11/05/2007 04:38 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Of Nooses -- and the Legacy of Lynching

Recently we witnessed the re-emergence of the noose, not only at institutions of higher learning such as Columbia University, but also at various workplace locales. The manner in which the noose was surreptitiously but strategically placed in each location, and the emotions it aroused in the intended recipients, caused me to ruminate on the symbolism of the noose and the legacy of lynching. Professor Sherilyn Ifill's recent book, On the Court House Lawn -- Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-First Century, provided a comprehensive overview and analysis of the issue.

Contrary to popular belief, nooses and lynching are not, strictly speaking, things of the past. The lynching narrative that most readily comes to mind is the case of Emmett Till, a fifteen-year-old boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955. Or the case of twenty-three-year old Matthew Williams, dragged from his hospital bed by eight or nine men, determined to hang him on the courthouse lawn in Salisbury in 1931. Or the case of twenty-seven-year old George Armwood incarcerated in a Princess Anne cell, set free after twenty men broke down the door so they could hang, drag and burn him on the street in 1933. But as recently as 1998, James Byrd was lynched in Jasper, Texas. One year later, Matthew Shepard was lynched in Laramie, Wyoming.

Professor Ifill dispels the notion that lynching was conducted in secret or under the cover of darkness. As indicated by the title of her book, On the Court House Lawn, lynching often took place in prominent public spaces. The courthouse lawn was a deliberate choice of venue for lynching and "lynch laws" took on as much legitimacy as the formal, codified laws of the state's justice system.

In order to fully appreciate the potency of the symbol of the noose, one must understand the history and context of lynching. According to Professor Ifill, lynching was a tool of white supremacy. "Lynching enforced white privilege, Jim Crow, and white domination of the political, educational, and economic advancement of the community through terror. The horror of lynching reminded blacks that, as a last resort, violent reprisal could be exacted for breaches of social order".

Arguably, African Americans -- as the targets of lynching -- suffered the most pernicious effects of this form of racial terrorism. At the same time, Professor Ifill also points to the deleterious side effects of complicity and silence on the part of the perpetrators and their descendants. In an article for The New York Times magazine, "An American Secret", author Cynthia Carr grappled with the emotions she experienced after finding her deceased grandfather's Ku Klux Klan membership card and realizing that he was present at a double lynching in Marion, Indiana, in 1931.

So where do we go from here? What can be done the next time a noose appears? Professor Ifill, an advocate of the model of "Truth and Reconciliation Commissions", as implemented in post-Apartheid South Africa, points to recent developments nationwide that offer a measure of hope. In 2001, Without Sanctuary, an exhibit of lynching photos, toured the country and served as a catalyst for discussions about lynching in Georgia. In 2003, community leaders and academics launched Southern Truth and Reconciliation (STAR) -- a regional network of individuals and organizations focused on examining the history of lynching in the South and on working toward reconciliation in communities where lynching have occurred. On June, 2004, seven member of North Carolina's Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation were sworn in -- the first of its kind in the country.

Unless and until all parties affected are willing to sit down and engage in constructive dialogue and truth-telling, the noose will forever be a part of the social fabric, and as "American as apple pie".