The execution of Troy Davis and a history lesson

On September 21, 2011, Troy Anthony Davis died by lethal injection at 11:08 p.m. for the murder of a Savannah policeman despite widespread doubts about his guilt.

If there is a silver lining to all this, it’s that the state’s steadfast refusal to budge on a case that ended up being far from certain has raised doubts in more people’s minds about the efficacy and fairness of the death penalty. The Chatham County DA and the state of Georgia did not do the death penalty any favors by pushing this to its bitter end. Another man is dead, and many of us feel diminished because of it.

This case, with its racial overtones, lack of hard evidence, and shifting testimony, reminds us that where we’ve been is where we are.  My state representative, Scott Holcomb, whom I support and admire, expressed his disappointment in the state Pardons and Parolds Board’s denial of Davis’s plea for clemency, stating, “Georgia is better than this.”

I responded, “Today, and throughout most of its history, Georgia IS this.”

To understand where we are, it is essential to know from whence we came. Capital punishment in America, especially as it is enforced in the South and Georgia, is deeply rooted in lynching. So, in memory of Troy Davis, I am posting this section from The Way It Was in the South: The Black Experience in Georgia by Donald L. Grant (Jonathan Grant, editor), published by the University of Georgia Press, 2001.  Copyright Mildred Bricker Grant. All rights reserved.

It is long. It could have been longer. After tonight, I must admit that it’s still going on.

Lynching in the New South

After the Ku Klux Klan won its battle to maintain white supremacy, the lynch mob of the New South assumed a major role in maintaining blacks as a caste of peasants and serfs. Between 1889 and 1918, Georgia had more lynchings than any other state, and 94 percent of the victims were black. By no coincidence, Georgia had the South’s lowest cotton-field wages during this time. The post-Reconstruction reign of terror was nearly totally demoralizing. With good reason, blacks saw lynching as the worst form of their oppression. Henry McNeal Turner summed it up cogently: “Until we are free from menace by lynchings … we are destined to be a dwarfed people.”

Lynching was significant not only for what it did to the victims and their immediate families, but for the damage it did to the entire culture, for it poisoned the shallow well of good feeling between blacks and whites. While blacks were occasionally killed during slavery by being burned alive, this practice did not become common until after the Civil War. At least three blacks were lynched in 1866: two in Polk County and Pompey O. Barrow, accused of killing a white woman, in Jonesboro. He was burned at the stake, and his body was fed to dogs. Just how many blacks were murdered and lynched in Georgia from 1865 to 1875 will remain a mystery. Most mob murders then were well known locally but were not widely publicized; no records were kept.

After 1875, the record became clearer as press coverage improved. In 1876 a gang of six whites set out to capture Amos Bines when he was suspected of shooting a white woman in Effingham County. The mob killed Monday Roberts while looking for Bines. When Bines was captured, he was murdered in the jail, and a third black was killed in the neighborhood a week later for not answering when called. In 1880, a white who had been tried and fined for having whipped a member of a black family led a Georgia mob that murdered the entire family in retaliation. Jerry Hamilton was lynched in 1883 near Savannah. Leaders of that mob were indicted and brought before the U. S. Circuit Court in Savannah, but the indictment was dismissed and the case returned to the state courts, where nothing happened. This case was a particular blow to blacks who had hoped for federal protection under the 1875 Sumner Civil Rights Act.

Lynchings increased after 1882, and as the collective position of blacks grew weaker, white mobs grew more ruthlessly aggressive. The Atlanta Constitution reported four lynchings of blacks in Georgia in the six weeks preceding August 26, 1884. In 1888, Allen Sturgis was accused of rape and lynched in McDuffie County, and Henry Pope was lynched on the same allegation in Chattooga County even though five whites testified he was not in the county at the time. Such incidents led a black writer to conclude that Southern whites were “usually suspicious of everything except a hysterical woman.”

