Retitled: Racism Par Excellence: The Man Who Defined the Painful Understanding of “Lynching.”
As a young man, maybe even as a teenager, at least by the age that I was old enough to understand the psycho-sexual social phenomenon that white men have historically posed to black men, my psychologist Mother told me about the great Tuskegee sociologist, Monroe Work. No, she didn’t preface her stories with all the baggage; yet in retrospect, I can opine that this may have been among her reasons and purposes.
Sociologist Monroe Work was the Tuskegee academic and researcher who tracked and recorded and published the number of lynchings in the Nation each year until his death in 1945. Mr. Work, trained at the University of Chicago, was brought to Tuskegee by Booker T. Washington In 1908.
At Tuskegee, Mr. Work founded the Department of Records and Research. It seems that Work and Washington both understood the most essential and rudimentary requirements for sociological study: first you must have raw data. And it is doubtful to improbable that white America was collecting meaningful data about Black America in the early 20th century. Even now, in an age of computer-assisted collection, there is an ongoing struggle to convince the Federal Bureaucracy to collect data on easily available police excessive force incidents against African American citizens.
I surmise that Mr. Work knew this social scientific truth: that if you have raw data easily accessible for statistical evaluation, the argument for new policy initiatives becomes all but irrefutable. As the recent sports analogs teach us, stats are better than mere intuition or gut feelings. Enter Monroe Work.
Eventually, in 1912 Mr. Work began his publication of the Negro Year Book, in which he published yearly State statistics for lynchings in the United States. According to the website Black Past.org, Mr. Work during his career published 66 lynching reports. How he accomplished this might itself be the subject of a book — for lynchings were often not done in the open. And those that were carried out in carnival-style, were likely later buried inside the secret bosom of the collective murderers.
The mantle of Monroe Work has in our time been taken up by a courageous and indefatigable advocate named Bryan Stevenson. His current effort is as much a spiritual one, as it is historical and sociological; for Mr. Stevenson has recalled the legacy of Mandela and King through his efforts to call America to reconciliation about the racial violence it has so willingly countenanced. His organization’s Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama stands only miles from Tuskegee. It is perhaps a reconsecration of those foundation stones set first by Monroe Work.
As Stevenson has so piercingly observed: “I don’t believe slavery ended in 1865, I believe it just evolved.” Evolved from chattel bondage to a form of an ever-present threat of violence by extra-legal and extra-constitutional means begun in the days of Reconstruction and continuing into post-war America. A means of exacting instant punishment merely for the act of being. This was lynching. And it carried with it an unwritten declaration with its decrees: “In case you thought you were free…”
No such judgment awaits any person now occupying the White House. No burning skin on a Sunday picnic with photographs and grinning smiles. No broken necks or burning ropes. No horror as the victim’s body swings desecrated. No strange fruit.
Knowing this, understanding this, learning this, you must, if it is possible, be ashamed.
-Albert Turner Goins