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Author Philip Dray

Author Philip Dray is the author of the book, At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America. Dray chronicles lynching. He looks at the perpetrators, the groups and individuals who courageously took a stand against it (the NAACP, Ida Wells, and W.E.B. Du Bois) and the legacy it left behind. Dray researched his book at the Tuskegee Institute where records about lynchings have been kept from 1882. He is also the co-author of We Are not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi.

42:09

Other segments from the episode on January 21, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 21, 2002: Interview with Philip Dray; Review of Plas Johnson and Red Holloway's new CD, "Keep That Groove Going!"

Transcript

DATE January 21, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Philip Dray discusses the history of lynching in
America
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, sitting in for Terry Gross.

In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King wrote `It may be true that the law cannot
make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me.' For many decades,
however, the law did not protect African-Americans from lynchings. Starting
after the Civil War, thousands of blacks who were accused of or merely
suspected of crimes were hunted down, abducted from jails and executed by
vigilante mobs. In his new book "At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The
Lynching of Black America," Philip Dray examines the history of lynching from
the late Reconstruction period to the 1960s. Dray is also the co-author of
"We Are Not Afraid," about the murder of three civil rights workers in
Mississippi in 1964. While working on that book, Dray visited the Tuskegee
Institute, where he was given access to its lynching archives. The material
there was a revelation to him. Terry Gross spoke with Philip Dray earlier
this month.

TERRY GROSS reporting:

What do you think is the importance of understanding the place of lynching in
American history?

Mr. PHILIP GRAY (Author, "At the Hands of Persons Unknown"): Well, I found
that, in researching the book, the place of it in American history was even
deeper than I had anticipated in that I had suspected, of course, that it was
a very powerful influence on black Americans in the years after the Civil War
and into the 20th century. But what I found was that it was not only a very
intense psychological influence on black families; for instance, the way they
would raise their children. You wouldn't want to raise your son to be
particularly ambitious or bold for fear that he would attract the attention of
a lynch mob. Secondly, it forced families to migrate. Lynching was so
endemic in various parts of the South around the turn of the century that it
contributed to the northward migration of about, oh, 1 1/2 to 2 million
blacks. Of course, that's a famous thing in American history, called the
Great Migration.

It also created a lot of reform efforts, things that are very familiar to us,
like the NAACP, which was, for many years, of course, the largest and, really,
only black civil rights organization in America, really got off to a start
because of lynching. It was in reaction to a riot in Springfield, Illinois,
in 1908 that had started because of a lynching that progressive whites and
blacks came together and said, `We have to get together and do something
about this.' And, indeed, the NAACP made fighting lynching one of their top
priorities for many years, well into the 1940s.

GROSS: In westerns--both in, you know, the real life of frontier towns and
the mythological life on TV westerns and movie westerns--there were a lot of
lynchings of white people, and I'm wondering if you see that as a completely
different kind of phenomenon as the lynching of African-Americans in the
South.

Mr. DRAY: It was certainly related in that lynching was always meant to
be--it came from a very old tradition in America that dated back to the
Revolutionary War. In fact, lynching, the term, derives from the
Revolutionary period when a magistrate in Virginia named Charles Lynch
began--because of the war, the activity of the ordinary courts had been
suspended, and so he took to administering summary justice in his front yard
by administering floggings against a large chestnut tree. So the term
lynching derives from that. It always meant a denial of due process and, of
course, it was considered quite legitimate for many years, particularly in the
West, where it was seen as almost a civic duty, that this was the way in which
a kind of unruly area was tamed and miscreants of various sorts--gamblers and
con men--were removed from society. So it had very kind of almost a noble
reputation for many years.

In the South, though, very early it began to sort of go off onto a different
avenue in that, in the Reconstruction era, it became used as really a way to
kind of keep down blacks who were either active politically or increasingly,
as years went by, socially so that those two things really kind of broke off
from one another, and by around the 1880s or 1890s, lynching of whites began
to decrease, whereas the lynching of blacks increased.

