Confronting a Legacy of Lynching

University of Maryland law professor Sherrilyn Ifill talks about her new book, On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty First Century. Also weighing in: Polly Stewart, a folklorist and former professor at Salisbury University, who researched lynching cases in parts of Maryland's Eastern Shore.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.

If you've seen it, you will never forget it - a picture of the battered body of teenager Emmett Till in his coffin. Then there's Thomas Shipp, Abram Smith, among so many others battered or bloodied, hanging from trees. They're the topic of a new book, "On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-first Century."

University of Maryland law professor Sherrilyn Ifill writes that communities have to come to grips with these events if they want to heal. Featured in the book is Polly Stewart, a folklorist and former professor at Salisbury University. She researched lynching cases along Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Polly Stewart and Sherrilyn Ifill spoke with NPR's Michel Martin.

MICHEL MARTIN: Professor Ifill, how did you get interested in this subject?

Professor SHERRILYN IFILL (Author, "On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-first Century"): I have to say in some ways it was kind of the culmination of many things. I was on the Eastern Shore in the mid-1990s litigating a civil rights case on behalf of an African-American community in the town of Salisbury, Maryland.

And when I talked with my clients in that community about the history of race in this community, they told me about these lynchings that happened in the 1930s. They happened to be the last two lynchings that took place in the state of Maryland.

But that I can't say is the only thing that got me interested. I had already been a civil rights lawyer for many years. From the very beginning of my career, I invariably heard some things from my clients about lynching or about some act of racial terrorism that had happened in the community. So all these things kind of came together to push me towards thinking about the importance of addressing this kind of history.

MARTIN: The incidents that kind of form the center of your book were the two lynchings that took place in the Eastern Shore in the 1930s, the last recorded lynchings in Maryland.

You also pointed out that the James Byrd lynching in 1998, the last recorded lynching in the United States. But that was three hocked-up, you know, drugged out guys. They were swiftly arrested, put through the system of justice, sentenced to death. And before that, the last recorded lynching was in 1981, the Michael Donald case in Georgia.

The reason I say that is that those things ended long ago. So why do you think that matters?

Prof. IFILL: Because I think there is what I kind of call the toxic cocktail of shame and fear that brought down a curtain of silence in these communities when these events happened. And in many instances, and I certainly think in the communities that I worked in on the Shore, the relationship between and among blacks and whites is almost frozen in a way because of those incidents, because of that silence, because of this taboo.

And the fact that there were hundreds, in some cases thousands, of people who witnessed these events and the fact that these incidents of mass violence went unpunished also has a power within the community.

If we're really to talk about moving forward in a new community, if we're to talk about reconciliation, then we can't talk ad nauseam about affirmative action and about bussing and about welfare reform and leave these subjects untouched.

MARTIN: You say in your book that reconciliation is local. What do you mean?

Prof. IFILL: You'll recall that in the 1990s, in the late 1990s, President Clinton called for a national conversation on race. And I thought then and I still think now that a national conversation on race is simply impossible to get one's hands around.

My own experience is that racial discrimination, and particularly the effects of racial terrorism and violence, were experienced locally. And the local community is in the best position to identify the forms of reparation or the means of reconciliation that will work in that community. It cannot be one size fits all. It has to be customized to the way in which that community was harmed and the way in which that community can be healed.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about whites in the community. Why would they want to open up that painful past?

Prof. IFILL: I think that there will be whites who will not want to participate in this kind of conversation or effort, and that is not troubling to me at all. I don't think we need 100 percent participation. And by the way, there are blacks who won't want to participate either. But I think that there are whites who will want to participate.

My experience, for example, of talking to people who were children when lynchings happened and saw part of the lynching, I think there are white children who have never been able to talk about these events - that the silence came down and it came down hard and heavy in their families and in their communities.

And they are now elderly and they need to process these events and to figure out how to reconcile themselves with their family members and what they saw happen. There are whites who moved to the community, who see and feel and experience those strange kinds of taboos. And then there are other simply who live in the community who also know that these subjects have been taboo, and they have information to share.

MARTIN: You talk about in your book that even when persons are willing, there can be deep social costs to that. And to talk more about that I'd like to bring another voice, that of someone you interviewed on the book, Professor Polly Stewart.

In the mid-1980s, Polly Stewart was folklorist and she researched cases of lynching that had taken place in parts of Maryland's Eastern Shore during the '30s as an associate professor at what was then called Salisbury State College, which is now Salisbury University. Polly Stewart developed a talk for the local historical society. And as I understand it, Professor Stewart, it was a very painful experience for you.

