Dear Camp Cain: Stop Calling It a Lynching

Using a heinous part of our history to fend off accusations disrespects the real victims of hate.

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The Negro was unsexed and made to eat a portion of his anatomy which had been cut away. Another portion was sent by parcel post to Governor Dorsey, whom the people of this section hate bitterly.

--lynching of "Negro" Williams, Moultrie, Ga., Washington Eagle, July 16, 1921

Four young women from the crowd pushed their way through the outer rim of the circle and emptied rifles into the negro. They stood by while other men cut off fingers, toes and other parts of the body and passed them around as souvenirs.

--lynching of Philip Gathers, Bulloch Gounty, Ga., Atlanta Journal, June 21, 1920

A crowd of twenty men battered the door of Cooper's home and pounced upon him with knives and axes. He was killed as his wife looked on. The body was tied to a buggy and dragged to the church. Torches were applied to the house of worship, and when the flames were licking high into the air, Cooper's nude form was thrown into the blaze.

--lynching of Eli Cooper, Eastman, Ga., Chicago Defender, Sept. 6, 1919

These shocking and gruesome accounts of lynching in 100 Years of Lynching are just three of the more than 500 recorded lynchings in Georgia from the 1880s until the mid-20th century. Less than a half century after the last recorded lynching in the state, Clarence Thomas, a son of the Peach State, claimed on national television to be the victim of what he called a "high-tech lynching" after credible allegations emerged that he had engaged in sexual harassment of a female employee while he was head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Thomas, then a sitting federal appellate court judge, was in line to serve on the highest court in the most powerful country in the world.

With his white wife seated behind him, Thomas described his Supreme Court confirmation hearing as "a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves." The words and imagery were shocking and powerful, and reset the course of his confirmation hearings.

Now the "high-tech lynching" claim has been invoked in a campaign ad on behalf of another son of Georgia, presidential candidate Herman Cain, in an attempt to fend off negative fallout from the revelation that Cain was accused of sexual harassment by several women in the 1990s during his time as president of the National Restaurant Association.

Whatever one thinks of either Thomas or Cain, neither is the victim of a lynching, and their deliberate invocation of the most hideous and grotesque of racial crimes to shield their own conduct from scrutiny profoundly misrepresents the significance of lynching in the racial history of this country. In fact, it is an insult to the nearly 5,000 African-American men who were lynched  (and a few dozen African-American women as well) from the 1880s until the 1960s to continue trotting out this imagery as a convenient way of cowing critics -- white and black -- into ignoring claims of sexual harassment.