GROSS: What were the justifications that white people in the South used for
hanging black men? I mean, it is not only taking justice into your own hands,
but it's doing it in an incredibly cruel and hideous way.

Mr. DRAY: Right, and it wasn't only hanging, it was--some of the more
spectacular lynchings were actually immolations, but, of course, hanging
was also common, as was just shooting. The chief justification, the most
sensational one, was the rape of white women. In other words, this was,
obviously, a very hot button sort of issue, and it was one that would never
fail to inspire a lynch mob to form. So very often this was used--even in
cases where there was no real basis for it, that reason was often given as to
why the men of the South had to protect white women and, you know, therefore,
protect the white race, really. It had to do with a kind of destabilizing
atmosphere that came in the 1890s.

It's a little mysterious because lynching was kind of a mass hysteria, really,
and so it's hard to really point to the reasons except it was a period in
which the first generation of blacks who had not been slaves or born in
slavery were coming of age, and the white South was under assault, really, in
many ways, from not really knowing how to deal with this minority population
in its midst at the same time white women were entering the work force,
working in textile mills and that sort of thing. And so there was a kind of
pressure placed on white men to kind of hold onto the status quo. And many
scholars feel that that is what triggered this kind of hysteria of seeing
black rapists lurking behind every tree, basically.

GROSS: In the book, you use the expression `Southern spectacle' lynchings.
You say that this type of lynching emerged in the 1880s. What do you mean by
that expression?

Mr. DRAY: Well, spectacle lynchings were the most--or kind of the most
well-known. Just like the name implies, they were huge events, really some of
the largest public events held in the South for many years. Typically a black
man would be, you know, accused of what they used to call sexual outrage,
which could mean anything from rape to just looking the wrong way at a white
woman. With the complicity of the law, he would then be taken from jail and,
when a large crowd had assembled, led to a spot that had been preselected for,
you know, allowing the best viewpoints for the audience, and then tortured,
mutilated, set afire. And these could be almost like daylong events, almost
picnic-like. So the term spectacle lynching comes from that.

GROSS: What have you found out about who participated in lynchings, who
organized them?

Mr. DRAY: That's a very difficult thing to say. As the title of my book, "At
the Hands of Persons Unknown," implies, `at the hands of persons unknown' was
almost invariably the coroner's verdict when a lynching victim was found. It
was a euphemism that basically meant to suggest that no persons had really
committed the crime of lynching, but rather, it had been an expression of the
community's will. So this researching who the perpetrators of lynchings were
is very difficult because the purpose of lynching was to obfuscate things that
ordinarily in a trial would come out, say in a trial transcript or lawyers'
arguments or an interrogation that was recorded, that sort of thing. So
you're left, really, with a lot of just kind of reading the tea leaves.

Generally, from just anecdotal evidence, mostly provided by newspapers, most
lynchings, you get the sense that they were led by sort of an inner circle of
firebrands who were rousing everyone up. There were usually many, many young
men involved, boys from the age of 10 up. And then beyond that, you have sort
of the rest of the community that might not really approve, but didn't want to
miss out on it. So they really were like community events. It's not uncommon
to read newspaper accounts of lynchings in small towns where it's reported
that every citizen in the town was there.

GROSS: Is there anything like this that you can find in American history,
like the kind of lynchings that became public spectacles and public events,
where everybody showed up, maybe brought a picnic lunch and, you know, watched
it like it was a movie or a theater event?

Mr. DRAY: I can't really think of anything. Probably the closest thing is a
religious revival, you know, an outdoor religious revival. In the South, for
instance, you know, we've all seen these kind of things depicted in films
where, you know, the families show up and it's a daylong event and people get
very carried away, it's a very emotional experience. I mean, it's important
to point out, too, that lynching itself, especially with spectacle lynchings,
was a kind of quasi-religious experience because it was so ritualized and it
seemed to suggest a kind of expiation on the part of the lynch mob. In other
words, lynchings would follow a period in which white and black relations in a
particular community had become very tense. And so the lynchings served as
almost kind of a release, like a sacrifice.

