More than a century separates the work of anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement.
But Rutgers history professor Mia Bay draws significant parallels between the two campaigns in An Outrage, a new documentary that highlights the oft-hidden history of lynching and its resonance today.
“The myth about lynching is that it was something that occurred when white women were raped by black men. What Wells showed was that in most cases of lynching there wasn’t even any allegation of rape,” said Bay, director of the Center for Race and Ethnicity at Rutgers. “The myth about police brutality before cell phone footage and Black Lives Matter was that these were criminals, and their criminal activities brought their death upon them.”
The author of To Tell The Truth Freely, The Life of Ida B. Wells (2009), Bay is one of several historians featured in the movie, which was filmed at lynching sites in six states – Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Texas, Tennessee and Virginia. The documentary, co-directed, edited and produced by Hannah Ayers and Lance Warren of Field Studio, also includes interviews with descendants of victims and community activists and uses photographs and drawings to document racial violence and late 19th-century black life. An Outrage premiered March 11 at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
A form of racial terrorism, the practice of lynching – or the extrajudicial killings – of predominantly Southern black men and women began after the Civil War, said Bay, peaking in the 1890s before slowly declining. Because the courts did not sanction most of these executions, there is no official record of the number of lynchings that took place in the United States. However, the Tuskegee Institute has recorded 3,446 blacks and 1,297 whites were lynched between 1882 and 1968.
These acts of brutality were carried out in the public sphere, often attracting thousands of viewers, said Bay. Lynching was used largely to assert white power and intimidate the black population from galvanizing against segregation and Jim Crow laws.
Wells sought to dispel the myths surrounding lynching, said Bay, and alert white Northerners to the violence being wrought in the South. In 1892, Wells published the pamphlet Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases and embarked on an international campaign in the hopes of shaming white communities into action – all the while risking death herself.
Wells was known for her accomplishments as a journalist, feminist, suffragist and one of the founding members of the NAACP. Her influence as a writer and thinker – especially on the subject of lynching – is what drew Bay to her as a research subject.
“She made lynching a real issue,” said Bay. “People were talking about it as a problem for first time.”But after the Civil Rights Movement, when lynching became rare, the conversation Wells started had stopped. Bay warns that ignoring this stain on our nation’s history leaves us susceptible to repeating patterns of systemic racial inequality.
“By forgetting lynching, we’re not thinking about the ways in which people have different lives according to the color of their skin and that people walk around with a different level of fear about what might happen to them just in the course of ordinary events,” she said. “There’s a long history of racial violence in this country that hasn’t ended yet. It’s just taken on a new form.”
Bay sees An Outrage as a vehicle that unflinchingly confronts viewers with hard truths about the purpose these heinous acts served and the responses it inspired. By exploring racial violence from our past, she said, perhaps we will recognize reoccurring patterns in the present.
“Lynching kept people down, scared and unable to protest. Think about that history in relation to present day concerns,” said Bay. “While people in the 1890s might have grown up hearing about Henry Smith being lynched in Texas, now children are growing up hearing about Trayvon Martin and countless people who’ve died at the hands of vigilantes or the police.”
The 30-minute movie, designed for use in classrooms and community forums, will be available to educators through a number of methods, including a video stream on tolerance.org. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program is developing curriculum to use with the film and will partner with the producers to distribute the film to its network of nearly 500,000 K-12 teachers.
“Our principal goal is to spur needed conversations that lead to real change,” said Warren.
The Center for Race and Ethnicity at Rutgers hopes to screen An Outrage in the fall. Formed more than a decade ago, the center was designed to facilitate interdepartmental collaboration among faculty working on similar subjects regarding race and ethnicity. The center hosts round-table discussions, conferences, workshops and film nights.
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