An Ordinary Lynching

A Review of Sherrilyn A. Ifill. On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-First Century (Tenth-Anniversary Edition). Boston, MA.: Beacon Press, 2007 (2018).

I refer you to an article in the Fall/Winter 2010 edition of Nebraska History. “Lest We Forget: The Lynching of Will Brown, Omaha’s 1919 Race Riot,” by Orville D. Menard, contains descriptions and images of gleeful white inhumanity and the horrific torture and lynching of a black man named William Brown. The article is not for the faint of heart. (https://history.nebraska.gov/blog/lest-we-forget-lynching-will-brown-omaha%E2%80%99s-1919-race-riot).

On September 25, 1919, Milton Hoffman and Agnes Loeback were walking home in downtown Omaha after watching a late movie. A man threatened them with a gun. They reported that the man took Hoffman’s watch, money, and billfold as well as a ring from Agnes. The assailant dragged Agnes into a ravine and raped her. According to Hoffman and Loeback the man then escaped into the night.

On the twenty-sixth, the Omaha Bee identified the criminal as a “black beast.” Two hours later a neighbor described one William Brown as a “suspicious negro.” A group of civilians connected to Agnes captured Brown at gunpoint. Hoffman and Loeback identified him as their assailant, although Agnes later expressed some uncertainty about her accusation. By that time, a crowd had gathered around the house. Reports suggest that about 1500 people had come to the house. Twice they got a rope about Brown’s neck, but police succeeded in transporting him to the Douglas County Courthouse jail.

Witnesses described Brown as physically incapable of such assaults due to crippling physical conditions. Nonetheless, by the afternoon of the twenty-eighth, a mob had formed with the purpose of taking Brown out of the jail to be lynched. The mob grew to somewhere between four and five thousand people. Late in the afternoon they attacked the courthouse building. The police chief, a city commissioner and the mayor tried to defuse the situation and were met with violence. Both the courthouse and a police car were burned. By this time, the crowd had grown to somewhere between ten and twenty thousand people. Ultimately the authorities handed Brown over to the lynch mob in order to save their own lives.

Carol Anderson reminds us of the larger context for this atrocity. “During the Red Summer of 1919 there were, in fact, seventy-eight lynchings,” she wrote in White Rage, including a man burned at the stake in Omaha, Nebraska (page 54). That man was Will Brown. He was beaten and shot to death. His body was dragged behind a stolen police car to 17th and Dodge streets. His remains were burned there and then dragged further down the street. Brown’s remains were buried in an unmarked grave in the local Potter’s Field until they were reinterred in a marked grave provided by a donor almost a hundred years later.

A grand jury handed down a number of indictments in the Brown case, but no one was prosecuted in the end. The December 1919, issue of The Crisis, the official publication of the NAACP, commented on the Omaha Race Riot of 1919 as one of two such riots. This article suggested that Loeback worked as a white prostitute in one of the local houses catering to black men. The article asserts that Loeback and Brown knew one another and that at the time of the alleged assault Loeback was wearing a diamond ring given to her by Brown. The article proposed that the “rape” accusation was concocted by Loeback in order to punish Brown for an earlier quarrel between them.

“It was the participation or presence of average whites,” Sherrilyn Ifill writes in her introduction to On the Courthouse Lawn, “that blacks remembered. For many blacks…this was the lesson of lynching passed down from generation to generation,” she concluded: “ordinary whites were not to be trusted” (page xv). This observation anchors Ifill’s history of lynching and community violence against Blacks on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in the last 150 years. This history is not the story of a small group of bad people acting under the cover of darkness and secrecy. Instead, lynching was a communal reality, ritual and relationship involving ordinary people in public spaces—most notably county courthouse lawns. “The central location of lynching,” she writes, “and the role of hundreds or thousands of white spectators undermine the desperate effort of some to recast lynching as a covert act carried out by a few bad apples, ruffians, or out-of-towners” (page 17).

Sherilynn A. Ifill is the seventh president and the director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She is also a former professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. She is a nationally recognized expert on voting rights and judicial selection. The first edition of On the Courthouse Lawn was published in 2007. This revised edition was published in 2018. The revised edition has a foreword by Bryan Stevenson (Just Mercy, the Equal Justice Initiative), and an afterword by Ifill. The book is as timely and challenging now as it was when first written.