Meanwhile, of course, you had the Southern white population still sort of
reeling from the Civil War and lashing out at the people, namely blacks, who
they saw as the cause of this dilemma. So it was kind of a catharsis, a sense
of release. And it was important to completely destroy the victim because it
was believed that you completely destroyed a person and left really no part of
them extant, they wouldn't go to heaven, and so you'll find that in most
lynchings, not only was the person killed or immolated, but then what remained
of them was cut up and handed out as souvenirs.

GROSS: Were there other ways in which hangings were ritualized?

Mr. DRAY: Well, not all lynchings were spectacle lynchings. In other words,
there were another type of lynching called an underground lynching, wherever
lynchers felt that they couldn't operate quite as freely as in other
instances, with the approval of the community. They would operate much more
secretly and, you know, typically a victim would be abducted and taken off
into the swamp and never seen again. But there was a lot of ritual in terms
of, for instance, you know, a certain length of time would often have to
transpire before the lynch mob was expected to show up at the jail, you know,
maybe a decent interval, to sort of allow the lawmen to pretend that they had
controlled the situation. There was often kind of a ritual with the family of
the person--the family that had the strongest grievance against the black
person would be allowed first opportunity to either mutilate or torture or
even kill the person. This was considered a right that even the most unruly
lynch mob would observe.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Philip Dray. He's the author
of the new book "At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black
America." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Philip Dray is my guest. He is the author of a new history of
lynching in America. It's called "At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The
Lynching of Black America."

In the cases where there were big spectacle lynchings, where everyone in a
small Southern town would show up to watch the event, almost like a spectator
sport, wasn't there any way of stopping it? Were there any laws that made
lynching illegal?

Mr. DRAY: Generally, anyone who tried to interfere with a lynching was
either ignored or told to go home, or even abused in some way. It was just
too overwhelming an experience usually that, you know, you really couldn't
stop it. There were state laws passed against lynching in various Southern
states, usually as a way to try to stem the flow of immigration by black
laborers. In other words, at the level of, say, the governor and prominent
businessmen, they might see lynching for what it was, which was a force that
was driving needed labor away. And so they would act to stop it. It took a
very long time, though, at the local level for people to start resisting
lynchers. In other words, it was more common at the federal level and at,
like, say, the level of state government to express concern about it. But
there was a long, long debate about actually what to do about lynching, partly
because of what I mentioned before, which was there was a very popular idea
that a local community knew what to do with criminals in its midst and that
they should not be interfered with.

GROSS: Let's look at some of the opposition to lynching. You write a lot
about Ida B. Wells and how she became an anti-lynching activist. And you
quote something very eloquent that she said, "No other nation, civilized or
savage, burns its criminals. Only under the Stars and Stripes is the human
holocaust possible." What was her approach to trying to stop lynching?

Mr. DRAY: Just as the quote you read suggested, she was outraged about
lynching and she was really the first anti-lynching crusader to appear. She
got involved in 1892. She was a journalist in Memphis, and three of her
friends who ran a grocery store were lynched because their business was
threatening the business of a competing white grocery store. And so when that
occurred, she realized that the rationale about black rapists threatening
white women was really just that. It was just, like, a rationale or an
excuse, because these friends of hers had been perfectly legitimate
businessmen. She began editorializing about lynching and researching
lynchings herself in the South. And for her trouble, she was driven away.
Basically a mob trashed her newspaper office and warned that if she ever came
back, she herself would be lynched.

So she moved to New York and went on kind of about a 15- or 20-year
international crusade, both in Britain and the United States, lecturing,
writing about lynching. All she could do, really, was try to bring it to
people's attention. In other words, at that time, many of these events
occurred in the South, where news of these events didn't necessarily always
come out, or by the time it did, it was so shaded against the person who had
been lynched that there wasn't a great deal of sympathy in America for the
victims.

So what Ida Wells was trying to do was basically call attention to what an
outrage this was and get some coverage of it, get people alarmed about it and
try to sort of change the dynamics so that the lynchers were the criminals,
not the victims.