Ms. POLLY STEWART (Former Professor, Salisbury University): Yeah, it was painful. I had been there for 10 years already teaching at Salisbury and I knew practically everybody in the room. The (unintelligible) Historical Society is composed of white civic leaders and people who have been there for many generations, and it was an honor to be asked to give the keynote address.

And so I thought that because I was in a position of prestige at the university, or the college then, and because I was socially friendly with a lot of this people, I would be able to present to them some theory which would explain why the lynchings had happened. And the result of it was not at all what I expected. I thought they - I just didn't know what would happen. But what did happen was that I was attacked. They were furious with me. They were in flames. They were just shaking with rage, some of them.

MARTIN: Did they even…

Ms. STEWART: And…

MARTIN: Had most of these people known that these lynchings took place? Was this new news to people?

Ms. STEWART: Oh, everyone knows. No, there's nothing - as has been discussed before, these are things that are known but not discussed. And I agree completely with Sherrilyn that these are extremely toxic and they prevent people from growing and they prevent communities from being whole.

And I actually had it in my own mind that if there could be some plausible and reasonable explanation for why these things had happened, people might be able to change their minds about things. But the result of it was really that I was iced out of the upper crust for the next 20 years. I was there for 30 years and 20 of those years I was - my name was mud.

MARTIN: What was the source of their anger?

Ms. STEWART: They actually - it just replicated the theory I was trying to help them understand, and that is that outsiders are not welcome inside communities. And one thing I love about Dr. Ifill's book is that it explains so beautifully why people are unwilling to talk. Because there is a great deal of underneath confusion, guilt, fear, just a whole lot of things that are terrifying to people. And they would rather not talk about it and they'll do anything they can to silence it. But I think that it has to be talked about. I agree completely with Sherrilyn.

MARTIN: Polly Stewart, first you and then, Professor Ifill, I want to come back to you. What would help them talk about it? It seems to me you did everything you could.

Ms. STEWART: Well, I do believe that people undergo change in their minds. When new information is presented, it takes time. But I think the people are willing, and I believe that the change in the world helps people of goodwill to change their thinking.

MARTIN: Professor Ifill, what do you make of Polly Stewart's experience? And what, in your view, would help people talk about this?

Prof. IFILL: One of the things I try to advance in the book is that the conversations that we have to have about race are multiple. There's not one conversation. And some of those conversations are interracial. That is, within the white community there is silence, there are taboos that have to be addressed. There are conversations that have to happen within the black community. So I think we have to open up our whole idea about what our conversations about race would look like.

MARTIN: What are some of the steps communities can take to advance this kind of reconciliation? Like, for example, the Virginia General Assembly just passed an apology for slavery, which is obviously very passionately discussed. Do you think things like that matter, or should they…

Prof. IFILL: I think they do.

MARTIN: …be more local than that?

Prof. IFILL: Well, I think they do because they open up and they begin that conversation. They get people to talk about and to debate, even vigorously, you know, their views. And then you have to go to the next step and you have to say kind of why do we have these views.

The problem is that sometimes when we do these things, we pass this piece of legislation, for example, the Senate's apology on lynching several years ago, and then that's the end of the discussion. These kinds of initiative should be the beginning of the discussion.

MARTIN: What about those who argue that the more time you spend living in the past, the less time you spend looking toward the future?

Prof. IFILL: It's because the wall of silence fell and has been maintained so perfectly that we have to have these conversations. This is not something that we've talked out and now we're revisiting it. We've never been able to confront in any comprehensive way the history of lynching in this country and the widespread complicity in that history of lynching.

MARTIN: I wanted to get one final thought from Professor Polly Stewart. Professor Stewart, do you envision the possibility that you're former community - I know you've retired and moved away from Salisbury, Maryland - do you think it might be possible for you, these many years later, to go back and give that talk again and the reaction might be different?

Ms. STEWART: I'm not sure whether I'm in the same place. I do think that it would be possible for me to go back. But I also think that it's - I believe that the impetus to change will come from within. And I don't think that rubbing salt in the painful wounds of my white friends in Salisbury is going to help them at all; maybe it will, it would. But I think that I might - I think that I planted a seed, possibly, of change. And I believe that the impetus can come from them.

MARTIN: Okay. Professor Polly Stewart, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. STEWART: You're so welcome.

MARTIN: Professor Ifill, thank you so much for joining us.

Prof. IFILL: Thank you for having me.

CHIDEYA: Civil rights lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill is the author of the "On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-first Century." We also heard from Polly Stewart, a former professor at Salisbury University. They both spoke with NPR's Michel Martin.

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