On February 23, 1900, Rep. George Henry White (R-N.C.), the sole Black U.S. lawmaker at the time, gave an impassioned speech on the House floor about the antilynching legislation he was proposing. The bill would make mob violence that resulted in the victim’s death a federal crime of treason to be tried in U.S. courts. White had felt compelled to act after witnessing the bloody Wilmington, N.C., race riot a little over a year before, during which a mob of white locals toppled the city’s multiracial government and ruthlessly murdered an estimated 60 innocent Black citizens.
After White’s speech, his fellow congressmen applauded his words but failed to pass the bill out of committee. Thirty-five years after the Civil War, Southern devotion to states’ rights was still paramount. White called out some of his colleagues who had spoken against heinous lynchings in their own communities. In White’s view, these legislators would not countenance federal legislation because “this would not have accomplished the purpose of riveting public sentiment upon every colored man of the South as a rapist from whose brutal assaults every white woman must be protected.” [Washington Post, February 21, 2020]
A year later, on February 11, 1901, a determined mob of local townsmen hung George Carter in front of the Bourbon County Courthouse in Paris, Ky. His crime? According to news reports: an attempted purse snatching. According to rumor and innuendo: rape.
The woman George Carter allegedly accosted was my great-grandmother, Mary Lake Board. The eight-year-old boy who identified Carter as his mother’s assailant was my maternal grandfather, William Lyons Board.
There are reasons to question whether George Carter was indeed the man who assaulted my great-grandmother. There was no trial, no presentation of evidence. There was almost certainly no capital crime. In her book In the Courthouse’s Shadow: The Lynching of George Carter in Paris, Kentucky, Paris native Tessa Bishop Hoggard scrutinizes the contemporaneous documentation and then offers a riveting account of the lead-up to the encounter with my great-grandmother and its chilling aftermath. The hanging also plays a pivotal role in the novel I wrote about my grandfather, Next Train Out.
Of course, no one in that Paris, Ky., mob was ever identified or arrested. No one was charged or convicted of murdering George Carter. There was no federal hate crime or antilynching law on the books, because Congress had failed to act the year before. It was not until 1920 that “Kentucky became the first southern state to pass an antilynching law.” [John D. Wright Jr., “Lexington’s Suppression of the 1920 Will Lockett Lynch Mob,” The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 84, no. 3 (1986): 263-79.]
This month, 122 years later, after 200 failed attempts, Congress finally succeeded in passing the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, named in honor of the 14-year-old boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955. After President Biden signs the bill into law, a lynching resulting in death or serious bodily injury can be prosecuted as a federal hate crime punishable by up to 30 years in prison.
It’s too late for George Carter, of course, or for the estimated 2,000 people who were lynched in this country after White’s original bill failed. But perhaps it’s a sign that our nation’s citizens are finally ready to take some initial steps toward ensuring justice prevails when racial hate crimes are committed. Just last month a Georgia jury found the three white men involved in Ahmaud Arbery’s murder guilty of federal hate crimes. The next day the three Minneapolis police officers who remained inert as Derek Chauvin slowly killed George Floyd were all found guilty of violating Floyd’s civil rights.
It may feel like way too little way too late, but perhaps we can sense a slight rebalancing of the scales of justice. Perhaps we are moving at a snail’s pace toward that more perfect union where all men and women truly are created equal. Despite current efforts in statehouses across the country to restrict discussions of our nation’s documented history relating to racial injustice and oppression, perhaps these concrete actions are signs of movement in the opposite direction, toward transparency and a more honest reckoning of our past.
We all need to feel uncomfortable about the atrocities that have been committed in this nation to buttress unequal power structures. We need to feel shame. And then we need to take action to address the lingering institutions and sentiments that perpetuate these injustices.
Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill, the longtime champion of the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, said after the bill passed: “Lynching is a longstanding and uniquely American weapon of racial terror that has for decades been used to maintain the white hierarchy…. [This bill] sends a clear and emphatic message that our nation will no longer ignore this shameful chapter of our history and that the full force of the U.S. federal government will always be brought to bear against those who commit this heinous act.” [NPR, March 7, 2022]
On Tuesday, March 29, 2022, President Biden signed into law the Emmett Till Antilynching Act. Till’s cousin, Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., the last living witness to his abduction, said in response, “Laws make you behave better, but they cannot legislate the heart.” Let’s hope the hearts of all Americans are slowly recognizing the injustices that have stained our nation since its inception.
On Saturday, March 26, 2022, Tessa Bishop Hoggard and I participated in a Zoom virtual conversation hosted by the Paris, Ky., Hopewell Museum. We discussed the 1901 lynching of George Carter and how that dark episode prompted both of us to write our books. Connecting with Tessa ultimately led to my friendship with George Carter’s great-nephew, Jim Bannister.