For a huge chunk of American history, whites gathered in town squares and other public spaces to murder black people under the auspices of punishing them for crimes they often had not committed. Sometimes, these vigilantes didn't even bother with the pretense of alleged wrongdoing and simply hanged people to terrorize African Americans in their communities, asserting their dominance in the aftermath of slavery. By one recent and deeply researched estimate, some 4,000 lives were claimed by this extralegal savagery in Southern states alone between 1877 and 1950.
That might seem like ancient history in an era when Barack Obama has just finished serving two terms as president of the of United States. But with hate crimes believed to be on the rise and the Trump administration poised to pull back on programs that benefit the poor and minorities in an alleged attempt to "Make America Great Again," it's an important chapter in the long and brutal story of race in the United States.
In their new documentary, An Outrage, which premieres at the Smithsonian's History Film Forum on March 11 as part of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance project, Hannah Ayers and Lance Warren try to show the next generation how bad things once were. The idea is that teachers might lean on the film in an era of renewed white resentment to show their students how far we've come—and why we can never go back.
The 30-minute film was shot at six lynching site in Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Texas, Tennessee, and Virginia with descendants of victims, community activists, and historians. VICE recently chatted with the filmmakers about why it's important—now, as much as ever—that Americans reflect on their destructive history, how the story of lynching in particular is useful in understanding racial power dynamics, and what it all means in the Trump era.
Here's what they had to say.
VICE: I imagine some young Americans—especially whites—will struggle to wrap their heads around lynching. Can you talk about what it entailed, what it looked like?
Lance Warren: In the century after a horrific war fought first for union and then to destroy slavery, thousands of women, men, and children—the nation's newest citizens, of a caste despised for centuries—were murdered, because they sought freedom, in the United States of America. Many thousands of African Americans perished at the hands of lynchers in the South over the century after the Civil War. Those killed were young men and old, veterans, newlyweds, children, pregnant women, uncles, aunts. They were brothers and fathers, sisters and best friends. They were human beings, every single one.
Lynching wasn't only hanging, and it wasn't only perpetrated by redneck mobs or the KKK. In town squares and deep in the woods, in secret and on public display, white men, women, and children of all social classes participated in the kidnapping, mutilation, and killing of African Americans said to have committed serious crimes—or minor affronts on white honor. What defines "lynching" is killing that took place outside of the legal system and killing that was socially sanctioned—lynchers weren't punished, and many were applauded, even rewarded. At the height of the lynching epidemic, in the 1890s, one African American was killed somewhere in the South every four days.
So why did you make the film—was it simply about moving forward from the injustices in American history? If so, how do we go about that?
Bridging that gap won't be easy or without discomfort. After all, as Isabel Wilkerson acknowledges in our film, "Who would want to think about these awful things?" But, like her, we know that facing history is both necessary and full of promise. If we seek the strength that would come from a shared vision of the future, it will not reduce us to honestly confront the ugliness of our past. In fact, it will make that future more attainable, because we will no longer be hampered in our pursuit of it by mistrust, doubt, resentment, and fear. By facing the awfulness done by Americans who came before us, identifying the behaviors and biases within us all that perpetuate the pain of those acts, and discussing how to remember and rise above that past, we can do better. We can be better.
Given the widespread practice of lynching—which was not just a Southern thing—how did you decide where, geographically, to film? You could have gone to hundreds or even thousands of locations, right?
Hannah Ayers: The six states we filmed in represent a snapshot of the long and geographically varied history of lynching. One thing we learned early on in our research is that there is no "typical" lynching. The six sites we chose help to illustrate the complexity of lynching, and its pervasiveness. These violent acts occurred in rural areas and town squares, in secret and as public spectacles, in the Delta, Appalachia, and busy cities. When deciding where to film, our focus was on identifying individuals for whom this history has a personal resonance: a descendant of a lynching victim, a descendant of a black newspaper editor who protested lynchings, a community activist working to memorialize this history, a pastor, a volunteer at a genealogy library. Many of these individuals grew up in communities where lynchings took place, and they're working to memorialize this history and remember the victims.
