BreakPoint: Lynchings and the Need for a Visual Vocabulary

Lest History Repeat Itself

A new memorial aims to remind us of a dark, painful chapter of American history. And remember this history we must, because it’s being repeated.

In about 1937, Abel Meeropol, a high school teacher in the Bronx, saw a photograph of two African-American men who had been lynched by a mob in Marion, Indiana.

The photo prompted Meeropol to write a poem entitled “Strange Fruit.” It was set to music, recorded in 1939 by the jazz legend, Billie Holiday.

Here’s how the song opens: “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.” Holiday’s song made it almost impossible for America to ignore the reign of terror being visited on Black Americans.

Sixty years later, Time Magazine has named Holiday’s recording the “Song of the Century.”

Still, most Americans today lack an adequate knowledge of lynching and its impact on our history.

In late April, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Alabama, to help us remember. Behind the Memorial is an organization called the Equal Justice Initiative. They’ve documented and memorialized about 4,000 instances of what it calls “racial terror lynching” between 1877 and 1950.

Their work includes images lost to history, but which at the time were often used as postcards and souvenirs—yes, you heard that right. What differentiates terror lynching from mob justice is that the goal of terror lynching had little, if anything, to do with real or imagined transgressions of the law. Instead, the goal was to reinforce racial hierarchy.

Thus, black men were lynched for “bumping up against a white woman or wearing an Army uniform.” Even if no serious crime, or any crime at all, had been committed, the accused could be lynched without trial or proper evidence.

In response, between 1916 and 1970, an estimated six million African Americans headed North in what became known as the “Great Migration.” They were under no illusions about being welcomed in places like Chicago or Detroit, but the alternative was, as Rod Dreher, himself a southerner, has put it, to stay in the South ruled by a kind of American ISIS.

Reading and listening to reports lately on the opening of this Memorial brought several things to my mind. First, and most personal, was a family connection. My wife’s grandfather prosecuted the men who were accused of murdering arguably the most famous victim of lynching, Emmett Till. He lost the case, but not for lack of courage.

The second thing is our need for history, and we must not shy away from the dark chapters of it either. As Eric Metaxas will explain later this week on BreakPoint, a quarter of millennials aren’t sure what the Holocaust is.

And if, as the philosopher George Santayana said, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” what about those who never learned about the past at all?

Third, we need visuals. As a guest on NPR’s “Fresh Air” put it, the images of lynching now resurfacing give us a “visual vocabulary” to help us process what happened. It’s fitting that a photo inspired the song “Strange Fruit,” which also provides a kind of “visual vocabulary” for us.

Confronting any great evil—past or present—requires such a “visual vocabulary.” There was no shortage of reports about what was being done to European Jews during World War II, but it was the images of liberated camps that brought this evil home.

Today, in a chilling repeat of history, images of abortion are hidden from public view, even though it too is an evil that disproportionately targets African Americans.

Of course, memorials like this new one, educating America on the history of lynching, are only created after a great evil has been perpetrated. But the service they provide is essential, lest given our ignorance of history, we continue to repeat it.


Lynchings and the Need for a Visual Vocabulary: Lest History Repeat Itself

As John states, remembering our history and having a “visual vocabulary” helps us to avoid repeating a grave evil, as lynching was. To read about the efforts undertaken by the Equal Justice Initiative at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, click here. And click here to listen to “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday.


History of Lynchings in the South Documents Nearly 4,000 Names
  • Campbell Robertson | New York Times | February 10, 2015
When ISIS Ran the American South
  • Rod Dreher | The American Conservative | February 10, 2015
“Strange Fruit”
  • Billie Holiday | Youtube video

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  • Angie Ferrell

    Right now in South Africa, it is the white citizens being lynched by black mobs. Man’s inhumanity against man never stops, no matter who is in power. The only cure is Jesus Christ.

  • Joel Stucki

    Kudos. Excellent article.

  • zonie6044

    Thanks for making the connection many would not think about. We need a national memorial to the 60+ million murdered unborn babies, the American holocaust.

  • urbanvrwcmom

    I’ve been waiting to hear a Christian/conservative view on lynchings. This column has exceeded my expectations. On another “conservative” website, a white racist poster used the image of the black men hanging as his avatar, as well as having a username that was a racial slur on black Americans. I took the poster to task, but the mods deleted my post while the racist’s posts were allowed to stay. If the predominantly white conservative movement wants to attract more black Americans, it’s imperative to repudiate the white racist fringe elements within conservatism. They’re a liability to conservatism when trying to convince them to give it a try and it’s because of percieved racism that leftists ascribes them. Keep up the great work!

    • Scott

      No doubt!

      I would also mention that abortion has historically killed considerably more urban ethnic unborn in America than white… the left may seem more inviting until we take a closer look. When it comes to abortion, black lives don’t matter… and love is death. Not love.

  • Greg Adaka

    There are deep truths in this article. I must say though, that it takes a lot of boldness for a white evangelical to write an article like this. Please continue to speak up John. The positive effects of a message like this are far reaching indeed.

  • Wesley

    Yes, the evil history of racial terror is being repeated today in South Africa. South African farmers have been subjected to an escalating campaign of attacks characterised by extreme brutality, rape and torture, with 82 people killed in a record 423 incidents in 2017. The government’s bid to expropriate land without compensation has been led by politician Julias Malema, who has been accused of inciting hate speech and inflaming attacks on South Africa’s white minority. The alternative of asylum in Australia is to stay in South Africa ruled by a kind of South African ISIS.

    Unlike the Holocost, there has been a shortage of reports about what is being done to Afrikaners today. It is said to see conservative Christian media such as Breakpoint focus on injustice carried out over 75 years ago, while ignoring today’s atrocities to first world whites and Christians.

    If Breakpoint doesn’t acknowledge the atrocities, who in the main stream media will cover it?