This Bridge in Mississippi Has Hosted Decades of Racial Violence

A new history of brutal lynchings at the same spot in 1918 and 1942 offers insight into the terror of white supremacy.

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Apr 27 2016, 1:30pm

The bridge today in Shubuta, Mississippi, where blacks were repeatedly lynched during Jim Crow. Photo courtesy Andrew Lichtenstein

The last known lynching in Clarke County, Mississippi, was only about 70 years ago. Closed to traffic, the hanging bridge where it took place still stands, a landmark for Jim Crow, white supremacy and a world where violence kept African Americans in fear for their lives. The old steel-framed bridge in Shubuta, a small town of about 700, has been the target of scorn for generations. But it endures, a sobering reminder of racial violence and the culture that sought to justify it.

In his new book Hanging Bridge: Racial Violence and America's Civil Rights Century, Jason Morgan Ward, an associate professor of history at Mississippi State University, tries to make sense of the brutal site. He investigates the symbolic power of the manmade spot where vigilantes used murder to enforce white supremacy, leaving a trail of bodies drifting down the Chickasawhay River.

Ward's story focuses in particular on two lynchings in the first half of the 20th century: the 1918 killing of two brothers and two pregnant sisters several days after their white boss turned up dead, and the 1942 slaying of two teens accused of rape by a white girl. When the recently-formed NAACP asked the governor to conduct an investigation into the first lynching, he told them, "Go to hell." But by the second lynching, the situation had progressed to the point that the FBI was dispatched to at least provide the aura of federal investigation.

I reached out to Ward for some perspective on the violence on the bridge, the demise of the white supremacist regime that supported it, and what the bridge means now, in 2016, as a symbol of the barbaric practices of the American past.

Here's what he had to say.

VICE: What led you to dive into this subject and write the book?
Jason Morgan Ward: I first ran across newspaper stories about the Hanging Bridge when I was researching my dissertation. I started collecting documents related to the lynchings and the broader history of the community. I wanted to write a different kind of book, both in structure and style. Being in Mississippi certainly helps when you're writing this kind of book, but one of the things that really motivated me to keep going was the discovery that pieces of the story were scattered across the county—it was truly national in reach and impact.

Does the bridge still being there all these years later tell us anything about a national failure to right the wrongs of slavery and discrimination?
It's significant, because the history of lynching and racial violence has a complicated relationship with place—bodies are hung from trees that eventually die or are cut down, killing fields and burial sites become thickets and forests, mobs set fire to buildings and bodies. The fact that a steel bridge remains gives us a site that we can connect to a story, and that is somewhat unique.

The legacy of slavery shapes that story, even though the steel bridge itself was not built until the early twentieth century. The river crossings that preceded it were built to connect the town to the plantations, and slaveowner wealth drove local development. The slave economy also shaped the demographics of the community to this day—a black-majority area where wealth and power remained largely in the hands of a white minority.

Black Mississippians frequently attributed mob violence and harassment to the Ku Klux Klan, pictured here at a 1920s rally near Meridian, but the violence extended beyond members of white supremacist groups. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Walk us through the two lynchings that serve as the main threads for the book.
In 1918, a mob hanged two black men and two black women from the river bridge. According to white officials, the four had confessed to a murder conspiracy shortly after their white employer turned up dead. Walter White, a blond-haired, blue-eyed black southerner who had recently gone to work for the NAACP, posed as a white traveling salesman and investigated the lynchings personally.

He discovered a much more sordid story.

The white employer was an alcoholic philanderer who had abandoned a failed dental practice and moved back to his family's farm. Both of the lynched women were pregnant by him. And the Hanging Bridge lynchings had special significance because of their timing—five weeks after Armistice Day, weeks before the NAACP released its landmark report, Thirty Years of Lynching.

And the World War II-era lynching?
In 1942, a smaller group of vigilantes lynched two adolescent boys, aged 14 and 15, for allegedly attempting to rape a 15-year-old white girl. The incident prompted the first FBI lynching probe in Mississippi history, several undercover investigations by white and black journalists, and even inspired a eulogy poem by Langston Hughes. Like the 1918 lynchings, these killings occurred at a pivotal moment. Civil rights activists had launched the "Double V" campaign—victory over race-haters abroad and at home—and they likened lynchers to Nazis in speeches and editorial cartoons.

