Their fingers were hacked off and given out as souvenirs. Next their ears were chopped from their heads. A mob beat the man while a crowd of hundreds watched.
A large corkscrew was then used to mutilate both captives, who were tossed onto a fire and burned. While all this was happening, the onlookers — which included women and children — were served lemonade and deviled eggs.
This isn’t a scene from the latest ISIS video in Syria. It’s a homegrown American atrocity that took place in 1904 in Doddsville, Miss.
A black man named Luther Holbert and a woman thought to be his wife were snatched by a lynch mob on suspicion of killing a white landowner. No prosecution, no trial, no finding of guilt.
The deaths were two of 3,959 “racial terror lynchings” in 12 Southern states between 1877 and 1950, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. The Alabama-based legal-rights group spent five years researching such murders, and how they were used to terrify African-American communities.
As horrified as we are by the beheadings aired by thugs of the Islamic State, the barbaric spectacles that for decades took place in town squares and public parks across the Deep South were no less monstrous.
Racial lynchings often were staged in a festive carnival atmosphere with large crowds. Sometimes enterprising printers peddled postcards featuring photos of the mangled dead body.
A white mob in Dyersburg, Tenn., took a hot poker iron to a black man named Lation Scott. They carved out his eyes before ramming the poker down his throat, castrating him and “burning him alive over a slow fire.”
This part of our past is so despicable that it remains uncommemorated — and seldom mentioned — in many of the places where it occurred. The EJI study, released Feb. 10, focused on lynchings that weren’t the result of any criminal trial or procedure. It found that Phillips County, Ark., led the South with 243. Four parishes in Louisiana were next with a combined 179 lynchings during the 70-plus years that were reviewed.
Florida had 331 known “terror” lynchings, several counties being among the worst in the nation. Near the top of that list was Orange County, now home to Disney World.
Other counties that racked up double-digit numbers of lynchings were Polk, Columbia, Taylor, Marion and Alachua, better known these days as the site of the University of Florida.
Lynching spiked throughout the South in the years following the Civil War, as whites desperately fought to maintain domination and keep African-American neighborhoods in fear. The U.S. government did nothing to stop the terror; incredibly, Congress refused to pass a law to ban lynching.
From the EJI report: “Not a single white person was convicted of murder for lynching a black person in America during this period, and of all lynchings committed after 1900, only 1 percent resulted in a lyncher being convicted of a criminal offense.”
Defenders of the practice claimed mob action was necessary to suppress a trend of black men raping white women. Such myth-mongering became a license to murder.
Some of the cases reported by EJI:
■ In 1904, a black man in Reevesville, S.C., was lynched for knocking on the door of a white woman’s house.
■▪In 1916, a black man named Jeff Brown was lynched for accidentally bumping into a white girl while he was running to catch a train in Cedarbluff, Miss.
■ In 1919, a black soldier named William Little returned from World War I to his home in Blakely, Ga. He was lynched after refusing to take off his Army uniform.
■ And in 1940, in Luverne, Ala. a black man named Jesse Thornton was lynched because he didn’t use the word “mister” when speaking about a white police officer. Such killings usually were set in a public place and, like the gruesome ISIS murders, were designed to shock and intimidate.
If the Internet had existed back then, every lynching would have been streamed live.
The world was sickened by the recent video of a Jordanian pilot being doused with gas and set afire, but here’s a headline bannered in a Southern newspaper less than a century ago: “3,000 WILL BURN NEGRO.”
And they did. The Mississippi governor said he was “powerless to prevent it.”
Such ghastly Gothic pageants are no longer tolerated in this country, proving that a culture of hate and raw cruelty can evolve into something better.
Yet as we cringe at the hideous acts of terror being committed elsewhere today, it’s as essential as it is painful to remember what we ourselves were once capable of.