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Warning: Some of the details of the historical events discussed below are by their nature extremely disturbing. If, for any reason, you feel as if reading about racially-motivated lynchings would cause you undue emotional or psychological distress, you may want to skip this article.
On August 3rd of 1980, freshly minted Republican presidential nominee and conservative savior Ronald Reagan took his campaign down into the deep southern center of Mississippi to try to spread his message of supply-side economics, small government and military might. Nowadays, the idea of a GOP candidate actively campaigning in a state like Mississippi after primary season had passed sounds odd, but back then most of the southland was still heavily Democratic, as evidenced by the fact that Jimmy Carter had taken every single state from the old Confederacy save Virginia 4 years earlier. In order to ingratiate himself to the white south, Reagan had to reassure them that he was on their side, and the place he thought would serve as the best backdrop for such a message was Philadelphia, Mississippi.
For many younger Americans, the town of Philadelphia, Mississippi doesn’t hold any special significance, but to people of a certain age, there are few places that encapsulate the brutal and destructive power of racism. In the of summer of 1964, two young Jewish civil rights workers from New York City (Andrew Goodman & Michael Schwerner) and one black civil rights worker from nearby Meridian, Mississippi (James Chaney) went to investigate the burning of the Mount Zion Methodist Church just outside of Philadelphia where they had been trying to register blacks to vote during a massive civil rights campaign that was dubbed Freedom Summer.
Sixteen years and one day after those remains were found, Ronald Reagan stood before a crowd at the Neshoba County Fair and spoke to the white Mississippians who had assembled about the evils of welfare, the oppressive overreach of the Federal government and the importance of preserving “states’ rights”. It was a dog whistle so shrill and loud that all but the most naïve and clueless could hear it, echoing the words of John Calhoun and George Wallace and native son Jefferson Davis, all of whom had used the same terminology in efforts to beat back the tides of emancipation and desegregation. In the aftermath of his nomination as the Republican candidate for president, Ronald Reagan could’ve have chosen hundreds of other places to try to build support in the Dixiecrat South but he chose Philadelphia, Mississippi—a town of a little under 6,500 people in a state that’s worth roughly 1.3% of the nation’s electoral votes. A town that just happened to be the site of the civil rights worker murders that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the beginning of the end of de jure segregation and racial discrimination in America.
This style of dog whistle racial politics, pioneered first by Nixon, mastered by Reagan and arguably reaching its apogee with George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton case, was the bread and butter of Republican politics for over four decades. It was the core tenant of a Southern Strategy that saw the GOP inhabiting The White House for the latter third of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. However, the election of Barack Obama to the presidency in 2008, the rise of the Tea Party in 2010 and Mitt Romney’s failure win The White House in 2012 has set in motion a chain of events whereby the Republican Party is in danger of being subsumed by a wave of overt and violently racist anger that belongs more to the battles of the Civil Rights Era than anything we have seen in the recent past.
Donald Trump does not know nuance, nor does he believe in coding the bigotry and xenophobia that binds him to his followers. From his insistence that the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States be deported and the border with Mexico walled off to his call to ban virtually all of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims from entering America and his refusal to disavow the support of David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan, Trump has taken the wink-wink, nudge-nudge intolerance of the GOP and laid it bare for all the world to see. Of particular horror, especially for those who suffered the dangers and indignities of racial violence and segregation that characterized pre-Civil Rights Era America—and the South in particular—has been the treatment of blacks and Muslims who have been so brave as to attend a Trump event.
Of all the events of the past week, it would be easy to conclude that the one that took place at Valdosta State would be the least damaging or traumatic considering it involved the least amount of violence of the four, and it in an ahistorical vacuum, that’d be true. However, much like Reagan’s States’ Rights speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the racial targeting of peaceful black students at their own school by the university police at the bequest of a white supremacist-friendly politician churns up memories of one of the most horrific, racially-motivated atrocities in American history—a story so disturbing that I didn’t feel comfortable recounting it here without first posting a warning as to the disturbing nature of its content.
