Blogs > Jim Loewen > My Lynching Photo Problem, and Ours

Aug 3, 2017

My Lynching Photo Problem, and Ours

tags: racism,Mississippi,lynchings


    On February 13, 2017, the University Press of North Carolina announced a new book, Civil Rights, Culture Wars: The Fight Over a Mississippi Textbook. Written by Ole Miss history professor Charles Eagles, Civil Rights, Culture Wars tells the history of another book, Mississippi: Conflict and Change, which was published in 1974, of which I was senior author and, with Charles Sallis, professor of history at Millsaps College, co-editor.

            Eagles covers the entire saga of how our book came to be, from the background of the Mississippi educational system in the 1950s and the "Oh no!" moment that sparked the project, to the writing of our book and our attempts to get Mississippi to allow its use, leading to our lawsuit against the State Textbook Board, and including the court decision and its impact.

            Reading this book about our book provided me with an unexpected learning experience. Eagles points to an important error we made in Conflict and Change, a mistake other writers have made intentionally. I write this essay to confess this error, to commend Charles Eagles for his detective work, and also to bring attention to the tradition we historians and sociologists have of locating violent racism in the South.

            In 1970 I put together a team of students and faculty at Tougaloo College and nearby Millsaps, to write a new textbook of Mississippi history. The existing book, John K. Bettersworth's Mississippi: Yesterday and Today, was terrible. Bettersworth's textbook bolstered the thinking of Mississippi's notoriously racist white elected officials and even supplied the rationale underlying the actions of Byron de la Beckwith, convicted murderer of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. I discuss the particular "Oh no!" moment that sparked the project in the opening pages of Teaching What Really Happened,  a moment caused by the misinformation in Bettersworth's book.

            Our product, Mississippi: Conflict and Change, published in 1974, won the Lillian Smith Award for Best Southern Nonfiction.[1] Nevertheless, the Mississippi State Textbook Board rejected it. In turn, we sued the Board on First and Fourteenth Amendment grounds. We won a pathbreaking decision (Loewen et al. v. Turnipseed et al.),  hailed by the American Library Association as a landmark case protecting Americans' "right to read freely."

            In several ways Mississippi: Conflict and Change differed from other history textbooks, then and now. In places, it was self-critical. To my knowledge, no other textbook ever has been. It referred to women on second mention without courtesy titles: "Welty," not "Miss Welty," parallel to "Faulkner," not "Mr. Faulkner." Its 32 maps showed relationships among social variables, not just minutiae like the name of every county seat. It included pictures and accounts of history-makers of all races, not just whites. And it included a photo of a lynching.

            Until then, no history textbook, state or national, contained such a photo. To my knowledge, no other history textbook, state or national, does, even today. Most photos in the existing textbook were head-and-shoulders portraits of old white men, Such pictures are devoid of historic value unless one believes in phrenology. We vowed to do better. We wanted illustrations that showed history or themselves were historic documents. At trial, Neil McMillen, professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi and author of Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow, testified to his admiration of the pictures in our book.

One U.S. history textbook included this drawing for a while. It's not a drawing of an actual lynching but a Reconstruction-era political cartoon implying that if Democrats win, they will lynch "carpetbagger" Republicans. A current textbook has a photograph of a civil rights march; one man carries a placard with a drawing of a lynching victim. Otherwise, no lynching images appear in K-12 textbooks. Too controversial?

            The lynching photo was particularly hard to find. Mississippi had more lynchings than any other state, but as the poorest state in the nation, had hardly any cameras! We did our research the hard way, decades before the internet, and also decades before Jimmy Allen had compiled his collection of lynching photos, some of which appear in the book Without Sanctuary. Finally we found a photo, identified simply as taken in Mississippi, in Scott Nearing's 1929 book Black America. Nearing was still alive — indeed, he lived to be 100, passing away in 1983 — so I located him, wrote him, and asked permission to reprint the photo. Sure, he said, but he did not have the original; I'd have to take the image from the book. I may have asked for details as to where and when the picture was taken, but if I did, he no longer knew, so we titled the photo simply, "A Mississippi lynching, captured by the camera."