GROSS: What were some of the disagreements among African-American leaders
about what to do to stop lynching?

Mr. DRAY: Probably the most famous disagreement was between Booker T.
Washington, who was a famous Southern educator and, of course, at the turn of
the century, the most powerful and popular black leader in America--between
him and W.E.B. Du Bois and, first, the Niagara Movement and then the NAACP,
which Du Bois helped found. Basically it was an argument that--while Booker
T. Washington certainly did not condone lynching, he tended to believe that
it was a fate that mostly befell criminals or outcasts, and that it would be
too much of a distraction to really mount protests against it, whereas for Du
Bois and Ida Wells and many others, they saw it as really this form of caste
oppression that was very dominant and that had to be met head-on. It's kind
of a telling thing about that period that even though there were a lot of
other issues that should have been on the table, like the disenfranchisement
of black Americans--that those issues were not really being discussed, but
lynching was an issue that was so sensational that it did create a dialogue in
the newspapers. It was something that was so egregious that black reformers
could get white people's attention, especially in the North, obviously, to
discuss it because there were enough whites who were alarmed about it also.

So in a way, the NAACP sensed that that was a starting point. They had other
things on their agenda having to do with housing, education, political
involvement, but lynching was something that was so over the top that it was
easy for them, in a way, to address.

GROSS: The NAACP began an anti-lynching campaign in 1909, shortly after it
was founded. You write that James Weldon Johnson, the writer, led their
anti-lynching legislative effort. How did the NAACP decide that they should
try to get federal legislation that would outlaw lynching?

Mr. DRAY: I believe it was probably inspired to a certain degree by the
success of both the women's suffrage movement and also Prohibition, both of
which came in around 18--I'm sorry, 1919-1920. And so James Weldon Johnson
and the NAACP believed that if the federal government could get involved in
people's lives to the extent that they would tell them what they could drink,
that they could surely get involved to stop people from burning other human
beings alive. So they went ahead with the help of a white congressman named
Dyer from St. Louis, and both in the '20s and the '30s, the NAACP mounted
several very powerful campaigns in Congress to get a federal anti-lynching law
passed.

GROSS: What approach did Congressman Dyer take in his bill to defining and
trying to prevent lynching?

Mr. DRAY: Well, as I said before, the sense was that this was not murder. In
other words, there was a constitutional issue in that the Southern states
pointed out, first of all, that the federal government had no right to involve
itself in local criminal affairs in the South and that these were just murders
and that the states were perfectly able to take care of them. The federal
government, or those advocating the federal bill insisted that this was a
different type of crime, that it wasn't just murder but, rather, a form of
anarchy in which laws were ignored. And so that was really the basis that
they used. It really boiled down to this age-old argument in this country
between federal and states' rights. In other words, that were Americans
federal citizens who were entitled to protection from the federal government
or were they citizens of the states and, thus, criminals were to be dealt with
on a local level?

BOGAEV: Philip Dray's new book is "At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The
Lynching of Black America." He'll be back in the second half of our show.

I'm Barbara Bogaev, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

BOGAEV: Coming up, creating anti-lynching laws. We continue our conversation
with Philip Dray, author of "At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of
Black America." And Kevin Whitehead reviews the new recording by saxophonists
Plas Johnson and Red Holloway.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Our guest, Philip Dray, is the author of "At the Hands of Persons Unknown:
The Lynching of Black America." He also co-authored the book "We Are Not
Afraid" about the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964.
When we left off, Philip Dray told Terry about the NAACP campaign in the early
'20s to promote anti-lynching legislation in Congress with the help of
Representative L.C. Dyer of Missouri.

GROSS: I think this is interesting. You write that one of the reasons why
Congress was finally ready to really listen to this anti-lynching bill was
that there was a lot of fear in the North that lynching would follow the black
migration to the North and that the North would have trouble.