In 1919, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) found that of 3,224 recorded lynchings in the past thirty years, 405 occurred in Georgia, more than any other state. Of these, 379 — or 94 percent — were black, including five women. Walter White, Georgia-born chief NAACP lynching investigator, unearthed 549 lynchings in Georgia in the 1882-1927 period, and 93 percent of the victims were black. However, black sociologist Allison Davis thought less than half were reported, and many who lived through the worst times of lynching agree. Sometimes the lynch mob would try to disguise its work to make it appear that the victim had died from other causes. One way was to place the body on a railroad track and let it be mangled by a train.

The New South myth that black men constantly raped white women and therefore justified lynching for purposes of punishment and prevention was supported by a massive press campaign. Although many Southern whites went to their graves thinking (or at least saying) that the only reason for lynching was rape, the NAACP found that rape was not even alleged in 71 percent of the cases. Other reasons reported for lynchings in Georgia included murder and attempted murder, arson and incendiarism, rioting, theft and burglary, turning state’s evidence and informing, insulting whites or disputing their word, resisting arrest, living with a white woman, being lazy, enticing a servant away, illicit distilling, using inflammatory language, resisting arrest, window peeping, and throwing stones. Sometimes merely “race prejudice” and “unpopularity” were reported in white newspapers as the reasons for brutally taking black lives.

One motive for some lynchings was to force blacks to give up jobs or land that whites coveted. William A. Pledger testified before a 1902 congressional committee, “Men have been lynched simply that their crops might revert to the landlord.” Some blacks were lynched for trying to claim the pay that was due them, protesting low wages, or not observing the etiquette of deference that white supremacy demanded. Sometimes white men blackened their faces to commit rape and then framed black men.

The rape myth held that blacks never raped white women during slavery and that even during the Civil War, when many of the white men were away and opportunity was greatest, the slaves, in the words of Booker T. Washington, had with “fidelity and love” protected the planters’ families. Spokesmen for the New South claimed that Reconstruction made blacks forget their place and engage in a “frenzy of rapine.” Actually, during slavery the white rape of black women was far more common than black rape of white women.

Occasionally, whites would touch closer on the real reasons for lynching. Governors Allen Candler and William Northen suggested in the 1890s that lynching was related to black voting. Black sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox noted, “Disfranchisement makes lynching possible and lynching speedily squelches any movement among Southern Negroes for enfranchisement.” The NAACP’s White said, “Lynching has always been a means for protection not of white women, but of profits.”

Another frequent justification for lynching involved the “law’s delay” — the argument that trials were long and costly and often a guilty rapist was acquitted or given a light sentence. In reality, the trials of accused blacks were swift and usually resulted in convictions. Furthermore, rape had carried the death penalty in Georgia since 1811. Seldom was the defendant presumed innocent until proven guilty; rarely was a black on the jury. Courts tended to follow the adage: “Give him a fair trial and then hang him.”

Murder, not rape, was the most common offense that resulted in a lynching. Often the murder victim was a white law officer killed when trying to arrest a black who knew torture and lynching could follow his arrest — or he could receive a convict-lease sentence that was tantamount to a slow, agonizing death. Ironically, the frequency with which arrested blacks were denied due process of law and turned over to lynch mobs tended to make blacks resist arrest and even kill lawmen.

Georgia’s peak year of lynching was in 1899, when twenty-seven persons, all blacks, were lynched. Though only 14 percent of the nation’s blacks lived in the state then, 31 percent of the blacks lynched that year died in Georgia. The state the scene of a number of sensational cases that attracted national publicity.

In March 1899, the case of the Palmetto Five erupted. In late January, there was a serious fire in the Palmetto business district in what is now south Fulton County; losses were uninsured. Four days later, a second fire burned out twelve property holders, and fears of black insurrection created a climate of hysteria. In March, eight blacks were jailed on the uncorroborated evidence of a white who said he crawled under a black home and heard blacks discuss the fires. On March 16, a masked mob of fifteen broke into the jail after brushing aside six guards who offered no resistance. The mob killed five black prisoners and wounded two. Gov. Allen Candler ordered out the militia and offered a $500 reward, the legal maximum, but no information was forthcoming, and no arrests were made. National black protests to President McKinley were futile. The federal government continued until the 1960s to maintain a hands-off attitude and to hold that lynching was a state matter.

