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Motivations - The Brutal Lynching Of Jesse Washington

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act April 10, 2012 at 5:08PM

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Jesse

On an almost daily basis, I look for reminders of where we, black people, once were; how we lived, how we were perceived and treated, how we overcame, etc.

These recollections come in a variety of forms, and are sometimes completely unintentional. They are reminders, but they are also very much motivators. They make me realize not only how far we've come, and what we've been able to achieve, but also how much work we still have to do. They have this ability to put moments into perspective for me.

Some make me realize that many of the difficulties we face as a group, currently, are dwarfed by what those who came before us experienced; and in recognizing that fact, I'm inspired to continue evolving for the better, and never resting on my laurels.

Today's reminder/inspiration comes from the above image, which is accompanied by the story that follows: the case of Jesse Washington - a black man who was brutally lynched at the hands of a white mob in Waco, Texas, on May 15, 1916, facing a particularly grisly demise.

Lynchings were commonplace around this time in our history, as we all know. And I've read accounts of a few, as well as seen scores of images that documented each occurrence. And every time I read about one, or see a photo of one, I can't help but be anything other than enraged! I get angry! How could I not?

However, I try to channel that rage into something that could engender the kind of change that I believe our species so desperately needs. It may be a cliche, but it still carries weight - actions speak louder than words!

Jesse Washington was a 17-year old black farmhand who was arrested in May, 1916, for the rape and murder of Lucy Fryer, the 53-year old white wife of a cotton farmer. It’s unclear whether Washington was guilty - evidence is described as scant, the trial lasted just one hour, and the jury reached its guilty verdict in four measly minutes.

But his guilt or innocence didn't matter to the white mob that eventually lynched him.

Before the 17-year old could be sentenced, and with little or no resistance by any of the officers in the courthouse, several hundred onlookers rushed Washington, and carried him outside, where they were met by a larger crowd, waiting to beat and castrate him. A chain was then thrown around Washington’s neck, and he was literally dragged to the town square, where he met an even larger crowd; estimates say up to 15,000 people watched the horrible events that would then unfold.

Washington was tossed onto a pile of wooden boxes, and coal oil was poured all over him. The other end of the chain was thrown over the hanging tree, and tied, dragging him up by his neck, just high enough, as the fuel-soaked boxes below his feet were set on fire. Immersed in the flames, he attempted to climb the blisteringly hot chain multiple times, each time to be lowered back into the fire.

It’s unclear how long Washington was alive, but the event lasted more than an hour, after which his fingers and teeth were claimed as souvenirs, his body parts were separated from the torso, and the remains of Washington were dumped in a bag so they might be dragged once more through the Waco streets in celebration of his death

It's said that a cameraman who documented this, sold photographs of Washington’s charred corpse as postcards - something we've talked about previously on this blog.

A complete and startlingly brutal account of this murder is given by Patricia Bernstein in her 2005 book "The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP."

So, I read this, and I try to imagine being this 17-year old kid, chained to a tree, as a fire burns beneath me, and I'm trying to climb up the chain to escape the fire, keeping in mind that the chain itself is scorching hot, wrapped around my neck, and in my palms, and I can't climb it, instead falling back down into the fire below me, as my own body catches fire, and I continue in agony, for almost an hour, trying to make it all end somehow, but also recognizing the futility in it, knowing that I'm going to die - even though this is not quite how I thought would die.

I read this... I imagine it... and I'm affected by it! Like I said, how could I not be?

So, when I'm in that affected mental space, and I read about some of the relatively, dare I say, silly shit that divides us (black people) in the present day, I'm even more enraged; when I hear us express dissatisfaction with anything that we clearly have the power to change, whether individually, or collectively, as a group of people, I'm frustrated. I think of whatever my "reminder" was for that day, and, as I said, it puts things into perspective for me.

We are in a far better position to realize many of the dreams we have, than our predecessors ever were, and I'm not so sure we all fully realize that! But this is why I have these daily reminders that motivate and inspire me. They're like a punch in the gut, or a slap in the face, to shake me out of whatever defeating trance I'm in.

Quite frankly, we all should have these daily "motivation reminders." So, if you don't, may I suggest that you seriously consider the idea.

There's still a lot of work to do.


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