Mr. DRAY: Yes, that's right. There was a very famous case in 1911 in a town
called Coatesville, Pennsylvania. Coatesville was a very typical northern
mill town in that it had sent agents into the south to recruit black workers,
telling them, `Conditions are much better in Pennsylvania. We have electric
lights on the street and there's no Jim Crow,' etc. What happened, though, is
that one of these workers got in a fight with a policeman in Coatesville one
night and shot and killed him. What happened basically was that the town of
Coatesville behaved just like any Southern town. This man was taken to a
field, set afire. A large crowd watched. Afterward, the North, you know, New
York, Washington, Baltimore were outraged because this had happened so close
by. And, you know, there was a flood of editorials and demands that, `At
least here justice will be done. We're not going to be like the South.'
Well, instead the exact same thing happened which was the locals all stuck
together, wouldn't inform on one another, and basically they were never able
to prosecute it. So it was very shameful and kind of a wake-up call for the
North really that this form of violence would follow the migration north and
there were other instances, too. There was a famous lynching in Duluth,
Minnesota, actually, at one time, one of the northernmost cities in the
country.

GROSS: And the way you describe it, this bill defined lynching as a murder of
any citizen in the US by a mob of three or more people. And the bill sets out
to punish people who are complicit in it, like a sheriff or other state
officer who failed to make a reasonable effort to keep a prisoner in his
custody and prevent them from being lynched. They were going to be punished.

Mr. DRAY: Yes, that was actually not in the Dyer bill, I don't believe, but
it came in what they call the Wagner-Costigan bill. There were several
versions of this bill.

GROSS: I see.

Mr. DRAY: In other words, that was a sophistication of it because what
they--the Northern congressmen were always trying to find a way to make the
bill acceptable to the Southerners. And one of the things they did eventually
was change it so that only lawmen would be held responsible because really
that's where--even though, obviously, lawmen couldn't control every lynching,
many of them, lawmen, were often complicit in lynchings. And it was believed
that especially in a Southern county, say in Alabama or Mississippi, that the
sheriff or his deputies basically knew what was going on. And so by putting
punishments in place for them, they felt that was the most direct way to
inhibit lynching. And, indeed, it did work when there were those type of
things put in place. For instance, I believe in South Carolina, there was a
system where any county where someone was lynched would have to pay a fine of
$10,000 to the state. Well, right away the local police became much more
vigilant about protecting lynchings because this was something that was really
hitting them where they lived.

GROSS: So what federal legislation was finally passed?

Mr. DRAY: There never was an anti-lynching law passed, actually. They tried
many times through the '20s, '30s. The last attempt was during the Second
World War. What basically happened is that efforts in Congress eventually
just ran out. The Southern bloc was just too strong, and on several occasions
they filibustered bills to death. One of the most well-known instances is
during the '30s when Franklin Roosevelt, who, of course, he and Eleanor
Roosevelt both were very sympathetic to the work of the NAACP about lynching
but basically wound up telling the NAACP that they just could not put the
important congressional agenda at risk for this one issue because the
Southerners would just block all other movement. So that was pretty much the
end of it.

During the Second World War what you see is the federal judiciary kind of
picking up the battle, and, indeed, that's where it eventually really made
more progress. They call that the due process revolution. All during the
20th century a series of Supreme Court decisions that incrementally restored
to the federal government the right to mandate what constituted a criminal
trial and what levels of due process were owed to citizens.

GROSS: So we can't really credit federal legislation with stopping lynching.
What were the main factors that brought that to an end?

Mr. DRAY: Well, lynching was diminishing slowly all along, partly, I believe,
through pressure. The NAACP was very successful really in that from 1911 or
so on they were publicizing lynchings. They would always do a very thorough
job of investigating lynchings so as to get out what they believed was the
actual story. In other words, their effort was meant to correct the myths
that would surround a lynching typically and try to put out a story that made
the victim seem at least somewhat sympathetic and to make the lynch mob appear
gross and, you know, out of control essentially and irresponsible. So this
did take effect on popular opinion.

You also see in the '20s, for instance, after the First World War a sense
that--in other words, like world events were casting lynching in a different
light after what people felt was this barbaric foreign war and, you know, the
Bolshevik Revolution. The idea of anarchy meant a lot to people in America
then. The idea that lynch mobs represented anarchy was this thing that could
get people very excited.

