Monday, May 15, 2006

Better Late than Never - If Only the U.S. Government Would do the Same

Apology for a Lynching
May 15, 2006

Paper Regrets Role of Predecessor in 1916 Atrocity

Today at 11 a.m. Texas time, a small interracial organization plans to meet on the steps of the Waco, Texas, courthouse to read a resolution condemning and apologizing for the lynching of a 17-year-old African American, Jesse Washington -- a lynching "so astonishingly brutal that the incident became known nationally as the 'Waco Horror,'" in the words of Wade Goodwyn in a National Public Radio story on Saturday.

"His fingers were amputated for souvenirs and his fingernails taken for keepsakes. Finally all that was left was a charred torso, but Washington’s body parts were put in a bag so they could be dragged through downtown," the story recalled.

On Sunday, the Waco Tribune-Herald apologized for the role that journalists played in the tragedy. The reading of the resolution is to take place 90 years from the exact moment Washington was seized in the courtroom.

"The editorial board of the Tribune-Herald wants to denounce what happened," the newspaper wrote Sunday.

"We recognize that such violence is part of this city's legacy. We are sorry any time the rule of passion rises above the rule of law. We regret the role that journalists of that era may have played in either inciting passions or failing to deplore the mob violence.

"We are descendants of a journalism community that failed to urge calm or call on citizens to respect the legitimate justice system."

The white journalism community was distinct from the black one.

"The Waco Horror broke new ground in lynch journalism," David Levering Lewis wrote in his 1993 biography "W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race," about the legendary scholar and activist who edited the NAACP's magazine the Crisis. The publication reported on the Washington lynching in its June and July 1916 issues. NAACP board members "were shocked by the choice of cover for the June issue -- the ghastly, burnt-cork husk of Jesse Washington suspended by chain from a tree. Du Bois poured into the special July supplement the bloodstained detail of an undercover investigation," Lewis wrote.

"The Crisis carried lengthy, verbatim statements by lynching-party participants, and Du Bois editorialized with his usual withering irony." In a previous issue, Du Bois had listed the 2,732 lynchings of African Americans between 1885 and 1914 and said, "all this goes to show how peculiarly fitted the United States is for moral leadership of the world."

Lewis explained that Washington "was a mentally impaired field hand who, after raping and killing his white employer's wife in the kitchen, returned to hoe cotton placidly beside the husband, son, and daughter. Jailed for safekeeping in Dallas and then tried in Waco, he was set upon and dragged from the courthouse by most of the white men, women, and children of the town. Hitched to a car and dragged till the chain broke, Jesse Washington's ears were severed, his body doused with kerosene, pieces carved from it, and in final Gothic glee, the shouting, cavorting townspeople hoisted him to a tree on the courthouse lawn and finished incinerating him. Woodrow Wilson was still to redeem his promise to denounce lynching."

"While some newspapers urged residents to let the law take its course, the Waco Morning News described the mob in heroic terms," J.B. Smith wrote last year in the Waco Tribune-Herald.

"'Resembling the forefathers who dared anything for their country's sake, the determined band of farmers and neighbors last night declared to the sheriff that they didn't want trouble, but that their blood would not stand for a fiendish brute to trample the chastity and sacredness of life and their women folk,' the newspaper stated," Smith reported.

"'Yesterday's exciting occurrence is a closed incident,' stated the Waco Times-Herald (a predecessor of this newspaper) on the day after the lynching."

The incident is the subject of two recent books: "The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP," by Patricia Bernstein (Texas A&M Press) and "The Making of a Lynching Culture: Violence and Vigilantism in Central Texas 1836-1916," by William Carrigan (University of Illinois Press).

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