“People Who Practice Racism are Bereft. There is Something Distorted About the Psyche”
A picture of Laura Nelson lynched along with her fourteen year old son in Okemah, Oklahoma
I first became interested in the subject of Lynching as a research topic in 2011, when I took a terrorism seminar under Professor William Jelani Cobb, at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
I have since dedicated my time to writing about the lives of women and girls who were lynched on America’s soil, and to creating one piece of art to honor the memory of each of the women.
I have embarked upon this endeavor first and foremost because I love to conduct research on topics of women in History and second because black woman continue to be disrespected in the media and her womanhood questioned. (First Lady, Mrs. Michelle Obama: Maya Angelou Memorial Service.)
In this Blog, I write about two women who were lynched in Mississippi, Mahala Jackson and Louisa Carter. When I think of all of the lives that were lost as a result of mob violence and lynching; I can’t help but wonder what contributions the young girls and the women would have contributed to our society. Each life had tremendous value.
“Each of us comes from the creator trailing wisps of glory- we must find our own voice and decide our own value and then announce it to the world with all the pride and joy that is our birthright.” Dr. Maya Angelou-(First Lady Mrs. Michelle Obama).
Unita Blackwell was one of God’s gifts to Mississippi.
Although Mrs. Blackwell bore emotional and physical scars; she survived them all. Her legacy is long. Among her social and political accomplishments, is the fact that in 1976, she became the First Black Woman Mayor of one of the most racist state in this country.
Mahala Jackson, Louisa Carter, Unita Blackwell, and all of the women listed in this Blog had a lot in common. In their lifetimes, each had experienced grave injustices, and while the lives of some of the women ended tragically, the good news is that one woman lived to do something about the laws and the conditions under which black people lived in Mississippi.
Mahala Jackson and Louisa Carter were both lynched in Quincy, Mississippi. Their alleged crime was well poisoning. Ida B. Wells, crusader against lynching, was also threatened with lynching.
“When she herself was threatened with lynching, she brought into focus what the “black rapist” myth had masked: southern white men’s violence against women.” Crystal N. Femister, 159.
Black women had not been accused of the crime of raping white women as black men had been accused, so why were they being lynched, raped, mutilated, and their bodies set on fire, in the same manner in which white men murdered and lynched black men? No consideration and no pity was given for the fact that she was a woman.
“Wells insisted in her 1895 pamphlet, ‘A Red Record’ that the lynching of black women was proof that southern mob violence had little if anything to do with protecting women against rape.” Femister, 159.
Mobs of white men often took legal matters into their own hands and lynched blacks based more upon their egos and racist emotions than on the facts. Even in the presence of an official of the law, and in this case, in spite of being acquitted by a jury, innocent people were lynched.
According to Wells, “The two women were accused of poisoning a well and hanged by a white mob after a coroner’s jury had found them innocent. Even a legal acquittal did little to protect the women from the demands of the Christian white people.” She further protested “In any other land and with any other people, the fact that these two accused persons were women, would have pleaded in their favor for protection and fair play, but that had no weight with the Mississippi Christians.” Femister, 159.
In addition to Ms. Jackson and Ms. Carter’s murder, the women listed below were lynched in Mississippi between 1886 and 1957.
November 4, 1878 Maria Smith Hernando MS
Alleged crime murder
May 9, 1891 Mrs. Lee Lowndes MS
Son Accused of Murder
September 28, 1891 Louise Stevenson Hollandale MS Alleged crime murder
September 16, 1891 Louisa Carter Jackson MS Alleged crime well poisoning
September 16, 1891 Mahala Jackson Jackson MS
Alleged crime well poisoning
July 24, 1891 Negro Woman Simpson Cty. MS Alleged crime race prejudice
November 18, 1896 Mimm Collier Steenston, MS Alleged crime unknown
February 9, 1897 Negro Woman Carrolton, MS alleged crime theft/arson
March 23, 1899 Willa Boyd Silver City MS
Unknown Date Ida McCray Carrolton, MS Alleged crime knowledge of theft
May/June 28, 1914 Jennie Collins Shaw MS alleged crime aiding in escape
December 21 Alma House Shubuta, MS
Alleged crime murder
May 5, 1919 Unknown Negro Woman Holmes MS Alleged crime race prejudice
April 9, 1921 Rachel Moor Rankin, MS
Alleged crime race prejudice
September 31, 1923 Holmes MS
Alleged crime race prejudice
July 6, 1930 Mrs. Jane Markeeta MS
Alleged crime race prejudice
September 10, 1930 Pigg Lockett Scooba MS
The fact that women were lynched was tragic and it was not only a tragic loss for those within the black community, or for their children, or the relatives and friends that they left behind; It was a tragic loss for the human race and for our society as a whole. The women who were lynched did not get to live out their life’s potential, and it will never be known the gifts or talents that went unsung.