On April 23, Sam Hose was the victim of one of the most publicized lynchings in U. S. history. His death was surrounded by wildly false charges of rape, and the publicity nourished the myth that lynching was a just punishment. Governor Candler described the crime as “too horrible for publication. … the most diabolical in the annals of crime.” Georgia congressman James M. Griggs described Hose’s crime on the floor of the House of Representatives in lurid terms. While the Cranford family was peacefully seated for supper,

a monster in human form, an employee on the farm, crept into that happy little home and with an ax knocked out the brains of that father, snatched the child from its mother, threw it across the room out of his way, and then by force accomplished his foul purpose. More than that, Mr. Chairman, he was afflicted with the most loathsome disease known to human kind.

After a two-week search, Hose was found in his mother’s cabin near Marshallville and was placed in the Newnan jail, about thirty-five miles southwest of Atlanta. When the mob came to get Hose, the sheriff surrendered the keys to the jail. The mob took Hose out of town and tied him to a tree. The impending lynching was publicized in the newspapers, and when the story spread that a special train had left Atlanta at 1:00 P.M., the mob assumed it was bringing the militia and advanced the time to start torturing Hose for fear that they might have to kill him quickly if they delayed until the militia appeared. There was a train on its way from Atlanta. It carried not militia but sightseers who had struggled to obtain tickets for the special excursion to Newnan to see “the show.” The Atlanta Journal covered the lynching as though it were a festival.

The mob went about its work. First, Hose was stripped of his clothes, and then the torture began. His ears were cut off, then his fingers, and finally his genitals. He was then doused with oil and set afire. Desperate in his agony, Hose almost slipped his bonds, so the fire was quenched, he was retied to the tree, and after more oil was poured on him and lit, he finally died. Then the sightseers showed up: “But for the fact that the program waschanged … fully five thousand people would have seen the burning near the Cranford home and of these nearly half were from Atlanta,” complained one reporter. Parts of the body were taken as souvenirs, and pieces of bone sold for twenty-five cents. His heart and liver were also cut up and the pieces passed out to the mob or sold as souvenirs. The disappointed Atlantans did get to the scene before the ashes were cool and managed to pick up or buy some of the grisly tokens. The mob dispersed from the scene, but the blood lust was not yet satisfied.

Unfortunately, thinking that a response to the mob’s demands for a confession would shorten his agony, Hose blurted out that Elijah Strickland, a black minister, had given him twenty dollars to kill Cranford. Later that day Strickland was taken from his cabin on the plantation of ex-state senator W. W. Thomas near Newnan. Thomas hurried after the mob and in a dramatic confrontation pleaded to let Strickland stand trial. Thomas said that it was unlikely that Strickland could have given Hose twenty dollars, since Strickland never had that much at any time. The mob paid no attention and went ahead with their plans, which included torture. Strickland’s fingers were cut off before he was hanged. Twice he was drawn up in the air by the rope and twice let down as a means of trying to extract a confession. Strickland maintained his innocence and was drawn up a third time and left to strangle slowly.

W. E. B. Du Bois, then teaching at Atlanta University, was on his way to see Joel Chandler Harris of the Atlanta Constitution concerning the case when he learned that Hose had been lynched. On his way to see Harris, Du Bois passed by a grocery store that already had a knuckle bone of Hose displayed in a jar. Deeply upset, Du Bois returned to the campus without meeting Harris. This lynching helped draw Du Bois away from his academic detachment and toward greater involvement in the civil rights struggle. Up to then Du Bois was committed to the idea that blacks were mistreated by a minority of whites and if the majority realized what was actually going on, conditions for blacks would improve. The Hose case convinced him that lynching and other brutality toward blacks in Georgia would not be stopped simply by exposing their details, because the oppression was part of a white conspiracy to retain, as fully as possible, the subordination of blacks. The Constitution had offered a $500 reward for Hose’s capture. After the Hose lynching, the newspaper proudly proclaimed, “The Constitution never issued a check with greater pleasure.”

