Cosby Claims He's Being Lynched, and That's an Injustice to Actual Lynching Victims

Throughout our history, African-American men were lynched after being accused of sexually assaulting white women. Bill Cosby is an African-American man, and most of the women he is accused of sexually assaulting were white.Ergo, Bill Cosby was lynched.That's the twisted logic behind the latest defense of Cosby, who was convicted last week of drugging and molesting a woman 14 years ago. The trial also featured testimony from five other women who claimed they had been assaulted by him.And that made it into a "public lynching," Cosby spokesman Andrew Wyatt told a TV interviewer. Another Cosby representative compared the Philadelphia-born entertainer to Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American who was killed in Mississippi in 1955 after allegedly making crude comments to a white woman.Please. By claiming that Cosby was lynched, even metaphorically, his apologists do a grave injustice to the 4,100 African-Americans who were actually lynched between 1877 and 1950. For black Americans, lynching wasn't a metaphor; it was fact of life, and of death.Consider the fate of Henry Smith, a black man who was accused of raping and murdering a young white girl in Paris, Texas in 1893. According to historian Joel Williamson, who drew on contemporary accounts of the event, Smith was tied to a stake atop a 10-foot-high platform that was erected outside of town. A crowd of 10,000 gathered there, with the help of special trains that were commissioned to transport spectators to the event.The father of the murdered girl scaled the platform to take his revenge. Using irons that had been heated white in a furnace, he thrust them under Smith's feet. Then he moved upwards to the rest of Smith's body. "By turns Smith screamed, prayed, begged and cursed his torturer," one account reported. "When his face was reached, his tongue was silenced by fire, and henceforth he only moaned ... Not a finger's breadth of his body being unscathed, his executioners gave way."Then the platform was soaked with oil and lit on fire, which finally extinguished Henry Smith. The event was memorialized in photographs and also in a Graphophone record, which preserved Smith's cries. The next day, people raked the ashes and took his bones and teeth for relics.That's what a real lynching was like. And its racial dimension made it fundamentally different from other forms of vigilante justice in our history. When a mob hung a white person, it wasn't making a statement about race. But lynching was a ritual terrorist attack on the entire black community, not just on an individual. "You don't understand how we feel down here," a young white Mississippian told Harvard historian Albert Bushnell Hart in 1908. "When there is a row, we feel like killing a [expletive] whether he has done anything or not." I challenge anyone to say that Cosby experienced anything like that. You might not agree with the verdict against Cosby. But if you call it a lynching, you erode the meaning of the term. And you trivialize one of the most horrific chapters in our national history.Clarence Thomas did the same thing during his 1989 Supreme Court confirmation hearing, of course, which he infamously likened to a "high-tech lynching." Charged with sexual harassment by Anita Hill, Thomas said he was being singled out because he was an independently minded black man. "It is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you," Thomas thundered. "You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree."Since then, most historians who have examined the hearing have confirmed Hill's version of events; they have also been harshly critical of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which didn't give her charges the credence they deserved. Even if you continue to believe Thomas, however, it's absurd to call the hearing a lynching. He was questioned by a Congressional committee; he wasn't hung from a tree. Once you lift lynching from its historical context, you can apply it to anything you want. After Freddie Gray died in police custody in Baltimore in 2015, the city's police union president called protesters a "lynch mob." So did GOP presidential aspirant Mike Huckabee and Fox News host Laura Ingraham. Again, people can disagree about Gray's death and the demonstrators it galvanized. But anyone who likens them a lynch mob needs to learn a lot more about lynching.So I was glad to read that the Dallas City Council voted last week to build a memorial to Allen Brooks, a 65-year-old African-American who was pulled out of a courtroom and lynched in front of 5,000 people in 1910. And I'm thankful that we now have an institution devoted to remembering this awful history: the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., which opened just two days after the Cosby verdict. It tells the real story of lynching. Shame on us, if we forget.Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. What's your view?Got an opinion about this issue? Send a letter to the editor, and you just might get published.  Continue reading...

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