America's Willful Ignorance of Our History of Lynching Feeds Racial Hatred

National condemnation of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter at the University of Oklahoma has a cruel irony that highlights a painful truth: By singly condemning individual racist acts and refusing to talk openly about our country’s complex relationship to anti-black violence, we allow racial hatred to fester under our noses.

As a nation, we need to do two things in response to the SAE scandal: Take a long hard look at the history of state-sanctioned, anti-black violence, and recognize that this violence has been an integral part of our nation’s culture for quite some time.

When the racist chant that fraternity members sang on their way to a party came to light, condemnation of SAE was understandably swift and sharp: Two fraternity members identified from the video have been expelled. The university has soundly denounced the fraternity’s actions and shut down its campus activities.

In all likelihood, the O.U. SAE members knew their chant was racist. That’s why they sang it in private rather than in public. But this is not really about them, now, is it? This college crisis is about our collective responsibility as a society to address, openly and honestly, tough issues of race. If you think it is O.K. to use the N-word and propone lynching in a song, then a history lesson probably won’t help you. But it can help those of us who do not wish to be racist.

As a nation, we prefer to downplay the integral role racism has played in forming our country. Yet, the choice to publicly minimize or ignore racial violence, both past and present, is a dangerous one that in fact enables violence against black bodies. Think: Madison, New York, Ferguson. It also allows for the image of a black man hanging from a tree to become a witty line in a fraternity chant. But ultimately, the act of ignoring our history damages and delegitimizes the institutions its perpetrators claim to protect.   

Ironically, African-Americans once believed Oklahoma was their “promised land.” At the turn of the last century, tens of thousands risked everything in search of freedom there. They instead found themselves violently attacked, lynched like Laura and L. D. Nelson, or driven en masse out of more than 50 towns and cities. Blacks were even expelled from the bucolic college town of Norman, the home of O.U., in 1897. Forgetting this violence and exclusion naturalizes the absence of black people from wide swaths of contemporary Oklahoma.     

Moreover, the histories of anti-black violence and migration in Texas and Oklahoma are intertwined. The majority of Oklahoma’s black settlers came from Texas. Parker Rice and Levi Pettit, the students expelled for leading the SAE chant, are from Dallas. Dallas is just down the road from Paris, where Henry Smith was lynched. It is also close to Waco, where Jessie Washington was lynched. Prior to living in Oklahoma, the Nelson family lived in the Waco area. Other black Oklahoma settlers originally lived in Paris and Dallas. And just down the road from all of these cities is Austin, state capital and home of the University of Texas, where President Bill Powers said he would open an investigation into the possibility that the racist SAE chant has been sung at UT as well.

Here’s another lesson: Anti-black sentiment was never just a black people’s problem. In 1919, NAACP President John Shillady, a white man, was beaten by local officials and run out of Austin for trying to organize blacks in that city. We forget these stories at our own risk.

Black Oklahomans and black Texans were also civil rights movement pioneers. Heman Sweatt, Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, and George W. McLaurin risked life and livelihood to integrate the Universities of Texas and Oklahoma in the 1940s and 1950s. Their school desegregation lawsuits preceded the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 that should have signaled the death knell for school segregation across the United States.

But before we get too far into specifics, let’s be real, this is not about SAE. It’s also not just about Oklahoma and Texas. To be sure, it is important to reproach the fraternity’s actions. It is equally important, however, to recognize that SAE did not single-handedly produce the narratives of racial hatred that its chant espouses. As Yale English professor Jacqueline Goldsby argues, lynching has been a cultural logic in our nation. And we have yet to really deal with that.  

Instead of confronting the realities of our past head on, we are increasingly turning away from them. In February, an Oklahoma House committee voted to ban AP History in public high schools because, the committee claimed, it only teaches the negative side of U.S. history. In 2010, the Texas school board approved a controversial textbook that waters down slavery. Both states echo similar measures in states like Arizona, where teaching ethnic studies in public school has been banned.

Every year we give lectures on African-American history and culture at our respective universities. Painfully, some of them recount the stories of Henry Smith, Jessie Washington and the aforementioned Nelsons, black people accused of committing crimes against whites and, shorn of their constitutional rights, brutally lynched in Texas and Oklahoma. Smith was a black man with a mental disability who was tortured to death in front of a crowd of 10,000 people in Paris, Texas, in 1893. Washington, 18, was burned to death by a crowd of over 15,000 people in Waco, Texas, in 1916. Nelson was raped and lynched by white townspeople alongside her 14-year-old son, L.D., in Okemah, Oklahoma, in 1911. The heavy silence that inevitably follows these lectures is often broken by a student, who with raised hand, asks of the crimes alleged against those lynched, “But did they do it?”

The truth is almost 4,000 African-Americans—men, women and children—were lynched in the South between 1877 and 1950. And lynching was not an exclusively Southern phenomenon. Most college students know nothing about this side of America. They have been brought up in a culture that fixates on the false notion that black people are a threat to white safety and security. Their instinct is to try to rationalize lynching as a justifiable, perhaps even an understandable punishment for a crime rather than racial terrorism. What is frightening about this position is a century ago defenders of lynching used the same arguments to protect their right to kill black people.  

Lynching and other forms of racial violence are about power—to control and to exclude. In the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries, it was used to deny African-Americans full access to the American dream. Indeed this violence often occurred just because African-Americans tried to exercise their rights as citizens. Consider: Jimmie Lee Jackson and countless others who were lynched in the pursuit of the right to vote in places like Selma. Whites also lynched black people to dispossess them from their land in Georgia, Arkansas and Missouri.

The now infamous Sigma Alpha Epsilon chant simply regurgitates the old idea that African-Americans are not legitimate members of American society. “You can hang them from a tree but they won’t sign with SAE,” the damning video shows. Maybe, our college students think it is O.K. to sing racist chants because we unwittingly sanction racism by refusing to talk about the anti-black violence that lingers.


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