            As lynching photos go, it is "tasteful." In the foreground, in silhouette, a man is being burned. Behind him, well-dressed whites pose for the camera. It does not show the victim in close-up; no one is hacking parts off his body. Nevertheless, the photo was controversial. Indeed, it figured in the "Perry Mason moment" of our trial in 1980. This came when the Assistant Attorney General for the State of Mississippi asked John Turnipseed, lead defendant, why he had objected to Mississippi: Conflict and Change. He had the court turn to page 178, the page with the lynching discussion. Pointing to the photo, he said, "Now, you know some ninth-graders are pretty big, especially black male ninth-graders. And we worried, or at least I worried that teachers, especially white lady teachers, would have trouble controlling their classes, with material like this in the book." So our book would cause racial unrest in the classroom!

            We had pretested our book in an overwhelmingly white classroom and an overwhelmingly black classroom; both had preferred it overwhelmingly to Bettersworth's book, so we had material for rebuttal testimony at the ready, but we didn't have to use it. At that point, Judge Orma Smith — an 83-year-old white Mississippian but a man of honor — took over the questioning.

            "But that happened, didn't it?" he asked. "Didn't Mississippi have more lynchings than any other state?"

            "Well, yes," Turnipseed allowed. "But that all happened so long ago. Why dwell on it now?"

            Smith replied, "Well, it is a history book!" Charles Sallis and I nudged each other. "We're gonna win this case!" I murmured.

            We had used the photo to make this point in the book: "Although lynchings occurred in almost every state, most of them took place in the Deep South. More lynchings have been recorded in Mississippi than in any other state."

    It turns out, however, as Eagles shows, that the lynching photo is not of a Mississippi incident at all, but from the race riot in Omaha, Nebraska, during the "Red Summer" of 1919. (Almost all race riots in U.S. history before 1942 were of whites rioting against people of color.)


Not "A Mississippi lynching, captured by the camera." Rather, well-dressed white men and women pose behind the burning body of William Brown in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1919.

            Of course, at the time we had no idea we had mislabeled it. Luckily, neither did anyone else. (The State would have rejoiced to be able to point to such an error.) During the years since our trial, Sallis learned of the mistake at some point, but I learned it only from Eagles's book.

            In the intervening years, I have focused much of my research on racism in the North. My book and website Sundown Towns show that many more Northern  communities flatly excluded African Americans during most of the twentieth century than did towns in the traditional South. These Northern towns usually went sundown between 1890 and about 1940, the "Nadir of race relations." In those years, whites went more racist in their ideology than at any other point in our nation's past, and that was true North as well as South. Writing of the day-to-day interactions of whites and blacks in Ohio, for example, Frank Quillen observed in 1913 that race prejudice "is increasing steadily, especially during the last twenty years."[2] This is when lynchings rose to their all-time high, and although most indeed took place in Dixie, on a per-black-capita basis, white Northerners may have committed as many.

            I write "may have" because librarians at Tuskegee Institute compiled the database used for most lynching studies from Southern weekly newspapers; they did not include data from Northern states. Like the database, the NAACP spent most of its time and resources exposing and arguing for an end to Southern lynching and segregation. Three of the most iconic lynching photos stem from Northern spectacle lynchings: Omaha, 1919; Duluth, Minnesota, the next year; and Marion, Indiana, in 1930. Often, these images have been used to illustrate Southern lynchings. For example, The Chamber, a Hollywood film, uses the photo of the Marion lynching, dubbing it "Lynching in Rural Mississippi in 1936." 

The bodies of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith hang above a crowd of white people in summer dresses and straw hats in Marion, Indiana, August, 1930. One man points toward a body. 

"Part 1: Awakenings" from the famous documentary series Eyes On The Prize shows the same image while narrator Julian Bond says "There had been more than 500 documented lynchings in Mississippi alone." Today one web page titles the Duluth lynching photo "Alabama Wind Chimes."[3] 

A white mob has just lynched three black circus roustabouts, Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie, in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1920. Two hang from a utility pole; the third lies on the ground beneath. Young white men crowd to get into the picture from either side. 

When I put "Southern" and "lynchings" into Google images on July 29, 2017, the Marion lynching came up second, fifth, and ninth. Duluth came up third and fourteenth. A different Omaha image (but of the same burned body) came up twelfth, and the image we used was #24.[4]

            At least since the Civil War, American culture has located extreme racial violence in the South. To be sure, many white Southerners have done what they could to deserve and even promote this reputation. Leaders like Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, Rebecca Felton of Georgia, and Pitchfork Ben Tilman of South Carolina called openly for lynchings to keep African Americans subdued. However, Northern communities also resorted to violence, usually to drive African Americans out. These race riots rarely got reported. Between 1999 and 2004, as I told people that I was researching sundown towns, they often replied, "In Mississippi, right?" "In Alabama?" In fact, I found more than 500 sundown towns in Illinois, compared to just 3 in Mississippi.