Reverdy C. Ransom, a militant black activist, financed an investigation of the Hose lynching from his base as an A.M.E. minister in Chicago. He hired a white detective who went to Georgia and obtained a statement from Mrs. Cranford. She said Hose had come to the Cranford house for pay due him and had quarreled with her husband, who ran into the house to get his revolver. Just as Cranford was about to shoot him, Hose picked up an ax and threw it at Cranford, killing him instantly. Hose then fled. Mrs. Cranford attested that Hose had not entered the house or assaulted her. Ida B. Wells, then the leader of the antilynching movement, also investigated the incident and confirmed Ransom’s version. The results of these investigations did not appear in the white press. If they had, they probably would have caused the lynchings of suspected black informants.

Black editors often suffered when they challenged that part of the rape myth that held that no white woman would have sexual relations voluntarily with a black man. Francis Grimké, distinguished black Presbyterian minister and one of the leading intellectuals of his day, wrote of a Southern white woman, “one of the bluest of the blue blood,” he spoke with in 1898. She said she knew of several cases where a white woman with a black lover cried “rape” when the affair was discovered and sacrificed her paramour on the altar of her reputation. John Hope documented the case of John Will Clark, a Cartersville, Georgia, black. He was taken out of the bed he shared with his common-law white wife and lynched. This relationship was not unique; Ida B. Wells detailed fourteen cases of white women with black lovers in 1892.

When black editors wrote on this subject, some were lynched themselves, or they were driven out of town, and their presses were destroyed. This is what led to the 1892 destruction of Ida B. Wells’s newspaper in Memphis. In 1886, the editors of the Atlanta Defiance were jailed and fined for criticism of white violence. In 1900, William J. White, editor of the Georgia Baptist, was forced to repudiate and apologize for an article critical of lynching.

* * *

Another major myth held that only poor whites supported lynching. The Associated Press dispatches covering lynchings were written by Southern white reporters, and they often ended thusly: “The best people deplore this sad affair.” Yet lynching, the ultimate bulwark of the caste society, was defended by all who benefited from that society. Perhaps the “best people” were not in all the mobs, though they certainly were in many. Even if they were not, as jurors they uniformly refused to convict known mob leaders, and they “explained” to the nation that lynching could not be prevented because it was the righteous reaction to an unspeakable crime. They fought tooth and nail against any effective antilynching legislation. Du Bois stated, “Whenever an aristocracy allows the mob to rule the fault is not with the mob.” Most white Georgians justified lynching even when they knew the real reasons behind the mob murders.

In Georgia, as lynching increased in the 1890s to an average of more than fifteen per year, an increasing effort by propagandists of the New South was required to minimize its implications. The dual but contradictory ideas that blacks were content, yet were inhuman, vengeance-wreaking brutes that only white Southerners knew how to handle was successfully promoted into general national acceptance by 1889. In the 1890s, few white Georgians condemned the barbarity of lynching publicly.

At the same time lynchings became more frequent, they became more savage as more and more blacks were burned alive after being tortured before the fire was lit. The threat of lynching for trivial reasons was also part of the overall campaign of terror and intimidation. Between 1891 and 1904 there were several stories in the Atlanta Constitution regarding lynching threats against blacks who were involved in bicycle and automobile accidents. No doubt countless similar incidents went unrecorded.

Some joked about lynching. “Mr. Dooley” (Peter Finley Dunn), a well-known humorist, wrote: “The black has many fine qualities. He is joyous, light-hearted, an’ aisily lynched.” One of these “easy” lynchings occurred in 1901 in Rome, Georgia. George Reed, charged with rape, was ordered released by the judge for lack of evidence and the inability of the rape victim to identify him. The mob learned of the impending release, took him from jail, and lynched him.

“The Statesboro tragedies” were among the nation’s most highly publicized lynchings. In 1904, Paul Reed and Will Cato were tried and convicted of the murder of the white Hodge family in Statesboro. The two were sentenced to hang on September 9, and though “protected” by a 125-man militia unit, they were seized by a mob that knew that the militia’s guns were not loaded. Reed and Cato were brutally tortured before being burned alive. There followed a reign of terror, with nightriding and whippings, throughout the county for several weeks. Three blacks were shot for “making remarks” about the lynching, Albert Roger and his son were lynched the next day, and blacks were whipped for no other offense than their color. One of the nightriders’ victims was Sebastian McBride of Portal, who was killed trying to prevent the whipping of his wife, who had given birth just three days before. The mindless rage against all blacks was carried on in ignorance of the fact that blacks had apprehended Reed and Cato in the first place. There were at least ten other Georgia lynchings in 1904, including the lynching of John Ware, who was charged with murder and lynched in Franklin County on September 18. The next year, eight blacks accused of murder were lynched on June 29 at Watkinsville.