While the Douglas County Courthouse in Omaha had not much in the way of a lawn, it was the location of more than one quite public and celebrated lynching. The gleeful and purposeful involvement of quite ordinary Omaha white folks was highlighted in news reports of the time. One of those reports comes from the December 1919 issue of the Crisis, news outlet of the NAACP. The lynching of Will Brown is included in a report on events of the “Red Summer” of 1919 across the United States. (see also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omaha_race_riot_of_1919).

In the midst of that article was the photo of this horror published with the caption, “The Crucifixion at Omaha.” It is fortunate that the quality of the photo is poor. Otherwise we would be able to see Brown’s guts hanging out of his belly, the result of the dozens of bullets that literally shredded his body. The report from the Equal Justice Initiative on lynching describes the photo as “among the most inhumane images of lynching in America that survive today.” Ifill could easily be describing the photo when she writes, “It is the presence of spectators, the open and audacious criminality of this distinctly public murder, that gives lynching its particular terror. No effort was made by perpetrators of most lynchings to conceal their identity or to hide the bodies of the lynching victims. Instead perpetrators posed for photographs next to the victims’ smoking and charred remains” (page 58).

Such souvenir photos were a typical part of the ordinary lynching. Such photos, according to Ifill, had more than a commercial or emotional resonance. “The willingness of lynchers to act publicly is tremendously significant,” she writes. “It reflects the lynchers’ certainty that they would never face punishment for their acts. The willingness of the crowd to participate in the lynching—to cheer, to yell their encouragement, or just to stand and watch without intervention—is perhaps equally terrible” (page 58). What is clear in the photograph is the combination of celebration, satisfaction, and pride on the faces of the participants. Will Brown died in part to satisfy the nefarious political goals of the local “machine.” He was killed by quite ordinary white citizens of a quite ordinary town. It was, as Ifill’s study makes clear, a quite ordinary lynching.

Other elements made Brown’s murder quite mundane. He was portrayed as yet another “black beast,” unable to control his lust for white womanhood. Omaha was experiencing another racially driven convulsion as the Black community experienced some measure of economic and population growth. The Great Migration was in full swing, and white anxiety increased exponentially in relation to Black successes. The prime movers in the actual abduction, torture, murder, and desecration of Brown were likely beholden to or in the employ of the Dennison political machine, bent on discrediting and removing the current mayor. That mayor was one of the few white people to protest the lynching, and he barely escaped the noose himself. Even though some ten to twenty thousand people witnessed the atrocity, no credible witnesses could be produced, and Brown died “at the hands of persons unknown.” No indictments were forthcoming. The lynching of Will Brown served as a pretext for yet another assault on the larger African American community in North Omaha.

While there are no statues to Will Brown in downtown Omaha, some efforts have been made to remember. Soil from the Douglas County courthouse lawn was sent to the museum created by the Equal Justice Initiative to remember the thousands of documented lynching victims in America in the last century and a half. Ifill’s work also helps to give context to the current conversation about Civil War monuments in public spaces—monuments sometimes erected on the same ground where lynchings had occurred. “Public spaces have yet to become part of the formal reparation or racial-reconciliation conversation for black Americans,” she notes. “It is a curious omission because in towns all over the United States…public spaces were used to enforce the message of white supremacy, often violently. Lynching, particularly in the twentieth century, was most often an explicitly public act” (page 16).

An ordinary lynching required the cooperation of educators, religious leaders, political leaders, law enforcement, the judicial system, shopkeepers, and others. Many lynchings were marked by the presence of and participation by white children. Ordinary lynchings were followed by disciplined denial and the desire to simply “move on” with normal life. “In essence,” Ifill writes, “whites’ shared interest in maintaining white supremacy lay at the core of the conspiracy of silence following a lynching” (page 65). That was the case following the murder of Will Brown as well. To this day, white citizens of Omaha—including me—can go a lifetime without ever coming across this historical record. It is not for lack of testimony, research, articles, books, website, podcasts, photos, commemorations, and markers. The conspiracy of silence is a cultural habit that requires white effort and energy to overcome.