Similarly in the '30s with the rise of fascism in Europe, you could place
lynching sort of in that context, and so people naturally had this reaction to
it that, `Well, that's not us. That's something that's going on over there.'
And, of course, this was accentuated by the fact that the Nazis would publish
pictures of US lynchings and distribute them to show, like, `Well, you know,
what are you talking about?' basically. `You know, this is what you're up
to.' So you had this kind of larger world influence.

Other things, too--a big hot-button crime in the '30s was kidnapping after the
famous Lindbergh kidnapping. There was a sense of unease on the part of
people that criminals had become mobile, that, you know, there were these
gangster syndicates and people being abducted. And so in that context, too,
lynching then became seen as this kind of atrocious event that just could not
be allowed to continue.

So those were really the things that kind of diminished it. And after the
Second World War in particular when the US, of course, was involved in this
global crusade against fascism, lynching became seen as completely
anachronistic. And even though lynchings continued to occur, they were always
afterward then seen as very, like, a throwback kind of event and were often
covered as such by the press.

GROSS: You mentioned that the NAACP had a campaign on which they tried to
evoke sympathy with the people being lynched and show the people behind the
lynchings as the real villains. And you reprint part of an NAACP brochure. I
think it's a brochure in which there's a picture of a lynching and then some
writing underneath that. I want you to describe this picture and then read us
what's written underneath. This is from 1935.

Mr. DRAY: Right. This is a picture from a lynching of a man named Rubin
Stacey in Florida. It was taken on July 19th, 1935. What's striking about
the photograph is that it shows in the foreground a young black man wearing
overalls who's been hanged. And standing around the tree where he's hanged
are a group of people. Prominently several young girls who look almost as if
they're dressed to go to Sunday school--they're kind of looking up at him.
And the text reads, `Do not look at the Negro. His earthly problems are
ended. Instead, look at the seven white children who gaze at this gruesome
spectacle. Is it horror or gloating on the face of the neatly dressed
seven-year-old girl on the right? Is the tiny four-year-old on the left old
enough, one wonders, to comprehend the barbarism her elders have perpetrated.
Rubin Stacey, the negro who was lynched at Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, on July
19th, 1935 for, quote, "threatening and frightening a white woman," suffered
physical torture for a few short hours, but what psychological havoc is being
wrought in the minds of the white children?'

GROSS: Who was this flier distributed to?

Mr. DRAY: Knowing the NAACP, it was distributed quite widely. They would
almost always distribute it to every member of Congress, any other leading
political figure they could think of and, of course, the press. That was
always a very important thing for the NAACP and any other reformers was to
turn the press into their supporters on this issue because lynching was for
many years a kind of--it was very popular journalism. It was what--one
academic has called it folk pornography. In other words, articles about
lynchings, because they dealt with such visceral subjects and often had a
sexual theme, were--they were sort of like bodice rippers almost. They were
very popular and they ran prominently in Southern newspapers. So the
NAACP--what they're trying to do here is sort of contradict that to show
images that are sort of telling the other side of the story and, of course,
are in their own way very disturbing.

GROSS: And I think the NAACP is also saying with this picture, `White people,
these lynchings are bad for you. Look how it's perverting your children.'

Mr. DRAY: Mm-hmm. That's right. Yes, that was a theme that increasingly
came to the fore. There was a woman from Georgia named Lillian Smith who's
the famous author of the novel "Strange Fruit" who wrote extensively about
lynching. And, yes, that was always her theme that she expounded on a great
deal was that the South ultimately was its own victim of this syndrome.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Philip Dray and he's written a
new history of lynching in the United States called "At the Hands of Persons
Unknown." Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This
is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Philip Dray. He's written a new book about the history of
lynching in America. It's called "At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The
Lynching of Black America."

I know you're asked this a lot, but what's considered to be the last lynching
in America or the last wave of lynchings?

Mr. DRAY: The last lynching that I mention in the book is...

