Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America

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The photograph on the dust cover states this book's horror succinctly.

James Allen et al.

Reviewed by Joe Lockard

Friday, April 7 2000, 7:53 PM


The photograph on the dust cover states this book's horror succinctly.

A black teenager wearing a white shirt, ragged pants and no shoes stares blindly at the sky. His head is tilted up towards the tree limb from which he has been hanged. His name was Lige Daniels and he was lynched in Center, Texas on August 3, 1920. On the basis of allegations that he had killed an elderly white woman, about a thousand men battered down a jail door and hauled the youth off to an oak tree.

Lige Daniels hangs about six feet in the air. Beneath him are a mass of white men, many looking at the camera and smiling. The camera catches one boy, possibly twelve or thirteen years old, looking up at the lynched sixteen year-old. His smile and glee at the scene are clear. It's probably the best fun he has had all that long, hot summer vacation from school.

All of this was recorded for a postcard, complete with a 'Place Stamp Here' print on the reverse side. As the scrawled message records, someone's Aunt Myrtle sent this card off to distant family members for inspection, just to make sure that the local excitement got properly reported.

At least the German civilians forcibly escorted through the death scenes of extermination camps in 1945 had the decency to weep and protest unconvincingly that they did not know. Americans photographed these horrors of tortured, mutilated and burned bodies as an advertisement for white supremacism and popular 'justice'.

Weeping comes now, as the images of race hatred speak silently from off gelatin paper. In the comments section of a website [http://www.journale.com/withoutsanctuary/] that accompanies this book and a parallel exhibition at the New York Historical Society, one Texas woman wrote:

"A friend told me about your website and that there was a lynching in my hometown of Center, TX in 1920. As I write this, I am sobbing. I was so saddened by this, that it happened in my hometown but, most of all, that it happened anywhere. Growing up white in E. Texas 50 years ago, I remember well the prejudices toward blacks and other races. And sadder, is the fact that, I am sure there are still many prejudices in Center. I NEVER understood WHY "colored" in those days had to eat in the back of City Cafe, when I, a white child, could eat in the front."

Souvenir photos and postcards are a lost genre of American photography. The thousands of recorded lynchings throughout the United States generated such profits as penny postcards gave to small-town photographers. Only in the mid-twenties did the Postmaster General ban such postcards from the mails. For years thereafter, though, such photographs were available openly and then under the counter.

James Allen, who describes himself as a 'picker', spent years collecting lynching photos from flea market and antiquarian dealers. He began collecting these images after encountering a photograph of Leo Frank's lynching. The result of Allen's efforts was a modestly mounted but emotionally charged exhibition at the New York Historical Society that drove the New York Times to take mournful editorial notice.

This volume, composed of the exhibition materials, documents as few other books the virulence of white supremacism and its violences. Often there are two, three, four and five black men hung together. Sometimes the photographed remains are no more than the charcoaled trunk of a human being. For the 1899 lynching of Frank Embree in Fayette, Missouri, the photographer-collaborator in the murder catches the naked Embree in a last living stare at the camera; in a following plate, Embree hangs from a tree. Often the hanging posse poses together with the victim. The 1909 murder of Will James was carried out in front of a crowd of thousands gathered beneath a cosmopolitan street arch with electric lights. His murderers first hung James from the arch, then pumped his body full of bullets, and then had a 'coon barbecue'. Some lynchers charged a nickel a shot to fire a pistol into a dead body. Hearts, ears and sex organs were chopped out for display.

The book's graphic and unutterable images move a soul to both despair and wonderment at human monstrosity. It is pornography in a true and most evil sense, yet the despicable images are purest education against racism. Leon Litwack contributes an excellent essay, "Hellhounds", that provides an historical context and makes compelling reading. An on-the-edge essay by Hilton Als prefaces the volume with an African American study of reactions against white racism. The footnotes are a research study to themselves.

Allen's project emerges from a long political history. Ida Wells-Barnett began organized anti-lynching documentation and education when she published Southern Horrors in 1892 and, more famously, her Red Record in 1895. Works like these documented lynching as a social phenomenon used to terrorize African Americans and deny them their civil rights. Between 1882 and 1968, some 4,743 lynchings were recorded throughout the United States, with probably an equal or greater number remaining unrecorded. Lynching victims included whites, Hispanics, Indians and Asians, but the vast majority were African Americans. Heavily sponsored by black women's clubs and African American newspapers, the anti-lynching movement never achieved legislative success, even under the liberal Roosevelt administration. In the South, where most lynching occurred, only a few whites, notably Jessie Daniel Ames and the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, openly opposed the reign of racist terror. As Oliver Cox argued, lynching was a central experience in creating a social caste of blackness.

The anti-lynching movement's literature, such as Wells-Barnett produced, was heavily textual, with only occasional photographs, etchings or introductory engravings for illustration. The social heroicization of lynching, so evident in many posed photographs from this volume, was the opposite of what the anti-lynching movement sought to achieve. Further, the images were so brutal and graphic that even activists resisted displaying them. As an art historian notes at the Without Sanctuary website, organizers of the 1935 "An Art Commentary on Lynching" exhibition omitted lynching photography because the material was too gruesome. In the context of ongoing lynching, to exhibit lynchers' photographs would have been to give them a victory.

Yet, paradoxically, these same photographs made by lynchers to celebrate their deeds now condemn them. The location of heroism has shifted against the lynchers who once proudly advertised their bloody handiwork. Anti-lynching has changed into anti-racism; history has become contemporary message. Where Amadou Diallo is pumped full of lead in a New York doorfront, the anti-lynching message still lives.

Although political opinion in the United States remains unwilling to make any serious corrective address to structural racism, at least the public symbology of racism became unacceptable by the end of the twentieth century. If we weep over the sight of lynch victims, we acknowledge implicitly the bitter sufferings created by racism, the terrorist violences that establish racial hierarchies, and the denial of due process that oppressed people routinely encounter. But tears without political action leave this history at the level of regret. Too many viewers remain content to shed a tear and sigh, forgetting that this history of social victimization never ended. Such liberal reactions of moaning over "man's inhumanity" offers pathos without consequences, sympathy without change. A tendency to the mystification of racial brutality as incomprehensible too easily overwhelms. Moreover, in the search for descriptive references, now-familiar Holocaust memorialization seeps into discussion, as is especially notable in visitor comments at the exhibition website. Lynching culture ensured that blacks knew their subordinate place and received regular reminders; pogroms and the Holocaust were meant to eradicate Jews. Teary sentiments, ineffective universalist advocacies, and poor comparative logic are, however, understandable reactions. Often we do not want to derive hard political analyses in the face of death agonies: there is an indecency to any calmness. Emotions alone speak.

No paperbound edition of Without Sanctuary is yet available, and I hope one will be published for classroom use. Students may have nightmares, but they will be intensely educational nightmares.

The Without Sanctuary exhibition website is highly recommended.

Without Sanctuary is a Twin Palms publication 

Copyright © 2000 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.
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