Tennessee GOP lawmaker Paul Sherrell wants to reinstate hangings to execute death row inmates.
This cruel and unusual punishment – a historic symbol of terror and vigilante justice for African Americans – is yet another reminder that we are never too far removed from history.
History has its place, and it should be marked present. “Even our names are hand-me-downs,” writes James Baldwin in “Staggerlee Wonders” from his poetry collection Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems.
With some pharmaceutical companies refusing to manufacture the deadly mix used to carry out executions by lethal injection, other outdated forms are being considered — like a firing squad. It was during testimony that Sherrell asked lawmakers to consider another method.
“Could I put an amendment on that that would include hanging on a tree, also?” he asked.
The Tennessee representative’s tone matched someone who was ordering another appetizer from a restaurant menu. But hanging would involve a rope, specifically a noose, which is a Southern delicacy for those with a diminished palate and capacity for empathy. I would argue that it is sociopathic.
Historically, lynchers had no regard for right or wrong or for the rights and feelings of their victims. The symbol has been spotted on more than a few college campuses in recent years. So, here we go again.
America has done nothing with Ida B. Wells’s “A Red Record,” her collection of statistics and reasonings for lynchings between 1864 and 1894.
In 1939, Billie Holiday set the mood with a somber tune, singing, “Southern trees bear a strange fruit, Blood on leaves and blood at the root, Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze, Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees.”
The Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, is still collecting dirt from the site of lynchings, still planting markers of this extrajudicial mob violence. Most organizations report that the brutal practice ended in 1950.
“The last recorded lynching in the United States was in 1981,” Jill Collen Jefferson, a lawyer and founder of Julian, a civil rights and human rights organization named for the late Julian Bond, told The Washington Post in early August of 2021. “Lynchings in Mississippi never stopped. The evil bastards just stopped taking photographs and passing them around like baseball cards.”
According to Jefferson’s private investigation, she and the victims’ families believe that eight more lynchings have occurred since 2000. All these incidents occur in Mississippi, and all were ruled suicides. Mississippi has the highest number of lynchings on record: 581.
Recently, I visited Oxford, Mississippi. It’s 161 miles from Jackson, Mississippi, which is in the news again.
Last month, the Mississippi House of Representatives passed House Bill 1020. If passed in the Senate, the legislation would create a separate court system for a part of the state’s capital city whose members are predominately (80%) African American. They would no longer be able to choose their own judges, causing some to rename it the “Jim Crow bill.” Does the name sound familiar?
At the University of Mississippi, I toured the campus, as well as the surrounding area, placing my fingers in red bricks, some of which were decorated with the fingerprints of African Americans who were forced to make them.
I stood in the shadow of two confederate monuments, one on campus near a cemetery for Confederate soldiers and another at the city’s courthouse.
There was also a lynching memorial marker on the side of the building, placed there by the Equal Justice Initiative and the Lafayette Community Remembrance Project in 2021.
I said the names of the seven lynching victims: Harris Tunstal, Will McGregory, an unknown African American man who was kidnapped from the Oxford jail, Will Steen, William Chandler, and Lawson Patton, who was hung at the courthouse.
I then traveled down to the corner of North Lamar Boulevard and Molly Barr Road to the exact location where Elwood Higginbottom (also spelled Higginbotham) was lynched on September 17, 1935.
“News of Elwood Higginbottom’s death reached the Lafayette County Courthouse before the jury had finished deliberating his case, cutting the Sept. 17, 1935, trial short,” wrote Grace Marion for Mississippi Free Press.
There, I found a pile of rocks that marked the spot and yet another marker contributed by the Equal Justice Initiative in 2018.
Lynching was a form of domestic terrorism, used to intimidate, control and subjugate African Americans. It was often done with the support, and sometimes participation, of law enforcement and was publicized by local newspapers.
No one who participated in these lynchings were ever brought to justice. Ironically, then, Sherrell wants to use hangings as a means of justice.
He has since apologized, but that doesn’t change history or how I feel in this present moment now does it?