When Dr. Monique Guillory called me and said she wanted to bring the "Without Sanctuary" exhibit to Jackson, I swallowed hard. I knew about the horrifying and controversial exhibit of lynching photographs, the images that sear themselves into your psyche and refuse to let go. I hadn't seen the actual exhibit; I lived across Central Park from it for a while in New York, but never quite got up the courage to go. But since returning home, I had looked at the 81 photos posted online; I knew this would be rough.
I agreed immediately to help bring the exhibit to Mississippi, to Jackson—to my state that still officially honors the Confederate flag, a symbol of race terrorism to so many, and the last place I ever expected to witness such unyielding honesty.
During the planning meetings, our group struggled to find a common language to even talk about these images: brutal pictures of burned bodies and often-naked victims hanging from trees, crowds of (usually white) onlookers gathered around, laughing, pointing, posturing. Several people on the committee worried about how the black community, especially men, would react to the images of helplessness and despair and evil. I worried that no white people would go see them, thus missing an opportunity at a little more understanding of our difficult, yet shared history.
I finally went to see the actual photos two days before the exhibit opened while they were still being mounted on the walls in the old president's house, just west of campus. Many of the photos were smaller than I expected, but more powerful that way. You see, many are postcards that white people sent to other white people around the country commemorating the lynching of "uppity" blacks, often accused of ogling a white woman, or stealing something, or trying to stir up (civil rights) trouble. Photographers would set up at the lynchings, often promoted in advance so crowds could gather. You could see the actual handwriting on many; not only did the senders, often women, show up for the brutality, but they were still proud of it later.
The day the exhibit officially opened, I dreaded seeing the photographs among my fellow Jacksonians, seeing the pain on their faces, sharing the suffocation the images cause in one's throat. As soon as I arrived, I saw my good friend Charles Tucker, an African American man who works at the Piney Woods School; I can spend hours talking with him about anything. Music. Politics. Race relations. Anything. He looked at me quickly, and we hugged, surrounded by the photos. "These are rough," he said, or something to that effect.
He then told me he had one in particular to show me. I followed him, knowing already which one he was headed toward. It was the photo of the lynching of Rubin Stacy on July 19, 1935, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Mr. Stacy is fully clothed in overalls, unlike so many of the victims in the exhibit, and hanging from a tree, his hands cuffed. Mr. Stacy, a homeless tenant farmer, had gone to a woman's home to ask for food; she became frightened and reported him to the police. The New York Times had reported: "The suspect, booked as Rubin Stacy was hanged to a roadside tree within sight of the home of Mrs. Marion Jones, thirty year old mother of three children, who identified him as her assailant." A hundred masked men had overpowered the Dade County police who were escorting him to Miami for "safekeeping." His body was also riddled with bullet holes.
But this photo speaks to me for different reasons. Along with middle-aged white men wearing festive straw hats, there are four young girls in the photo, dressed in white, looking light and happy as they stared up at the limp body hanging from the tree. One of them, who seems to be about 8 and is wearing a delightful little sleeveless dress, has her hands crossed cutely and a mischievous smile on her face.
When I think of the exhibit consciously, I see the image of that little girl. I know with only a slight twist of fate, I could have been her. My parents could have raised me to be subhuman, to deny reality and history, to continue the cruel legacy of hating people with a different skin color. I could have grown up—she may still be alive; she'd be in her late 70s now—with knowledge that I'd participated in and laughed at something that couldn't get much more evil or cruel. Or maybe I would have grown up in denial, believing in my own superiority and justifying such viciousness by transferring it to a fear of young black men. I could have been the little girl conditioned to stare inhumanity in the face and think that my white supremacy was a "cause" worth fighting for and preserving and symbolizing.
That photo quite simply breaks my heart, even more so than the others. My heart cries out for both the little girl and for the victim of her people's evil. It may be hard for many people to accept, but she was a victim, too. Her innocence and her goodness was robbed from her at a very young age, and immortalized for the rest of us to ponder. Standing there next to my friend Charles, I knew I was lucky that I wasn't forced to be that little girl, but I also know that the cruel hoax of white supremacy still lives in people who want to deny, or justify, or forget the recent past, people who will not face Americans' shared history, people who prefer us frozen in time and distrust.
Walking away from Charles, I saw another photo I hadn't seen before. This one was of a line of young black men, dead, roped to a fence, their bodies overlapping each other's limply, disrespectfully tied together like dead animals. Wild animals. Wild tigers. Super-predators. Terrorized. Caught. Snared. Stopped. Brutalized. Used.
I thought of all the crime rhetoric of then and today, the fears—subtle or blatant—of young black men in our society. The disproportionate number of them being stuffed into our increasingly private prisons. Young men profiled by police, mistrusted simply because they're present. People I'd heard complain about one-parent families (especially black ones) being the root of all evil and crime. The White Citizens Council using nearly identical words to warn "society" against the evils of black crime in the 1950s and '60s as many crime-"fighters" do today. Young men growing up with only a mother or grandmother because their fathers are in Parchman, amid crumbling houses and broken windows owned by absentee landlords. I thought of cycles and how we don't really seem that determined to break them.
I didn't find answers at the "Without Sanctuary" exhibit, but I did find hope. I watched many black and white Mississippians, I'm proud to report, find courage to show up and face the pain together. May the victims, and the past, rest in peace.
Donna Ladd is the editor-in-chief of the Jackson Free Press.
The Clarion-Ledger today has a slew of letters about the Confederate emblem in our state flag. The following letter, from Kay Franz in Ridgeland, really nailed it in my view:
I wonder what the public reaction would be if the German chancellor were to give German police permission to place a swastika on their vehicles.
Even though this ancient Greek cross was once a symbol to bring good luck, it is better known to represent Nazism and anti-Semitism. I am neither Jewish nor African-American, but a Mississippi citizen who wishes my state would shed its 1950s image for good.