GROSS: Maybe that's a presumptuous question.

Mr. DRAY: I see.

GROSS: Maybe there wasn't a last one, you know? Maybe it's still happening
in some places.

Mr. DRAY: Well, it is a strange--it's not--well, of course, it's not a
strange question. It's because lynching itself is a kind of a fluid idea in a
certain way; in other words, some things that we call hate crimes I suppose
now--I mean, there's a certain amount of semantics involved...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DRAY: ...might have 100 years ago been known as lynchings. In the book,
what I cite as the last lynching, you know, essentially, even though I admit
that it's just my own--really just a way to focus on one. But the Goodman,
Schwerner, Chaney murder in Mississippi in 1964 was--in a way, I think of it
as the last lynching for a couple of reasons. One, it was a classic lynching
in that it involved the victims being arrested, held by the police until a
lynch mob was ready, and then released to a lynch mob. So that's a very kind
of classic form in that case. Moreover, though, what makes it so important is
that that was the case where the federal government finally said, `OK, we're
going to go and try to make it so that we'll have laws that we can prosecute
lynch mobs.'

And so that case became one in which the Justice Department went to the
Supreme Court and raised basically two old Reconstruction-era criminal
statutes that have to do with civil-rights conspiracy. These statutes had
kind of been dormant for decades. But, because like a lot of
Reconstruction-era law, they'd been sort of defanged and ignored or set aside.
So what the Justice Department set out to do was to restore them and put the
teeth back in them. And essentially that's what happened, because the state
of Mississippi thought the crime was a hoax and would not even investigate it,
so there were no murder charges. So it was up to the federal government to
bring the case, which they felt they had to because it was such a huge case.
It was sort of a national preoccupation in the late '60s.

And so that's what happened; they succeeded in 1967 in convicting the lynch
mob in the Goodman, Schwerner, Chaney case under these federal statutes of
violating the civil rights of the three victims. So in a way, that was a kind
of a--I mentioned before the idea of the due process revolution. In other
words, this was a kind of a landmark in that it was a victory for the federal
government in restoring their ability to go after lynch mobs.

GROSS: And I want to remind our listeners that you're the author of an
earlier book on the Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman lynchings.

Mr. DRAY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And you call those lynchings even though they're not hangings.

Mr. DRAY: That's right. Because even though that's the most popular image
of a lynching, lynchings could involve any kind of--they often involved
shootings or burnings, as well. So really the lynching aspect of it has to do
more with the activity of the mob often in cahoots with the law rather than
the actual form of execution.

GROSS: Philip Dray, I'm wondering--there's no photograph of you on the dust
jacket for your new book about lynching and I'm wondering why.

Mr. DRAY: I didn't know you'd ask me that. I guess I didn't put a photo on
just because I thought maybe it would be better if people, when picking up the
book, didn't think in terms of the race of the author.

GROSS: I had a feeling that's what it was about. Are you white?

Mr. DRAY: Yes, I am.

GROSS: I'm in Philadelphia and you're in New York, so we're not seeing each
other...

Mr. DRAY: No, I know.

GROSS: ...so I don't know for sure what, you know...

Mr. DRAY: Yes, I am. I am.

GROSS: ...whether you're black or white.

Mr. DRAY: No, I am. When I wrote the other book about the Goodman,
Schwerner, Chaney case and did some author promotion for that, I was always
very pleased--there was no photo on that book, either, and I was always very
pleased to show up at radio stations or whatever and have people say, `Oh, I
thought you were black.' Or, `I didn't know what you'd be.' And I kind of
enjoyed that they had looked at the book and not really known for certain,
because I didn't want that to be a distraction, for someone to prejudge it and
say, `Oh, well, I know what this will be like. This is, you know, one thing
or another.'

GROSS: Were you concerned that your book might seem less credible to some
people because it's perceived as an African-American issue and you're a white
author, a white journalist?