In Part 2 of her work, Ifill moves from historical description to contemporary prescription—or at least, proposal. She discusses “Truth and Reconciliation for Lynching in the Twenty-First Century.” I wondered if her work was showing its age with this focus on “reconciliation.” After all, Robert Jones worries that “reconciliation” might simply be a fifteen-minute public performance, as it was for the Southern Baptist Convention in 1995 (see Robert P. Jones, White Too Long). Pastor Lenny Duncan is sure that a focus on reconciliation as a goal leads to an apolitical focus on personal growth with no institutional change (see Lenny Duncan, Dear Church). Jennifer Harvey analyzes and argues against a “reconciliation paradigm” that has deflected the Church from the hard work of addressing systemic racism and implementing real change (see Jennifer Harvey, Dear White Christians). This sampling of authorial heavy hitters was more than enough to give me pause as I read the section title. I was set straight when I continued reading.

“In sum,” Ifill writes early in this second part, “achieving reconciliation is a more daunting task than the word implies, precisely because in reality it is an effort to create something new—not to return to something old.” Now she had my attention. “Reconciliation efforts are focused on fashioning out of a community plagued by division and racial/ethnic violence ‘a new community,’ rather than returning a community to a pre-conflict state of unity” (page 124).

For Ifill, reconciliation, especially when focused on lynching, is an embodiment and enactment of the New Creation which we Christians seek, long for, proclaim and live. The movement toward this new creation requires the three elements noted by all the above-quoted authors: truth-telling (repentance), compensation for victims (repair), and healing (reconciliation). There is, for Ifill, no shortcut to the third element. “Truth-telling and reparations,” she concludes, “are indispensable ingredients in reconciliation” (page 117).

Ifill has studied the work of truth and reconciliation in a number of international contexts, and she draws three conclusions from that research. Efforts at racial reconciliation are” principally local.” These efforts must be based in intensive dialogue. Most important, she asserts, “reparations must be viewed expansively.” That is, the work of repair is certainly about land and dollars, but real repair must be highly creative and reach beyond cash to cultural change.

This last point moves her to focus on several societal realities. For example she writes, “Reconciliation efforts must get not only at the men who killed but at the communities who created killers and who condoned violence for permitting these violent murderers to live free in their midst for decades” (page 130). Real repair cannot take place in a context where all bad behavior is ascribed to “a few bad apples.”

Myths of white innocence and ideologies that refuse to acknowledge systemic injustice cannot ever get to reconciliation. Nor can any society that refuses to engage its own history of domination. “But the project of reconciliation at its core demands of individuals and communities the willingness to acknowledge painful truths and to take responsibility for injustice. And so,” Ifill concludes, “some whites may seek to minimize or dismiss the importance of truth-telling as a pointless rehashing of the past precisely because such truth-telling demands responsibility and accountability in the present” (page 135).

This returns us to her initial observation that the participation, complicity, and support of “ordinary” white people was critical to the institution of racial lynching. Lynching was (and still is) an institution rather than merely some aberrant individual behaviors. “The truth is that systematic racial terrorism is, at its core, not individualized,” Ifill asserts. “It is, instead, institutionalized. By this I mean that lynching, genocide, and other forms of systemic racial or ethnic violence cannot flourish without the active participate and support of a community’s institutions and institutional actors” (page 155).

This was true of government, law enforcement, judicial, economic, financial, and educational institutions on the Eastern Shore. It was particularly true of media outlets and especially local newspapers. “The complicity of ordinary whites, who stood and watched a lynching without interfering,” Ifill writes, “was made possible by the dehumanizing choices the media made in their coverage of blacks” (page 168).

Here is one of the many touch points with the lynching of Will Brown. The racist propaganda of the Omaha Bee is voluminous and horrific in content and scope. That despicable written record is well-documented in both archives and research. Other local media outlets, however, are not innocent. Complicity in using racist tropes, in defending bad behavior by public officials, and in using journalistic “neutrality” as a cover for the economically safe course continue to be the reality in local Omaha media outlets.

Will Brown’s remains were interred in the local Potter’s Field in an unmarked grave because there was no family to intervene at that point. It was not until 2012 that a headstone was placed on his grave by a man from California. He had heard of the lynching of Will Brown while watching a documentary about Henry Fonda, a native of Omaha who had witnessed Brown’s lynching as a teenager. On the headstone is the phrase, “Lest We Forget.” In 2019, the Omaha community remembered the lynching and subsequent attack on the Black community and decorated the gravesite.

Ifill, like many others, quotes Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s words. “The past,” Tutu wrote, “refuses to lie down quietly.” Ifill’s work is a valuable contribution to efforts allowing the past to rest finally in real peace—not today, not tomorrow, but perhaps some day.

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