            Even when whites take note of Northern sundown towns, they locate them in the South! During World War II, Malcolm Ross of the Fair Employment Practices Commission described Calhoun County, Illinois, as "a farming area on the Mississippi forty miles north" of St. Louis. "Calhoun County is recorded in the 1940 census as '8,207 whites; no Negroes; no other races,' " he went on to note. "This is not by accident. Calhoun people see to it that no Negroes settle there. This is ... an earthly paradise for those who hate Negro Americans." Calhoun County remains sundown today, so far as I can tell. Then Ross makes an astounding statement: "Along with the white boys from Calhoun County, and a hundred other counties of the South..."[5] Calhoun County is just 65 miles southwest of Springfield, the capital of Illinois. It's not even in Southern Illinois, let alone "the South."

            In 2007, reporter Elliot Jaspin wrote a book about sundown towns, Buried in the Bitter Waters (NYC: Basic Books). He focuses on twelve counties. Seven are in Confederate states. Three others are in the Border states of Kentucky and Missouri. The final two are in Indiana, but he notes that they lie in southern Indiana. Jaspin emphasizes the Southerness of the phenomenon, as does the movie Banished, which had him as an adviser.

            It turns out that, like the Tuskegee librarians, Jaspin started with census data from Southern states. Naturally he found sundown counties in the South! Even so, of his seven Southern counties, however, not one lies in what we might call the traditional South. One is in Texas,[6] two in the Arkansas Ozarks, two in far eastern Tennessee, one in far western North Carolina, and one in the Appalachian Mountains in north central Georgia. Similarly, the cases he found in Missouri and Kentucky lie not in the "Southern" parts of those states — which in Missouri are the counties in an east-west band along either side of the Missouri River, along with the cotton lands along the Mississippi.

            In reality, there are more sundown towns and counties in Wisconsin than in North Carolina, more in Oregon than in Georgia. Within Indiana, sundown towns are at least as common in the north as in the south. And so it goes.

Kurt Vonnegut's drawing of a sundown town sign.

            I wrote "And so it goes" not only to mean "etc." but also to reference novelist Kurt Vonnegut. Growing up in central Indiana, he saw sundown town signs all over the state in his childhood. In Breakfast of Champions he wrote about the phenomenon, which he illustrated with his own drawing of a sundown town sign, which he then gave me permission to use.

            The three iconic photographs of Northern lynchings give the lie to the notion that these dastardly deeds were committed by lower-class deviants at the margins of society in the dark of night. Rather, they show upright members of the white community happy to have their images captured in the commission of a felony, because they believe that they will be commended, not prosecuted, for the act. Indeed, a lynching can be defined as a public murder, done with considerable support of the community. When done by whites to people of color, it is a particularly egregious expression of racism, because the entire community knows that the perpetrators will likely get away with it.

            When we mislabel these three lynching photos as Southern, we again marginalize the perpetrators. When we locate sundown towns in the South, we write Bad Sociology (BS!) that excuses the rest of the country.

            Acts of violent racism have historically occurred all over the nation. In this era of BLM, they continue to do so.

    [1]Besides the Lillian Smith Award, Mississippi: Conflict and Change has won considerable attention over the years. Robert B. Moore compared it systematically to Bettersworth's textbook in a 24-page booklet, "Two History Texts: A Study in Contrast," (NY: Council on Interracial Books for Children, 1975). Herbert Foerstel lauded it in Studied Ignorance: How Curricular Censorship and Textbook Selection Are Dumbing Down American Education (Santa Barbara: BAC-CLIO Praeger, 2013), 53-57. Rebecca Miller Davis commended it in the lead article in volume 72 of the Journal of Mississippi History (Spring, 2016), 1-45.

    [2]Frank U. Quillen, The Color Line in Ohio (Ann Arbor: Wahr, 1913), 120.

    [3]At This is an Israeli site!

    [4]At the pages referenced by Google, some of these images are identified correctly; "Southern" merely occurs elsewhere on the page.

    [5]Malcolm Ross, All Manner of Men (NY:  Reynal & Hitchcock, 1948), 66.

    [6]I brought that county, Comanche, to his attention. 

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