All that said, no one ever answered for the lynchings. But certainly, taken together, the lynching cases in 1918 and 1942 reveal that no southern community was ever beyond the reach of the black freedom struggle—and that reach kept growing.

How difficult was it dealing with this material from an academic standpoint?
I think some of the hardest realizations come later in the book: the only part of the book in which no lynchings occur, ostensibly a measure of racial progress. But racial violence and the attitudes that condoned it persisted. At the end of the day the logic of brute force and the ever-present threat of violence remained. I think that is relevant today, when many are eager to emphasize racial progress and point to an ugly past simply to show how far we have come.

Did the broader community in this area support racial terrorism and the horrors that transpired on the bridge?
Lynching relied on the complicity and solidarity of the white community. In 1918, the richest man in town submitted his own version of events to a regional newspaper to supposedly set the record straight—and protect the town's good name. Despite the fact that the mob abducted their victims from the town jail around dinnertime, everyone claimed not to have noticed.

The FBI records from the 1942 lynching investigation are especially revealing, because they provide a detailed inside view of how everyday people in this community tried to cover for themselves and their neighbors. You see how, even in a rural Deep South community, a few white folks would break rank and turn confidential informant. While that helps me make some informed conclusions about what I think may have happened, it did not help bring anyone to justice back then.

Why have southern whites clung to white supremacy for so long even as the rest of the world moves on?
I don't know if the rest of the world has moved on, but white southerners are used to being scapegoated for the sins of white supremacy, and would rather throw the charge back at their critics than own up to the historical and contemporary reality that race still matters immensely in southern politics and culture. It also matters in history, which is why you see so many people hold onto a white supremacist reading of history that emphasizes southern pride and heritage.

McArthur "Sonny" Gray leans on the wrought-iron cemetery fencing that surrounds the unmarked graves of at least two lynching victims in Shubuta, Mississippi.Photo courtesy Andrew Lichtenstein

How have local African Americans come to grips with the history of this spot?
African Americans defied the bridge's history before it was history: the families of the lynching victims in 1918 and 1942 all refused to accept their loved ones' bodies for burial. Whether or not that was an act of defiance, it meant that the white community had to deal with their dirty work. Local African Americans, in 1918 and again in 1942, assisted undercover investigators at great personal risk. So even in a repressive and seemingly isolated environment, they pushed back.

In the 1960s, local civil rights activists spoke frequently of the bridge, both to explain why their neighbors were scared to get involved, and also to explain to outsiders the stakes of the struggle. Racial violence had a profound effect on how civil rights activists saw themselves and how they understood their opponents. Having the bridge meant they could literally point to a structure and a site that manifested that violence.

What can whites in the Deep South do now about their ancestors' actions?
I think that honesty is a start. I did not write this book, or anything else that I have scribbled through the years, out of a sense of guilt—or innocence. The State of Mississippi spent thousands of taxpayer dollars in the late 1970s and early 1980s trying to keep a history textbook out of public schools because it contained a photograph of a lynching.

When Victor Bernstein, the Jewish journalist, interviewed the governor of Mississippi after the two boys were lynched in 1942, he asked what would end mob violence—especially when white folks refused to tell on their neighbors and law enforcement failed to prosecute. When the governor replied, "Education," Bernstein wrote, "I wonder what their mothers are thinking now about education as a cure for corpses swinging in the wind."

Are race relations in Clarke County, Mississippi, still bad today?
The most prominent racial issue at the moment is the question of the state flag, which I would like to see come down on my university campus and across the state. In one of the Clarke County's recorded lynchings that did not occur at the Hanging Bridge—in 1920—a mob reportedly forced their victim to kiss a Confederate battle flag before riddling his body with bullets and hanging his corpse from a roadside pole. Symbols matter, then and now, and no symbol has been more closely linked with southern racial violence. So it is no accident that in an era of intense debates about white supremacy, police brutality, poverty, education, immigration, and a host of other issues, controversies over symbols remain so prominent in public life.

Learn more about the book, which drops on Monday, here.

Follow Seth Ferranti on Twitter.

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