Between 1908 and 1914, an average of twelve blacks were lynched in Georgia each year. Occasionally, the lynchings were accompanied by the mob destruction of black property. This happened in 1911 at Ellaville in Schley County when a black killed the town marshal. The mob lynched three blacks, then burned the buildings of three black lodges, two churches, and a school. Two women were among the thirteen Georgia blacks lynched in 1912, a year when more than a quarter of all U.S. lynchings occurred in the state. In another interesting 1912 case, Henry Etheridge was lynched near Jackson in Butts County for trying to recruit blacks to go to Africa. This was in an area of low pay for blacks, even for Georgia, and the white farmers objected to the possibility of losing their cheap black labor.

In 1913 seven blacks were lynched in Georgia, according to a 1919 NAACP study. In Americus, William Redding was accused of firing a shot that missed the police chief when the lawman was attempting to arrest him. Redding was taken from the jail and strung up. As often happened, the body was riddled with bullets. Some accounts say that thousands of shots were fired into the corpse. In this incident, four other blacks who were in the crowd were wounded by stray bullets. Blacks were often on the fringes of lynch mobs to gauge the possibility of the lynching turning into a pogrom against the entire black community. If it did, someone had to carry the warning so that plans to fight or flee could be made. There was also a slim hope that, by identifying mob members, they might be brought to justice. It took special courage combined with righteous anger to take up these lookout positions. Two months after Redding was lynched, Virgil Swanson was lynched in Meriwether County for the murder of a planter. A few days later, another black, Walter Brewster, confessed that he had killed the planter in a rent dispute, but the blood lust of the white community was apparently slaked, and he was not lynched.

There were at least three lynchings in Georgia in 1914: that of Nathan Brown for murder; Charley Jones was lynched in Grovetown on May 6 while under suspicion of shoplifting a pair of shoes; and a Hawkinsville black was lynched for the murder of a white man. Later, the murdered man’s nephew confessed to the crime.

* * *

However brutal, lynching never completely intimidated blacks. Opposition to it often took the form of organized political pressure to influence the federal and state governments. Henry McNeal Turner, Jefferson Long, and James M. Simms were among the black leaders in 1876 who called for the prosecution of lynchers. Many Georgia blacks wrote or visited presidents to urge resistance to mobs. In addition to his involvement with the Afro-American League and its antilynching efforts, William Pledger once led armed blacks to the Athens jail and successfully defied a mob bent on lynching two prisoners.

As in South Carolina, the Klan came to realize that blacks could retaliate against them in the coastal counties with black majorities and traditions of black political power; consequently, there were fewer lynchings on the coast than elsewhere in Georgia. In 1899, Governor Candler had to send the militia to quell a “riot” in McIntosh County in which one white and several blacks were killed. Some blacks were flogged there later for “incendiary speeches.” The trouble occurred in Darien, where Henry Delegale was arrested on a rape charge and the sheriff said he was going to remove him to Savannah for safekeeping. Local blacks did not believe he would do this and armed themselves to guard the jail. One white and several blacks were killed in a confrontation with the mob that came to lynch Delegale. Governor Candler sent the militia and praised the black leaders for their cooperation. Then fifty-nine of the black “rioters” were arrested; some were released and others were tried and convicted. Delegale’s son, John, was convicted of killing a white deputy and was sentenced to life as a leased convict. Delegale was tried and acquitted on the original rape charge, made when a white woman gave birth to a mulatto child. Accusing Delegale of rape was the best way she could avoid social ostracism.