In the spring of 1918, a young, white, Valdosta planter named Hampton Smith was shot and killed by Sidney Johnson, an 18-year old black man who had been under his employ. Smith, who had a widespread reputation as an extremely abusive and exploitative boss, had been using the debt peonage system that flourished in much of the South in the decades following the end of slavery to manage his plantation, paying the bonds of blacks arrested for petty offenses and forcing them to work off their “debt” to him. Johnson, who had been arrested for the crime of “rolling dice” and fined $30, had been beaten numerous times by Hampton Smith during his time working for him, but it was a savage beating he received from Smith for not working while he was ill that finally spurred him to deadly action.
After conferring with some of his fellow workers, Johnson managed to procure a gun from Smith’s home and shot and killed him while he was eating his dinner. Smith’s wife, who was eating dinner with him when her husband was killed, was shot as well, although she did not die. Rumors abounded, as they almost always did whenever a white woman was somehow involved in a crime committed by a black man, that Smith had been raped by Johnson and the other men after she was shot. Investigation later on would prove that Mrs. Smith was never raped, but the mere implication that such an act occurred was enough to foment a lynch mob in and around Valdosta.
All in all, the lynch mob—which at one point was said to be 300 men large—killed 13 black men, women and children during their rampage. Johnson, the man who was the ultimate target of the mob’s extrajudicial outrage, was actually the last person to be lynched. After hiding out in Valdosta for about a week, Johnson finally got into a firefight with some Valdosta police officers, ultimately dying from gunshot wounds in the house he was hiding in. Unsatisfied with having murdered their man in such a dignified fashion, members of the crowd that had gathered castrated Johnson and threw his manhood in the street before putting a rope around his neck, tying him to the back of a car and dragging his lifeless body through the streets like Achilles pulling the corpse of Hector around the gates of Troy before burning him to ash.
However, the murder of Sidney Johnson is not the principal reason why these lynchings are still indelibly etched into Southern Georgia’s collective memory. A still far more inconceivable and inhuman murder was carried out by the lynch mob in the days before Johnson was killed, this one against a young black woman named Mary Turner. Mary and her husband, Hayes Turner, had been routinely abused by Hampton Smith in the past and were among those involved in orchestrating the events that led to his death. The couple had hosted Sidney Johnson and a few other black men who were employed and beaten by Smith at their home to plot the murder and were among the first to be hunted down by the lynch mob in the days immediately following Smith’s death. Hayes Turner was killed first, hanged from the neck by the mob a few miles outside of town. His hands still shackled behind his back from his initial arrest that preceded his abduction by the mob, Hayes Turner’s corpse was allowed to hang from a tree for several days, with whites from all around the county making pilgrimages on foot and by car to see the body.
After the lynch mob caught up to Mary Turner following her remarks regarding the treatment of her husband, she was dragged out to a lonesome, canopied road well outside of town. Once there, the young woman’s ankles were tied together and she her was hanged, upside down, from a small oak tree that stood by the side of the road. Then, as the assembled crowd cheered and hollered, the woman was covered in gasoline and oil and she was set on fire. It is at this point that it becomes absolutely necessary to add that, as all of these horrific acts were being carried out by a bloodthirsty mob, the 21-year old widow Mary Turner was 8 months pregnant. Thus, as she was being consumed in flames, one of the men in the lynch mob approached the hanging body and, using a large knife, split her belly open, sending the still breathing infant tumbling to the ground, where it was allowed a few seconds of life before a member of the mob crushed the baby’s head with the heel of his boot. Not content with the damage they had done, the crowd then fired hundreds of bullets into Mary Turner’s body before heading back to town.
We would like to believe that the barbarous and unconscionable acts performed by lynch mobs like the one that murdered Mary Turner and her child are byproducts of hideous pasts that we cannot go back to. It is a reassuring thing to believe that progress is a foolproof barrier against evils of earlier, “less civilized” times—that we would somehow have absorbed through a sort of moral osmosis the lessons of prior generations. That we are not prone to embrace the same demons that ran roughshod through the hearts and minds of the tyrants of history and the millions who hung on their every word. But this belief is little more than a false promise. Thus far, there is nothing in record of man that tells us that technological advancement and all of the trappings of civilization inculcate us from the venomous antipathies we hold against one another based on skin color, creed or country. Do not fool yourself. The fermented rage and misdirected frustration that is on display at Trump rallies in all of the Louisvilles, Virginias and Valdostas is not some new strain of civil and self-contained hatred. It’s the same one that’s always been with us and it’s not going away anytime soon.