Can you talk at all about lynching's importance given the conversations we've been having about race in America over the past few years?
Warren: If for no other reason, we should know from watching news footage of protests over the past several years that the roots of racial tension run deep. But we may not understand why. Our film tries to answer this question, revealing not only the long-hidden history of lynching, but also the culture of fear, the ambivalence over the value of black lives, and the persistence of violence that has led so many—today, and for generations—to demand an end to the status quo. If your ancestors were tortured, murdered, and then forgotten—and perhaps they were—wouldn't you be angry? Wouldn't you demand redress? Why shouldn't we all?
The history of lynching is disturbing, but we shouldn't see it as controversial: There are no legitimately conflicting points of view about lynching. But we say as much if we find it too troubling to teach, too ugly for polite conversation. We perpetuate forgetfulness when we refuse to remember. "Black lives matter moments have been prevalent in our history," historian Yohuru Williams observes in An Outrage. "And it's our inability to recognize the 'wound crying out' that puts us in this endless cycle of every generation growing up in the shadow of some black brutalized body." He notes, "My parents grew up in the shadow of Emmett Till; I grew up in the shadow of Yusef Hawkins; my son will grow up in the shadow of James Byrd and Trayvon Martin. When does that stop?"
Ayers: Tragically, it's the perfect time [for this film] because there's finally more awareness that black people are being brutalized and dehumanized—and that this is not a new phenomenon. Black families have endured centuries of violence; this is why Black Lives Matter is a necessary movement. One of the historians we interviewed, Jonathan Holloway, argues that forgetting our history is a luxury that whites can afford, but blacks can't. "And if you have that luxury," he notes, "the problem is that a system can keep repeating itself, because no one remembers to say, 'Wait a second—we're doing the same things all over again.'" It's dangerous to see a video showing the killing of an unarmed black person—and think this is new—and not recognize its echoes throughout American history.
How is modern police violence connected to lynching?
One of the scholars we interview in the film, Isabel Wilkerson, explains it best. She notes that the rate of African Americans being killed today is similar to the rate of African Americans being lynched in the early 20th century. "That is a heartbreaking symmetry of public attack," she says, "on people who had been in the lowest caste from the time of the founding of the country." "Symmetry" is an astute word to use here. Lynchings and shootings of unarmed black men are not the same, of course, but we should grapple with their symmetries. Both involve fears of black men and an assumption that they are violent. Both relate to dangerous power dynamics and a desire for social control. And tragically, both are allowed to persist because of widespread public complacency.
What's the ideal reaction to this film for you—what kind of impact do you reasonably expect given the power dynamics in national and state government and the sort of white-lash that's going on?
We hope our film will serve as a hub for action. We've seen that the best documentaries serve as rallying points for people who care about an issue, want to educate other community members, and then organize for change. And due to the work of the Equal Justice Initiative, as well as historians, authors, faith groups, and activists, more and more communities are slowly becoming aware of lynchings that took place in their town squares and backyards. A big part of our outreach effort will be partnering with groups to make the film available for screenings and give them tools for spurring discussion about how best to recognize the history of racial violence in their community. We also see great potential in changing minds and spurring action through making the film available for use in middle school, high school, and college classrooms.
We're very fortunate that the Southern Poverty Law Center is partnering with us to incorporate the film into their Teaching Tolerance program. Teaching Tolerance offers teachers curricula and educational materials so they can incorporate lessons around equality and justice into their classrooms. An Outrage will be a significant component of a new initiative to empower teachers to teach America's racial history, including slavery and its legacies. Our goal from the outset was to find a partner who could get the film into classrooms—and we specifically wanted to work with Southern Poverty Law Center. Our partnership means that the film and a complementary curriculum will be freely available to nearly 500,000 teachers and the millions of students they teach.
Learn more about An Outrage here.
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Pictured above: Dr. Fostenia Baker is the great niece of Frazier B. Baker, a postmaster in Lake City, South Carolina, who was lynched with his infant daughter, Julia, on February 22, 1898.