Lynching is an ugly word. Billie Holiday sang about “black bodies swinging in the southern breeze.” Far to the north, in the whitest state in the country, it’s easy to think the history of lynching belongs to others. Here’s why it matters in Maine.
1. Because Maine is part of the U.S. We can no more ignore our country’s history of racial violence than Germany can ignore the Holocaust. We still have discrimination, economic inequality and a criminal justice system that are direct legacies of the white supremacy that lynching was designed to preserve.
2. Because a lynching happened in Maine. Though the overwhelming majority of victims are African American, whites have died by extra-legal executions, too. Jim Cullen was targeted for theft and murder. Maine Memory Network says New England’s first Ku Klux Klan march, the first Klan march in daylight, was in Milo in 1923. In 1924 the Klan marched in Island Falls. Maine’s Franco Americans and Catholics have been subjects of discrimination.
3. Because lynchings aren’t just history. Charlie Howard died in 1984 in Bangor because he was gay. James Craig Anderson died in 2011 because of his skin color. Two weeks ago on Feb. 10, U.S. District Judge Carleton Reeves of Mississippi gave Anderson’s three murderers first a history lesson and then something missing from history: appropriate sentences. William Faulkner knew “[t]he past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Neither is lynching.
4. Because children learn that Mainers like Margaret Chase Smith stood against injustice, and because Maine prides itself on individual liberty. When white children know histories other than their own, they are better educated. When children of color see that Maine values their history, too, they can feel welcome to contribute to all that is good about our state.
5. Because Maine is part of a global community. The Equal Justice Initiative’s list of 4,000 documented lynchings, in 12 southern states between 1877 and 1950, is international news. Published the day Judge Reeves sentenced the Mississippi men, it already has been the subject of 70 news articles here and abroad. If the eyes of the world are on the U.S., we should know what they’re seeing.
6. Because when one group suffers, everyone is affected. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that when Nazis came for Jews, others stayed silent, thinking they were safe. As Nazi poison spread, no one was left to speak up. Definitions of race change over time, and no one is immune. Native Americans, most every immigrant group, Africans brought by force, and their descendants, all have suffered oppression.
7. Because terrorism isn’t only done by others. Lynch mobs killed more people than 9/11.
8. Because we need deeper understanding. We need to know better than the bar in Cambridge that named a drink “Strange Fruit,” and the Texas public relations firm with the same name. Lynching is not a drink anyone should want, nor a company anyone should hire.
9. Because the wealth gap is increasing. The gap increases disparities, which exacerbates blaming, which is both a cause and result of this sort of violence. Frustration leads to protests and retaliation, in a vicious circle.
10. Because we are human. When we learn about others’ pain, we have empathy, which, like fairness and justice, multiplies. The more we have, the more we gain.
On Thursday, Feb. 26, writer and historian Stephanie Harp of Bangor will be joined by five Orono High School students to present “The 1927 Project: A Conversation about Racial Violence,” an historical and personal look at an Arkansas lynching. The free event will be from 6-7:30 p.m. at the Orono High School-Middle School library. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.