Mr. DRAY: That's part of it, I think. For me, it's like a double trespass
really, because not only am I white, but I'm not a professor, I'm not--I'm
just really like a free-lance writer, and so I feel in a way a little bit like
I like to be very cautious because I don't have a lot of credentials in the
field, except for the other book that I wrote. I'm just like an enthusiast,
really. I enjoy this researching and writing about this particular type of
history.

I think also for me, too, with both of these books, this one in particular,
you can't work on a book like this without having the sense a little bit that
you're more the messenger, really, than the author, because the subject itself
is so overwhelming and it's so painful that you almost have this sense that
you want to get out of the way a little bit and just let the story come
through and not, you know, sort of wave a flag yourself so much, and it's not
so much about, you know, `I'm the author. This is my book. This is my
statement,' or something like that. Or rather, `Here's this story and I'm
glad to bring it to you.'

GROSS: Well, Philip Dray, I really want to thank you for talking with us.

Mr. DRAY: Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: Philip Dray is the author of "At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The
Lynching of Black America."

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. BILLIE HOLIDAY (Singing) Southern trees bear strange fruit. Blood on the
leaves and blood at the root. Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze;
strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South: the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth.
Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh, then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck, for the rain to gather, for the wind
to sup, for the sun to rot, for the tree to drop. Here is a strange and
bitter crop.

(Soundbite of applause)

BOGAEV: Billie Holiday, recorded in 1946.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Plas Johnson and Red Holloway's new CD, "Keep That Groove
Going!"
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:

A new album pairs up Southern California saxophonists Plas Johnson and Red
Holloway. Johnson grew up in New Orleans, toured with bluesmen Charles Brown
and Johnny Otis in the 1950s and has spent much of his professional life in
recording studios, backing jazz and pop musicians and playing tenor saxophone
on the original "Pink Panther" theme. Holloway came up in Chicago, toured
with jazz organists Jack McDuff and Bill Doggett and spent five years jousting
on stage with fellow saxophonist Sonny Stitt.

Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review of their new album. But first,
here's Plas Johnson and Red Holloway on the "Ladders"(ph) tune "Bretheren."

(Soundbite of jazz instrumental)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD reporting:

Jazz values spontaneity, of course, and yet some of the jazz records that get
the least recognition and respect are informal sessions that call for little
rehearsal, counting on the musicians to make it work on the spot. This is by
no means a foolproof method, but sometimes it works out quite well. So it
goes with a new disc by Plas Johnson and Red Holloway, whose title is their
plan of action, "Keep That Groove Going!"

As tenor saxophonists, they're evenly matched and similarly down to earth,
with just enough contrast between their sounds. Plas Johnson often favors a
hard-edged tone and punchy phrasing.

(Soundbite of jazz instrumental)

WHITEHEAD: Plas Johnson with Kenny Washington on drums.

Compared to Johnson, Red Holloway has a deeper, warmer tone on tenor sax.
This is from his feature, "Serenade in Blue." The organist is Gene Ludwig.

(Soundbite of instrumental)

WHITEHEAD: That organ and tenor combination sounds lifted from a 40-year-old
Blue Note record, a good old sound with a lot of the sanctified church in it.

Saxophonists aside, the dominant voice here is the guitar of Melvin Sparks,
undercelebrated linchpin of umpteen soul-jazz records like this one. He's
particularly strong on bluesy material, where his spiky tone makes him sound
more like a real bluesman than a jazz guitarist.

(Soundbite of instrumental)

WHITEHEAD: A session like "Keep That Groove Going!" which is on Milestone,
confirms the restorative power of the blues served straight up. Records led
by two tenor saxophonists usually get tagged as tenor battles, but what these
guys do is more like friendly sparring. The idea is not to draw blood, but
enjoy the workout and maybe pick up a move or two. Nobody tries too hard or
too little. Their repertoire of blues, ballads and shouts avoids the usual
jam-session warhorses and the project calls attention to fine players well
worth your notice, and that's more than a lot of highfalutin jazz does.

BOGAEV: Kevin Whitehead reviewed "Keep That Groove Going!" featuring
saxophonists Plas Johnson and Red Holloway.

(Credits)

BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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