Below is part of a speech I gave for the Center for African & African American Studies at LeMoyne-Owen College for the twenty-third Annual Middle Passage Commemoration on September 7, 2016. They held the event at Metropolitan Baptist Church and the title of the event was “From the Middle Passage to the Memphis Massacre of 1866.” I thank Dr. Femi I. Ajanaku and the wonderful students at LeMoyne-Owen College for the invitation. The full title of my talk that day was “The State Sponsored Violence Against Black Bodies: The Middle Passage, The Memphis Massacre and Beyond.”
Black bodies in the United States have been the target of not only suspicion but historically also random acts of violence that found cover, support, and explanation from the government and a majority of its people. We can start with the Middle Passage. If we can believe Equiano’s account from his narrative (I know Black Truth is problematic for some), we can see that this started on ships that stole bodies from Africa. These rogue ships, with the blessings of the state and church, sailed across the Atlantic and returned with black bodies stuffed in its hulls. Equiano described one of these horrific ordeals as such:
I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life: so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything. I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me; but soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatables; and, on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands, and laid me across…..and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely.
These ships of stolen human beings from their homes and families were in fact torture chambers. Equiano wrote about the “closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate,” and how these torture chambers were “so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself,” and how being in their precarious position almost suffocated them. He continued
This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died…….The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.
Another instance of state sponsored black violence that should be of some interest for us here was the Memphis Massacre of 1866. Just this past school year, we commemorated and remembered the event for what it was—an all-out massacre and an all-out assault on black bodies. However, it was also a time when Black truth seemed to matter–at least for a moment. There was this one time, back in 1866 right here in Memphis, Tennessee that some black folks came forward to testify about the atrocity that had happened to them May 1-3. Not long after the vestiges of slavery and still dealing with some form of PTSD, these brave women and men came forward and foreshadowed others would come later bearing Black truth in their bosom and as fire shut in their bones.
Shortly after the massacre, a congressional committee arrived in Memphis to investigate. During their investigation and interview process, the committee discovered that 46 black people died, 285 people injured, over 100 houses and other property belonging to African Americans burned. (And BTW, we don’t have the time to talk about the Black wealth that was lost and the serious need for a conversation centering on this). However, also part of the massacre was the rape of (at least) 5 black women.
According to the report, one of the testimonies came from Frances Thompson, who “had been enslaved and was cripple, using crutches because she had cancer on her foot.” Again from the report:
On Tuesday night seven men, two of whom were policemen, came to her house. She knew the two to be policemen by their stars. They were all Irishmen. They first demanded that she should get supper for them, which she did. After supper the wretches threw all the provisions that were in the house which had not been consumed out into the bayou. They then laid hold of Frances, hitting her on the side of the face and kicking her…….The woman was then violated by four of the men and so beaten and bruised that she lay in bed for three days. They were in the house nearly four hours, and when they left they said they intended “to burn up the last God damned nigger, and drive all the Yankees out of town.
Another case is that of Rebecca Ann Bloom who was ravished on the night of May 2nd. According to testimony:
She was in bed with her husband, when five men broke open her door and came into her house. They professed to have authority to arrest Mr. Bloom, and threatened to take him to the station-house unless he should pay them twenty-five dollars. Not having the money, he went out to raise it, and while absent one of the men assaulted the wife and threatened to kill her if she did not let him do as he wished. Brandishing his knife, and swearing she must submit to his wishes, he accomplished his brutal purpose.
Then there was the case of Lucy Tibbs. A party of seven men broke into her house on Tuesday night and demanded to know where her husband was. She had with her two little children of the ages of five and two years, respectively. She implored them not to do anything to her, as she was just there with her “two little children.” While the others of the party were plundering the house, one man threatened to kill her if she did not submit to his wishes and although another man, discovering her situation, interfered, and told him to let that woman alone that she was not in situation for doing that, the brute did not desist, but succeeded in violating her person in the presence of the other six men. She was obliged to submit, as the house was full of men, and she thought they would kill her, as they had stabbed a woman the previous night in her neighborhood.
In listing the atrocities that the white mob committed, the report concludes that
Hardly any crime seems to have been omitted. There were burglary, robbery, arson, mayhem, rape, assassination, and murder, committed under circumstances of the most revolting atrocity, the details of which in every case are fully set out in the testimony. In many cases negroes were murdered and their bodies remained on the ground for forty-eight hours, and had reached stage of decomposition before they were buried; the relatives and friends of the murdered parties being afraid to appear on the street to claim the dead bodies, and the authorities permitted them to remain longer than they would have permitted the body of dead dog to remain on the street.
This was not Memphis’ only foray into the terrorizing and mutilation to black bodies. Next year, the Lynching Sites Project here in Memphis will commemorate the 1917 lynching of Ell Persons. A mob of white citizens lynched Persons for the stated belief that he raped and killed a 15 year old white girl, Antonette Rappel, right here in Memphis, Tennessee. The reason why we know so much about this lynching was that the newspapers of the day carried continued coverage of the lynching as if it was a football game.
For instance, on May 22, 1917 the Commercial Appeal ran a front page story that said it all: MOB CAPTURES SLAYER OF THE RAPPEL GIRL Ell Persons to Be Lynched Near Scene of Murder MAY RESORT TO BURNING. According to Margaret Vandiver, despite the Commercial Appeal and other media outlets reporting that a lynching was sure to happen, there was no effort among law enforcement to take Persons back into custody. In fact, police may had been spectators and participants. According to Commercial Appeal reporter Boyce House, who wrote about the lynching in his memoir, he wrote that he went a “with four policemen in plain clothes to the scene (they had no intention of stopping the lynching but wanted to see it).In addition, House also reported that one of the officers that came with him served as the “Master of Ceremonies for the lynching; “raising his hand like the master of ceremonies at a prize fight club.” The Commercial Appeal reported that this MC commanded silence and “announced that the mother of the murdered girl desired to make a statement. The crowd surged closer to catch her words, which proved to be audible for a distance of about 50 feet. “I want to thank all my friends who have worked so hard in my behalf,” she said. “Let the negro suffer as my little girl suffered, only 10 times worse.” “We’ll burn him,” the crowd yelled. “Yes, burn him on the spot where he killed my little girl.”
