Ghosts of Lynching on a College Campus

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Commentator Sherrilyn Ifill has fought racism her entire life, as a civil rights lawyer and as a mother. When a noose was found on a tree at the University of Maryland — where she teaches and her daughter is a freshman — she had to ask, "Will this ever end?"


A Louisiana appeals court has tossed out the conviction of one of the so-called Jena Six. That's the group of African-American teens who faced charges stemming from a high school fight. Today, the court said Mychal Bell, the only young man convicted, should not have been tried as an adult, he faced 15 years in prison. The white students involved were charged with less serious crimes. The Jena incident included nooses being hung from the schoolyard tree. That same thing happened this week at the University of Maryland.

Civil rights lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill teaches there and her daughter just started as a freshman.

Professor SHERRILYN IFILL (Civil Rights, University of Maryland; Author, "On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century"): Over the years, I've talked with my daughter a lot about lynching. I'm not a particularly morbid person and I don't relish telling my children the details of this country's sordid history. But I spent seven years researching and writing a book about lynching and what I believe is its pernicious legacy in communities throughout America.

So, I was surprised to find myself at a loss for words when a noose was found hanging from a tree near the Black Cultural Center at the University of Maryland. It was my daughter's first week of college, and I teach at the law school.

In this country, a noose hanging from a tree calls to mind the nearly 5,000 black men and women who were lynched from the 1890s to the 1960s. Many lynchings were public spectacles attended by hundreds, even thousands of whites. The last lynching in Maryland in 1933 was attended by nearly 2,000 onlookers.

Like every black parent, there are certain things I hope my children would never experience - the ugliness of racial segregation, being called the N word, and of course, the threat of racial violence. So what could I say to my daughter now? I'd written a book, been interviewed on the radio and in the newspaper. I was the expert. She had attended so many conferences with me during my research on lynching that she was kind of a mini expert, too. I can vividly recall one conference where my then-9-year-old daughter asked from the audience, if I thought that all of the whites who attended lynchings really approved of it, or if some were just too afraid to go against the crowd.

So this week, we talked about the ongoing case in Jena, Louisiana. After black students sat under a tree known as the white tree, white students hung a noose from it. The ensuing friction between the students resulted in several assaults. Was the noose at the University of Maryland the copycat?

My talk with my daughter unsettled me. As a civil rights lawyer, I devoted my career to fighting racial discrimination, taking a considerable amount of time away from my life with my children. But here I was, talking with my daughter during her first week of college about a potential hate crime on her campus.

This feeling of impotence and disappointment was not unfamiliar. I'd felt it when my daughters had their first experiences with racism in school, on the street, at the playground. Can this still be happening? Will this ever end?

Of course, I've talked with administration officials at the college. I'm satisfied that they're investigating the matter vigorously. I've talked with my community of civil rights lawyers and activists about appropriate next steps. But most of all, I take comfort from my conversations with my daughter and from the actions of her peers.

In our talks, my daughter is poised, thoughtful and engaged. She attended the meeting organized by black student leaders where the discussion, she tells me, was difficult and passionate, but productive. She left at 9 p.m. to study for a quiz. She had a cold and hoped she'd be better for her boyfriend's first football home game this weekend. She complained about the food at school.

For her, this incident is a part of life, a part she's unafraid to confront, but unwilling to empower.

BLOCK: Sherrilyn Ifill is a professor at the University of Maryland Law School. Her book is "On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century."

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