting us all see what the world was like for African Americans.
What they would find is a world of violence and terror — a world that reverberates today. The story of Mary Turner is the story of thousands murdered under similar circumstances. The Equal Justice Institute, based in the Advertiser’s hometown, has documented 4,075 racial terror lynchings in the South. Lynching was not hidden in the dead of night. Instead, lynching was very much part of the fabric of the South, and it was led and organized by doctors, lawyers, politicians, and the media — the “finest” and “most prominent” members of society. In every city, hamlet, and village across the South, there is an untold and unwritten story of blood.
Southern newspapers in that era though did not hide, mask, or condone lynching — they actively rooted for it and supported it. With headlines such as “Lynching Too Good for the Black Miscreant,” “Ready for a Lynching,” “A Negro Brute Taken From a Train and Hung,” or even “This One Ought to Swing,” newspapers both shaped and reflected a white public opinion rooted in base racism, terror, and active daily violence against the African American population. For if a newspaper could write such headlines on its front page, then we can only imagine the climate of fear, terror, and brutality that must have existed for anyone not of the white race in that era. But these things did not vanish overnight, and when we talk about police brutality, voter suppression, and our criminal justice system today, we cannot divorce them from what newspapers encouraged and mirrored not so long ago.
Instead of using journalistic standards to question this climate of fear, newspapers covered lynchings with the same vigor and sensationalism as they would cover a sports team or hurricane today. In 1888, when two African American sharecroppers attempted to argue for better wages in Wilkes County, Georgia, both the Atlanta Constitution and the Columbus Enquirer Sun labelled it an “insurrection” and lauded on their front pages that the “best citizens” of town drowned the two in a river by tying rocks around their necks. Newspapers proudly noted the lynching of James Greer and James Callaway of Pike County for “scaring white women.” Will Jones in 1922 was “rightly” lynched for offering a white woman a ride. The Memphis Commercial Appeal, in April 1896, noted “[i]t will be known in the course of time that all such crimes as these always meet justice at once, by hanging the first limb available.”
In Florida, the Tampa Tribune championed a 1900 lynching of a “notorious negro” by proud white citizens, while the Arcadia Champion lauded locals for the 1907 lynching of Amos Smith for “doing their duty to their community.” The Courier Informant (Bartow, Florida) filled its editorial pages justifying the 1901 lynching of 16-year-old Fred Rochelle as “the spontaneous work of practically all the best citizenship of this place.” The Florida Times-Union in 1890 lauded the lynching of an alleged rapist by asserting that “[t]he verdict of the community is that the brute got just what he deserved.”
Beyond the obvious racial tropes such as “saucy and defiant,” Southern newspapers vigorously defended lynching as the correct and legitimate action to protect white womanhood and the purity of whiteness. The Atlanta Constitution even covered a symposium in 1899 titled “How Shall the Women and Girls in the Country be Protected.” At the symposium, leading white citizens debated the best means of controlling “black beasts,” and lynching was one of those sanctioned mechanisms.
The most notorious example of this mission to protect whiteness was conveyed in newspapers with the Georgia lynching of African American farmhand Sam Hose. Newspapers as far north as the Springfield Weekly Republican based in Massachusetts labeled Hose “a wretch” and called members of the mob that took parts of his body “fortunate possessors” of his relics. Several newspapers across the South in 1899 falsely claimed that Hose raped a white woman in front of her dead husband’s body and threw their baby on the floor. By publishing false story after false story, by the time Hose was caught, a mob of 2000 people doused him in kerosene and set him afire. An additional mob of 2000 were rushing by train from Atlanta but missed the lynching because they had been coming from church.
Southern newspapers literally built their reputations, history, and current presence based on lynching and white supremacy. Newspapers sold copies by the tens of thousands by sensationalizing lynching and buying into lynching not as a form of naked violence, but as an ideology to be encouraged, defended, and protected.
The same alliances that led and formulated this ideology in the past must now lead the effort to bring this aspect of our psyche to the fore. Truth and reconciliation must begin with the truth.
Christopher M. Richardson is a former U.S. diplomat and the co-author of the Historical Dictionary of the Civil Rights Movement.