I’ve been re-reading one of the great American autobiographies, James Weldon Johnson’s “Along This Way.” Johnson was a renaissance man: poet, novelist, school teacher, writer of hit songs with his brother Rosamond, diplomat who served as American consul in Nicaragua during a revolution, and executive secretary of the NAACP.
In this last capacity, Johnson investigated a number of lynchings, and in his autobiography he describes an investigation into a lynching in 1917:
“I rushed to Memphis to to make an investigation of the burning alive of Ell Persons, a Negro [sic], charged with being an ‘axe murder.’ I was in Memphis ten days; I talked with the sheriff, with newspaper men, with a few white citizens, and many colored [sic] ones; I read through the Memphis papers covering the period; and nowhere could I find any evidence that Ell Persons was guilty of the crimes that had been committed. And, yet, without a trial, he was burned alive on the charge. I wrote out my findings, and they were published in a pamphlet that was widely circulated….”
More than a hundred years later, we’ve been hearing about the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Aubrey. Reading Johnson’s autobigraphy has prompted me to ask myself: What, if anything, has changed? The biggest change might well be the wide availability of videography, and the ability to disseminate videos almost immediately: instead of just reading a pamphlet some weeks after a lynching, we sometimes see a video of a lynching almost in real time. Another change: according to Johnson, some 5,000 people turned out to watch Ell Persons being burned alive; today, while the people doing the lynching still aren’t trying to hide their actions, at least some bystanders might call them out on it.
But in many ways it feels as though not much has changed. A hundred years later, black men are still being murdered without cause. Too many murderers of black men still get away with it. And, as my cousin Saba has pointed out, we still mostly don’t hear about the violence perpetrated on black women.
I suppose now I should offer some of the usual platitudes that white people offer, using key words like “justice” and “white supremacy” and “reconciliation” and so forth. But I think instead I’ll quote James Weldon Johnson’s key insight as he researched the Ell Persons case, as he discovered both the physical sufferings of the black victim, and the “moral degradation” of the white community:
“The truth flashed over me that in large measure the race question involves the saving of black America’s body and white America’s soul.”