By Caroline Nixon
On September 18, Sewanee’s Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation hosted “The Legacy of Lynching in American Life,” a lecture by Illinois State University Professor Amy Louise Wood.
Her lecture concluded “The Lynching of Ed Johnson in Chattanooga: A Critical Discussion of the History of Racial Violence in the U.S.” event series by the Department of History and the Africana Studies at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC), Sewanee’s Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, and the Ed Johnson Project in Chattanooga.
The series centers around Ed Johnson, an African American man from Chattanooga who was unjustly convicted of raping a white woman and sentenced to death. When the U.S. Supreme Court gave him a stay of execution, a mob of whites stormed the jail, took Johnson and hanged him from the Walnut Street Bridge. His last words were, “God bless you all, I am a innocent man.”
Previous events in the series consisted of a film screening of the Ed Johnson Project’s documentary and Wood’s first lecture, “The Lynching of Ed Johnson in Historical Perspective,” at UTC.
Wood is a professor of post-Civil War American cultural history and the history of the American South. She is also the author of Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940, which won the Lillian Smith Book Award and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award in History.
In her lecture, Wood focused on the legacy of lynching as it has been represented by media, culture, and art. She began with lynching as a metaphor for status in the U.S., particularly mirroring incidents of police brutality against African Americans.
She made it clear that there is a difference between the anti-lynching movements of the NAACP (National Association for Advancement of Colored People) and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. This difference lies in the treatment of the victim.
The BLM movement uses what Wood describes as an “empathetic identification of the victim.” By using slogans like “I am Trayvon Martin” and “Hands up don’t shoot,” activists are taking the point of view of the victim, and for many members of the BLM movement, emphasizing that this could have easily been them. “The racial climate indicts all black persons in America,” Wood says.
The NAACP had a different focus in their anti-lynching campaign of the early 1930s. They targeted the use of lynching photographs.
Lynching photographs were typically taken by professional photographers and used by whites as a defense for lynching: upon closer inspection of a lynching photograph, one may notice that the whites stand uniformly next to one another, while the victim hangs limply off to one side. This is meant to isolate the victim, to show white “civility” as opposed to black “savagery.”
The NAACP sought to revert this association. After 1915, the organization was in full force, focusing their energies on anti-lynching legislation. This translated to using lynching photographs in their newspapers as testaments to white cruelty. Captions drew focus to the white perpetrator, showing that lynching was damaging to white communities.
Unfortunately, the focus on whites instead of the victim made the victims anonymous. When white newspapers began to take on the campaign, they erased the victim completely from the photograph. This, coupled with anti-lynching films in Hollywood where the victims were portrayed as white men, skewed the public’s understanding of lynching.
In these films, lynching was condemned not as a racial injustice, but a legal one. By erasing the victim completely, the public became desensitized to lynching. Wood called it the “silencing of public memory.”
Wood said recent art exhibits and movements memorializing lynchings have helped the American people remember the past. However, she urges exhibits to shy away from desensitizing viewers.
“The photograph itself is an act of violence,” she said. Wood explained that viewers are voyeurs through looking at the photograph, making something as private as death public. By keeping in mind that racism is not a thing of the past when people look at these photos, they lose the risk of desensitization.
This is where movements like Black Lives Matter come into play, according to Wood. By empathizing with the victim, it is hard to forget what happened to them. They are literal symbols of racial injustice in America and do not risk anonymity. This gives Wood hope for the understanding of race relations in the future.
For Sewanee students, there is much they can do to support movements outside of BLM. “Before reconciliation has to come the truth, reconciling one’s prejudices, “ Wood said. “Listen to African American students and their experiences in the present.”
Wood also drew attention to the Ed Johnson Project, where those interested can educate themselves by watching their documentary and donate to the memorial. Live streams from all three events of the series by the Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation are available on their website.