I emphasis the injustice and tragic loss of the lives of the women who were lynched, by acclaiming the life of one woman who has been instrumental in effecting social and political changes in lives of the people in Mississippi, and in communities worldwide. Because Unita Blackwell was a native of Mississippi, I thought it would be fitting and enlightening to discuss her life as a part of the discussion of the lynching of black women in Mississippi. Before her birth in 1933, seventeen women had been lynched in Mississippi.
In many cases black women were lynched because they spoke against unfair treatment by whites, and in defense of their rights. Unita Blackwell was a very outspoken woman who questioned why the lives of black people was so hard and why they barely had food and provisions when the same was not true of the condition of white people.
Her life’s legacy helps to reveal a relevant case and point of what a tragic loss to society it would have been had Mrs. Blackwell been murdered by Klan members because of her community activism in Mississippi.
Mrs. Blackwell came from a family of people who loved her and were strong influences in her life. She spoke of the fact that she knew that her father loved her and she felt the love of her mother. They apparently were her mentors as a child and she respected and looked up to them.
“I had witnessed my father talk back to a white man. My uncle Tome did the same thing and he got a way to Memphis Tennessee.” Her father had gone to Memphis also. “You couldn’t look white folks in the eyes and you couldn’t talk back to them. If they told you to do something you had to do it.”
Blacks knew that the consequence of standing up for themselves or others against whites involved the risk of being silenced permanently. The lynching of black people in southern states across the country was evidence of that, and talk of affording civil rights to blacks was seen as a threat to the supremacy of whites.
When black men left town after an altercation with a white man, it was not because they were afraid of white men, they left because they knew that the protection of the law did not extend to them.
“My grandfather on my father’s side worked in the sugar cane fields in Louisiana, and one day he run into a problem because he was one to speak up. He came up missing and we knew that the white people had taken him.” My grandmother was left with three children to raise.” She said.
Unita Blackwell spoke of her grandmother as being someone that she could talk about civil rights issues with when other family members “didn’t even want you to come to their houses.” she said. They were afraid that even an association with her would bring problems to them. Mrs. Blackwell was fearless like her grandmother when it came to gaining equal rights.. “My grandmother had registered to vote in Arkansas when no one was registering.” When Mrs. Blackwell decided to work as an organizer in her community, getting people registered to vote, her grandmother told her mother that she was right for wanting to do so.
“No one in my family liked the way that blacks were treated” she said. “When the Freedom Riders came to Mississippi teaching us about our history and our right to register to vote, I felt that now was the time to do something to make things better for my son.
Fighting for civil rights in the 1960’s took courage and those who signed registered people to vote took their lives into their own hands. there were consequences involved in fighting for civil rights in Mississippi. As a result of her activism she experienced emotional violence. Her own experiences with whites included having had crosses burned in her front yard, having bombs thrown at her home, and being arrested more than seventy times. In spite of all that she experienced, she did not stop fighting to gain civil rights of blacks.
Not everyone who experienced extreme racism was drawn to fight as vigorously as Mrs. Blackwell. She risked her life to get people in her community registered to vote while aware of the murders of James Cheney, who was from Mississippi, and Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman who were from New York. ” In 1964 they had come to Mississippi to register people to vote and disappeared during Freedom Summer. They were found murdered.”
Knowledge of the fact that they had been lynched did not stop the struggle, in fact knowing that people were dying for her rights motivated her to continue her activism. “White students, some of them younger than me, 18, 19, and 20 years old, traveled from all over to come to Mississippi to teach us about our history and our rights, and they were fighting for our rights right alongside us.”
Terence Finnegan wrote “In September 1889, the Yazoo Delta (which is in Mississippi), experienced an orgy of violence when whites massacred about twenty-five blacks in Leflore County. Despite the violence, blacks were not cowed into submission and refused to accept obsequiously the will of whites. ” A Deed So Accursed, 64,65.
Mrs. Blackwell was Born on a plantation not far from the Yazoo Delta in Lula, Mississippi, in Coahoma County. Lula is about 81 miles, a 1 1/2 hours drive from Leflore County, where the massacre took place in 1889, only 44 years before her birth.
To categorize the work Unita Blackwell did in her community is difficult to do because in her lifetime she wore so many hats. Therefore to say that she was a Civil Rights Leader does not begin to scratch the surface of the social and political influence she had in this country.
She became a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, (SNCC) and she worked alongside activists who risked their lives to change laws that would grant blacks inclusion into a segregated society and improve the quality of life for blacks in this country.
“Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi.” John Dittmer. University of Illinois Press. 1994.
As a member of SNCC she worked with Stokely Carmichael who took her over to meet Fanny Lou Hammer. “Although we knew it, Fannie told us they beat her until she was hard.” Still, she did not hate whites the way they hated black people.
Mrs. Blackwell worked with Fannie Lou hammer and she became one of the key organizers of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the seating of the all-white delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1964.