And burned him they did. Instead of hanging him, they decided to take him down and they tied him to a large log. Someone doused him with gallons of gasoline and after a minister by the name of “Brother Royal” decided that Persons wasn’t someone who the people should pray for or for Persons to pray himself, they set the fire to his body. According to newspaper reports, the death was instantaneous, but the News Scimitar wrote that he “slowly roasted to death” and he made no outcry. However, the News Scimitar added this caveat for history: While the fire, starting at [Persons’s] feet, crept slowly toward his face a 10 year old negro boy was placed on the other end of the log. “Take a good look, boy,” someone told him. “We want you to remember this the longest day you live. This is what happens to niggers who molest white women.”
If that wasn’t bad enough, after his death, Persons body was mutilated. Persons’ heart was cut out of his body while the body still burned; others cut off his ears and another cut off his head, while yet others “rushed for souvenirs.” People continued arriving at the scene after the lynching and thousands came out during the day, (estimates of about 5000) many seeking souvenirs. After the lynching, three men threw Persons’ head and foot from a car at a group of African Americans at the corner of Beale and Rayburn, yelling as they did it, “Take this with our compliments.” The headlines of the Commercial Appeal on Wednesday, May 23 read: THOUSANDS CHEERED WHEN NEGRO BURNED. Ell Persons Pays Death Penalty for Killing Girl. OIL IS POURED ON FIRE. WANTED BLACK TO SUFFER. Remember, this was a lynching that law enforcement knew was going to happen; they knew it before it happened; and they as well as the majority of Memphians, did nothing to stop it.
So when someone like Colin Kaepernick refuses to stand for the national anthem and say it is because of police brutality and the oppression that many still feel in this country, sadly he is standing within a sick and twisted tradition in American culture. One the one hand, we are a people who boast about freedom, justice and liberty, for all; the proverbial “ALL LIVES MATTER” while at the same time, knowing in the deepest of our collective psyches, that ALL LIVES have never mattered.
And again this was brought out for all to see in the responses to Kaepernick’s protest. Instead of focusing in on the issues that he wanted to address, many offered red herring arguments that sought to move the conversation away from the issues that Kaepernick felt Americans should address. Arguments that ranged from he is being disrespectful to veterans to who is he to talk about oppression–after all he will make 11 million dollars this year; what does he know about oppression? But the one that I would like to close my talk with today is that argument that went something like this: “I understand what he is doing and it’s important, but I didn’t like the way he went about it.” In short, if he would have done something else; if he would have said something else or if he would have done it this way or that way; I could get behind it.
This too is nothing new within the African American freedom tradition because far too long, reformers, activists, protesters and righteous folks have been hearing this mantra throughout the long journey to freedom. In the past, it bothered some that their messages got muddle in the murk and the mire. In the past, it bothered some that their integrity was questioned and their leadership attacked. In the past, it bothered some that they had to watch carefully every word they said and everything that they did because they did not want folks mad at them. In the past, it bothered some because they could never find the right balance and the appropriate response to the atrocities that happened to them. But now, while some folks are still bothered and still trying to figure out what is the right way to protest, many more folks, looking back on the tradition; realize that whenever people were sick and tired of being sick and tired; when the people protested, it was never the right time!
It wasn’t the right time, for Richard Allen when he left the white Methodist Church to start the AME church. It wasn’t the right time, for Henry Highland Garnet who became the first black person to speak before Congress and in 1845 told them that they ought to live as they say they believed and let the monster of slavery die. It wasn’t the right time, for Frances Ellen Watkins Harper when she was invited to speak before a group of white women who believed that her race was inferior and needed help. She reminded them that the black race was not inferior and things would be better if you would just live up to the Christ of Calvary instead of the Christ of Culture. It wasn’t the right time for Ida B Wells, when she told a disbelieving nation all about the terrors of lynching and how many of the stories that justified lynching were not true; especially the ones about black men rapping white women.
It wasn’t the right time for Bishop Henry McNeal Turner when he said that the American Flag as far as the Negro is concerned is a dirty and filthy rag and that blacks could not claim one star or one stripe in that flag. It was Turner who famously proclaimed, that “Hell was an improvement as far as the Negro was concern.”
It wasn’t the right time for Fannie Lou Hamer as she told her story of abuse and oppression in the Delta of Mississippi at a time when folks believed things were getting better. She declared to a nation that she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” and she questioned America’s commitment to justice when she asked, “Is this America? The land of the free and the home of the brave? Where we have to sleep with our telephone off the hook, because our lives be threatened daily? Is this America?
It wasn’t the right time for Martin Luther King Dr. King when he participated in shutting down the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma Alabama. So the next time somebody laments about those young folks shutting down the I 40 Bridge, tell them they were just following the example of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.! What folks are realizing today is that the very nature of protest is to disrupt the norm and to bring attention to the issues at hand and it is NEVER the RIGHT TIME! It’s to bust up decorum and issue in a brand new day!
Donate to the Work of R3
Like the work we do at Rhetoric Race and Religion? Please consider helping us continue to do this work. All donations are tax-deductible through Gifts of Life Ministries/G’Life Outreach, a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization, and our fiscal sponsor. Any donation helps. Just click here to support our work.