Lincoln, Lynching, and the Long Way Home

04/15/2015 02:06 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2015
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The assassination of Abraham Lincoln 150 years ago this month was the precursor to the domestic terrorism that would be unleashed on black Americans for the next century.

Reconstruction was far more punitive than it would have been had Lincoln lived. In his second inaugural address, Lincoln had sent the message that there would not be retribution toward the South but rather reconciliation. In his closing remarks he had stated, "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds." But Reconstruction as it was implemented after Lincoln's death rubbed the prospects of black equality in the faces of Southern whites, who were unwilling to concede social standing. Under widespread economic strain and federal occupation, whites blamed blacks as much as, if not more than, they did the North for Reconstruction.

In 1876, with the Hayes-Tilden Compromise, Reconstruction came to an end, and putting blacks back in their "natural" place became the priority throughout the South. White Democrats regained political power, Jim Crow laws were instituted, and lynching became the modus operandi to sustain the status quo of fear. From 1882 to 1968, there were nearly 200 anti-lynching bills introduced in Congress. Only three passed the House. They died in the Senate because Southern senators effectively filibustered the legislation. Seven presidents between 1890 and 1952 petitioned Congress to pass federal anti-lynching laws, to no avail.

The irony of Lincoln's death and the subsequent embrace of lynching is that black Americans were caught between the cross and the lynching tree. As explained by theologian James Cone, the cross and the lynching tree are held together by paradox.

One serves as the foundation for followers of the teachings of Jesus. It is the epicenter of inconvenient love. Inconvenient love is where the horizontal crossbeam of human imperfection intersects with the vertical crossbeam of divine perfection. In the Christian faith it symbolizes the place where, for a three-hour period, one witnesses forgiveness, compassion, and comfort provided to others at a most inconvenient time for Jesus of Nazareth.

Many Africans were brought to this country by way of a forced immigration policy. And from its inception this country has wrestled with the incongruence between the bondage that it practiced and its illustrious mission statement: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." The Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787 couldn't resolve the dilemma. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 couldn't resolve it. Nor could the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. It would require a civil war and the lives of more than 600,00 Americans and one president, along with the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, and the 14th Amendment, which guaranteed due process and equal protection to all American citizens and the extension of voting rights to black men.

(These actions provided additional momentum for the suffrage movement; women wanted the right to vote in all 50 states, which led to the ratification of the 19th Amendment.)

But even after the Supreme Court's 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which helped overturn 58 years of legalized segregation, there remained a tension between the law and its practice. So we needed Rosa Parks to keep her bus seat in Montgomery. We needed four students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University to ask for a cup of coffee at the Woolworth diner in Greensboro in 1960. We needed a letter from Birmingham Jail, a march on Washington, and the valiant efforts of others before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed.

(That inspired students at the University of California at Berkeley and the free-speech movement. Along that same line rose the protesters who questioned the morality of the Vietnam conflict.)

The cross symbolizes the vain attempt to kill holy love. The lynching tree symbolizes the attempt to kill the nation's evolving morality. We keep moving down that bumpy, unpaved, and unpredictable road that leads to resurrection. But that lynching tree keeps shadowing us. This is our American Calvary.