I first saw the picture many years ago. Where did I see it? It may have been the old Life Magazine, which periodically would feature black and white photographs reflective of Americana. It took my eyes a few moments to process the image and a few more to suspend disbelief.
The picture is of a scene that suggested to me a festive occasion, such as a summertime county fair. A large group, men and women in about equal number, are mingling happily, and staring directly at the camera. Some of the men wear white shirts and ties, suggesting perhaps a church social. The assembled are of various ages, and all are White. A teenage girl is barely seen behind the others. One man does not look happy or festive. He stares balefully at the camera, and is pointing at something above. There are two Black men, hanging from a tree.
Years later, I would learn that the scene is in Marion Indiana, 1930. I would learn that the Black men who had been lynched were Thomas Ship and Abram Smith. If the view of the camera could have been widened, The happy group was in fact part of a mob estimated at over 5,000, including children. Smith and Ship had been arrested just the night before for allegedly murdering a White man and raping his girlfriend. A growing mob broke into the jail with sledgehammers, and dragged the men out to the county courthouse square. Local police were complicit and part of the mob. We will never know if they were guilty of the crime. For the lynch mob, it may not have mattered.
It is difficult to mobilize thousands of people for any type of event in the span of a day. But a spectacle lynching, at this place, at this time, was an event that drew the citizenry out in droves. In the picture one might expect to see at least a few outliers, expressing a sense of horror, or at least ambivalence. But within the malignant mob only hateful, gleeful expressions can be seen.
Do people, and places, evolve in the span of ninety years? Was there something in the air, water or ground in 1930 Marion that could incite normal, otherwise decent people into frenzied barbarity? Was there any remorse? It would appear that after the hard day’s lynching they retired to their porches and parlors for blueberry pie and cold lemonade. Were the Marion folk somehow different, biologically, from people today? Were there glandular, hormonal, metabolic or cerebral differences in the inhabitants of the heartland in 1930 that have withered with time, and we , the the citizens of today, are inherently different?
Hatred is universal, as is violence driven by hate. It may fester, but to erupt certain conditions are required.
There was sanction for the Marion lynch mob, both active and passive. Law enforcement was complicit; the great depression was mounting, and people who are disenfranchised seek scapegoats. The Klan was reemerging, and peaked during the twenties and thirties. Immigrants were flooding the country, and the perception was they were taking jobs away from the “true Americans”who were mostly W.A.S.P. Moral leadership from on top was absent (Hoover was president, and impoverished returning WWI veterans formed a shanty town around Washington called Hooverville.)
Donald Trump has made his feelings toward minorities clear, and previously had exhorted the bigots among his base with thinly coded dog whistles. Now he doesn’t even bother to whistle. His bigotry is now overt. Four young congresswomen of color who showed the audacity of voicing criticism of him and the status quo have been urged to go back to their own countries (three were born in America,the fourth is a naturalized citizen.) At a recent rally, Trump’s supporters began to chant “send her back- send her back”,while Trump stood silent, basking in the light of demagoguery. The rhetoric is now to the right of David Duke
The moral regression is clear and palpable. Ship and Smith were lynched because no one with sufficient courage and conscience quelled the mob.
1930 was not that long ago; Marion Indiana isn’t that far away.