The Indianapolis Freeman cited the 1890 case of Nelson Jones, who twice fought off a Georgia mob and survived his wounds. “If we had more men of the Nelson Jones stamp, we would be better off,” the editor concluded. To resist a mob or not was always a dilemma. While the question was academic for the victim, made prisoner by overwhelming force, the desirability of resistance by the black community as a whole was debated frequently. Many black leaders counseled greater militancy, and there were many calls for retaliation.

Right after the brutal lynching of Reed and Cato at Statesboro in 1904, rumors abounded in Georgia about the organizations of “Before-Day Clubs,” black organizations pledged to execute lynchers before the next day following a lynching. Such clubs did not exist, however. The stories probably represented a combination of black fantasy and white paranoia.

Atlanta’s role as a center for black-led protest against lynching was reinforced in 1904 by the establishment of a significant journal of culture and politics, The Voice of the Negro. Its editor, J. Max Barber, was one of the militants who joined Du Bois in the Niagara Movement when it was founded in 1905. The Statesboro rampages radicalized Barber; the Voice devoted considerable space to lynching and the problem was discussed, referred to, or mentioned in at least 25 percent of all the pages in its first year. Barber was driven from Atlanta because he protested the false rape stories that helped set off the 1906 Atlanta riot.

Although they seldom did so, local officials could request troops to guard prisoners and trials. In 1900, 150 soldiers were used to escort Sam Robinson, convicted of rape, to the gallows to prevent his being lynched en route. Some impending lynchings in Georgia were avoided by the timely actions of courageous white sheriffs who were willing to risk losing their next election. Sheriff Miller of Ware County prevented a lynching in 1891 by moving two black prisoners to a safe location. In 1897, when a mob tried to lynch a white and a black in Jonesboro, the sheriff summoned guards and saved the prisoners by removing them to Atlanta. Later that year, the jailer at Augusta successfully resisted the attempt of a mob to take one of his prisoners. In 1901 Sheriff J. L. Merrill of Carroll County killed one person and wounded several when preventing a mob from lynching Ike Williams. These incidents are notable mainly as exceptions, for in Georgia’s 152 pre-World War I counties, seldom would a sheriff or jailer resist a mob.

Paradoxically, it was always popular among white politicians to denounce crimes against blacks, and there was some antilynching activity by Georgia officials beginning with the extension of the franchise to blacks in 1867. Republicans, Independents, Populists, and Democrats all inveighed against lynching but did little but talk. When Governor Northen pushed an antilynching bill through the legislature in 1893, Georgia was one of only two states to have such a law on the books. It authorized sheriffs to deputize persons to protect prisoners and made failure to do so a misdemeanor. This law accomplished little or nothing, however.

All governors were protective of their state’s image, and Georgia’s image was tarnished more by lynching than any other state’s. The British Anti-Lynching Committee sent a petition to Gov. William Y. Atkinson in 1896 condemning Georgia. Atkinson asked the legislature to consider the matter and informed lawmakers that he believed some mob victims were innocent of the crimes of which they had been charged. “To adopt lynch-law,” he said, “is to put the life of every man in the power of any woman who for any reason might desire his death.” Various governors from time to time dispatched the militia to stop lynchings, as Governor Candler did in eight different counties in 1899. Sometimes they also offered rewards for the conviction of lynchers, but no rewards were collected. A 1911 Georgia statute required judges to order a change in venue for trials where there was a threat of mob violence. Gov. John M. Slaton invoked the statute in 1913 to prevent a triple lynching in Louisville by having a trial moved to Fulton County.

The Southern white press was of little help, for it was reluctant to recognize that most lynchings were for crimes other than rape. Despite its frequent failures, the Atlanta Constitution was probably the most fair. Yet in 1890, a story concerning a white shot by a black burglar carried the headline “Lynching Probable,” with nothing in the article to suggest it would be wrong. The Constitution opened its pages to a debate on the subject in 1903 when Methodist Bishop Warren A. Candler wrote that 75 percent of all lynchings were not linked to rape in an article entitled “Must Put Down the Mob or Be Put Down by It.” This article drew many responses from whites and blacks. Black religious leaders, professionals and educators, including Du Bois and other faculty of Atlanta University, hailed Candler as a “noble champion.” By the end of the year the discussion had run its course, with no real change.

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