In addition to being a member of SNCC, Unita Blackwell became the “First Black Woman Mayor of Mayersville, Mississippi, she was Chair of the Black Women Mayors’ Caucus, and she was the Second Vice-President of the National Conference of Black Mayors. Throughout the 1970’s she served as a Community Development Coordinator for the National Council of Negro Women.” Lanker, 50.
“I visit countries. I worked on the normalization process between the United States and China as the people – to – people person. I’ve been to China fifteen times Hong Kong thirty-six times, I’ve been to Switzerland, Romania, India, Central America, and a lot of places. I still come home. I never left Mississippi.” Lanker 50.
Mrs. Blackwell used due process of the law to her advantage. “I was one of the people who filed lawsuits against every agency and operation by white people in Mississippi.”
“Blackwell v. Issaquena County Board of Education was one of the very first desegregation cases in Mississippi. Students were suspended for wearing SNCC pins to school so SNCC provided Freedom Schools for the students to attend, which attracted highly qualified teachers from across the nation to undeserved areas from 1965 through the 1970’s.”
I Dream A World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America, Brian Lanker, 50.
Her fight for civil rights was taxing on her mentally and physically. “I was arrested every day during one time, everyday straight for thirty days. It may be seventy-five times I’ve been in jail. They wouldn’t tell black folks when we were in jail because the Klan could get to us in jail. That ‘s how a lot of people were beaten up and killed.” Lanker, 50.
In 1964, Klan members burned crosses in her yard. Once she called the F.B.I. in Jackson and she said:
“You come taking about you’re going to call the police? You couldn’t trust no body because the police was the Klans. The police was burning the cross in my yard.” She said “Have you ever been in a condition where there was no place that you could call for help?” Lanker, 50.
The racial problems they experience as a community made them “close like family she said, and I don’t mean the estranged kind either.” Historians agree that solving problems like having to find homes for people who were put off white folks property in retaliation to registering to vote did create bonds.
“We have also begun to understand that despite the brutality and inhumanity, or perhaps because of it, a distinct African-American culture based on close-knit kinship relationships grew and thrived, and it was that kindred experience that created a bond among black people that rallied them to each other’s defense through many trials they endured before and after emancipation.” Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I a Woman? 25.
I once thought of blacks as victims of racism because police officers, who were suppose to protect people who protested peacefully and nonviolently, had no regard for black people and they allowed their German Sheppard attack dogs to bite them and they attached hoses to fire hydrants and let the hoses loose even on black women and children knocking them down in the streets. and when SNCC students sat in at lunch counters to protest segregation, whites spat on them.
With all that black people have endured while fighting for basic human rights in this country by the hands of white people, their strength of character, and their ability to act in a controlled manner while they were treated so inhumanely speaks volumes to the power of a a race of people.
Because of this, I no longer view black people as victims because to say that they were victims gives too much power to their abusers which means that it takes power away from the person being treated unjustly. Those who sat in at lunch counters, and those who marched and fought to gain human and civil rights were not powerless. In fact they used their power in a unified manner. They were not victims, they were victors.
On the topic of racism, when Toni Morrison was interviewed by acclaimed Interviewer and Broadcast Journalist Charlie Rose, she said:
“The people who do this thing, who practice racism are bereft. There is something distorted about the psyche. It’s a huge waste, and it’s a corruption and a distortion. It’s like it’s a profound neurosis that nobody examines for what it is. It feels crazy, it is crazy, and it has just as much a deleterious effect on white people, and possibly equal as it does blacks.”
“Toni Morrison Take White Supremacy to Task.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6S7zGgL6Suw.
During a different talk, hosted by the New York Public Library, Toni Morrison and Angela Davis discussed Literacy, Libraries and Liberation. During that talk, Toni Morrison spoke on the purpose of racism. “Racism has a real function which is power and control, and money which is pretty much the same thing.” In reference to having experienced racism she said “I never felt racism the way it was intended because I always felt those people were deficient in some way.”
“Maybe you can call it arrogance, she said, but the acts of racism showed towards her in spite of whether the acts came from children when she was a child, or adults, were so stupid that she could not feel the degradation of it.”
Toni Morrison and Angela Davis, New York Public Library, October 27, 2010. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rOAYp8yoVA4
Her views on racism shed new light upon my understanding of the mental state of white men and women who packed picnic lunches and took their children with them to eat food while they watched a human body burn as though the corpse was pheasant.
While I always thought that people who could committed such acts were crazy, you know, as people often refer to others as being “crazy,” I failed to realize that they likely suffered from mental disorders. In other words to just say they were crazy did begin to articulate the possibility of the depth of their mental problems.
Sources: Toni Morrison and Angela Davis, New York Public Library, October 27, 2010. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rOAYp8yoVA4 Toni and Angela discussed Frederick Douglass, Libraries, literacy, and Liberation.
Crystal N. Feimster, Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Lynching