Thursday, February 12, 2004

Some readers probably think I'm an extreme American nationalist, though I don't really think I am. I like the distinction George Orwell makes between "patriot" and "nationalist": a patriot is someone who loves his country, while a nationalist is one who wants his chosen power unit (whether a nationality, religion, class, whatever) to gain power and prestige. There's nothing I'd love to see more than an end to American overseas military commitments, for example. Unfortunately, I don't see any way to do that in the near or medium future.

And I am not blind to the fact that evil grows in the United States just as it does anywhere else. Now, there are places like Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union whose systems provided the world with a lot more evil than did the Americans or the Brits during the 20th century. But individual Americans are certainly capable of doing evil, and in different parts of our history our system allowed that evil to emerge.

Lynching is probably the most notorious American evil; lynchings in the US were not at all uncommon until well after the First World War. It was acceptable for mobs to drag alleged malefactors out of jail and kill them, usually horribly, in public, and especially in the South. It's estimated that there were some 4000 lynchings (numbers vary) in the US between 1865 and about 1930, and the great majority of the victims were black.

An important branch of our family--the Chappells, Colleys, Whitneys, Shannons--originates in the town of Paris, Texas, which was a hotbed of lynching; in fact, the burning of Henry Smith on January 31, 1893, at Paris, is possibly the single most notorious mob murder of all. Smith was a retarded black man accused of killing and raping a young girl. He escaped to Hope, Arkansas, Bill Clinton's hometown, just a hundred miles up the road, where a posse caught him. He was taken back to Paris by train, where a crowd of at least 10,000 turned out to see his death. It was well-planned; a scaffold was built so the crowd could see, and special trains were run to Paris from as far away as Dallas and Fort Smith, along with the posse's train, full of spectators from Texarkana and Clarksville. Here is a contemporary account. You probably don't want to see this picture.

Here is a list of black men lynched in Paris:

William Armor, John Ransom, John Walker, September 6, 1892
Unidentified man, September 19, 1892
Henry Smith, January 31, 1893
Jefferson Cole, August 26, 1895
George Carter, February 11, 1901
J. H. McClinton, December 25, 1901
Henry Monson, January 27, 1913
Irving Arthur, Herman Arthur, July 6, 1920

That's eleven men killed by lynch mobs in one small Southern town. In addition, during this period, there were three lynchings in neighboring Red River county and one in neighboring Delta county. Of course, I suppose that some of the people who participated in or witnessed these lynchings were ancestors of mine. Our folks were lower-middle class farmers; they owned their land but had no money or social status. These were precisely the people most likely to join lynch mobs. However, these are not the kind of family stories that your grandma passes on to you.

Anyway, I have no illusions about human nature.

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