I was born in 1960, in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, in the middle of the country, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by lush green rolling hills and fields of wheat, and white folks….nothing but white folks. But why does this matter in the context of the assignment?
It matters because we are inextricably linked to the world through our experience of it. What I am and how I see things has been shaped by the things that happened to me and the people who influenced me. It matters because it took years of time and personal effort to understand other cultures and ways of thinking when I entered the larger world without the filter of my parents to protect me.
It matters, because the effort to understand others is very often not something that people want to expend their energy on. So, rather than getting to know the “other”, it is much more natural to be ruled by the status quo and seek to retain the norm. People, no less than objects, are often ruled by inertia. Society, like an object with mass, requires an amount of effort equal to the size of the problem in order to effect change. But unlike an object, people very often actively and vehemently resist change.
Lynching was, at its very core, an effort to control the “other” and prevent change. And resistance to change was driven by the fear of others, the fear of Negros and how their entry into full acceptance would change what had always existed in their experience. And when people are driven by fear, they very often attempt to inflict fear and terror on others. It’s a vicious cycle that feeds upon itself and breeds a hatred that goes beyond all reason.
And so the “unwritten law” is one of status quo or inertia. The “unwritten law” is the law of societal physics; this is the way it’s always been, we like it this way, and we don’t want change. The unwritten law of lynching was: whites are superior, Negroes are dangerous and need to be controlled, things were going well when whites were the masters, we must keep the Negro in his place, and therefore we must instill fear in him to keep him in his place. Since the overriding fear of mankind is the fear of death, we will keep the specter of death ever present.
Because men were in largely undisputed control of society, any effort to control a population would be aimed primarily at the men of that group. Also, there is the element of fearing that of which you are the guiltiest. Since white men had been using slave women as sexual outlets with impunity, they naturally feared that men whose families had been the victims of such crimes would now seek to turn the tables on their former masters. In this atmosphere of fear and lawless retribution, all a white woman needed to do was cry wolf to cause a black man to be lynched. Indeed, many a woman who found herself pregnant out of wedlock would point an accusing finger at a black man to save her own skin.
It took another 50 years from the time in which Ida B. Wells was on her anti-lynching campaign for the African-American Civil Rights Movement to gain enough momentum to break the grip of inertia that kept them “separate but equal”. I, for one, find it fitting that in Marin Luther King’s last speech, he quoted FDR’s famous line, “we have nothing to fear but fear itself”. Because it was only the refusal to give in to the fear, which for decades had been wielded with cruelty in support of oppression, which finally broke the back of the lie that was instituted into law by the Jim Crow statutes.
In conclusion, I would like to say that fear has not gone away. Indeed, all of us must maintain vigilance against the specter of fear in our personal lives and in our world. It is far too easy to incite fear, it is a powerful weapon that is difficult to recall and even harder to control, and ALWAYS stings the one who unleashes it against another. If we would avoid a comeback of lynching, we must abhor the use of fear as a means of control.