Hilton Butler

I SAW Jim Ivy burned at the stake in Rocky Ford, Mississippi, one September Sunday afternoon, and his scream, "Oh, God! Oh, God damn!" was the only sound from a human voice that I thought might, by sheer strength alone, reach heaven.

Jim was charged with rape. Sunday morning, officers took him to a hospital where the girl victim of an assault pointed him out as the guilty man. A mob failed to get him just then. In the afternoon it succeeded very well indeed.

Jim was staked with heavy chains and dry wood was piled knee-high around him. Gasoline tanks were tapped for fuel. Three men set the wood and Jim on fire.

I saw the flames climb high on Jim. Jim screamed, prayed and cursed; he struggled so hard that he snapped one of the log chains that bound his ankles to the stake. I was looking into his eyes that second. They were popping with pain and terror, but at the snapping of the one chain, a flash of happiness shot into them. It soon vanished. The other chains held him to the rising fire.

Jim was still crying the curious "Oh, God! Oh, God damn!" when the flames reached up and burned his screaming voice into silence. The mob turned to go. It was about time for supper.

I saw and reported the lynching of John Hatfield in Ellisville, Mississippi, but there were at least 10,000 people in the pasture, not a mere 600 as there were at Rocky Ford. The district attorney, T. Webber Wilson of Laurel, later elected to Congress, was there. I got an interview out of him about the matter after he had stood on the running board of an automobile and made a speech to the mob.

In the noon edition of the state's biggest newspaper, The Jackson Daily News, Editor Frederick Sullens definitely announced in an eight-column front-page streamer that Hatfield would be lynched promptly at 5 p. m. He was. I had to drop from a tree behind him to escape bullets fired at his swinging body.

Every time a bullet hit an arm, out it flopped like a semaphore. The legs didn't flop so easily. My newspaper account of it said that not less than 2,000 bullets were fired into his body. One of them finally clipped the rope. John's body fell to the ground, a fire was built around it, and John was cremated.

That night something else happened. A grinning man in Laurel exhibited to a sidewalk crowd a quart jar filled with alcohol, in which a finger cut jaggedly from a Negro's hand bobbed up and down.

"I got a finger, by God," the grinning man said. "And I got some photographs, too."

He passed them around. One showed John hanging from the tree, his bullet-riddled body naked except for a pair of olive-drab army breeches. Another showed a smoldering pile of ashes beneath a dangling rope.

"These photos," the grinning man said, "are twenty cents each." He sold out quickly. I bought some myself, as many as I could, and tore them up when I got out of sight.

"Ain't nobody can buy this finger," he announced proudly. "I cut it off'n him myself. Gosh, but that nigger was tough - tougher than the withers of a bull, by God. I like never to have sawed through it with a knife, but I did. He screamed like a woman when I done it, the yeller--."

He said it in expressive language.

"We orter kill more of 'em around here," he amplified. "Teach 'em a lesson. Only way I see to stop raping is to keep on lynching. I'm goner put this finger on exhibition in my store window tomorrow, boys, and I want you to drop around."

He grinned again.

"And don't forget to bring the ladies!"

I have witnessed four other lynchings, and have had reason to question the veracity of certain reports of mysterious deaths to black men in the few years I have been a newspaper reporter in the South.

Not many years ago a Negro was found on a roadside near a logging camp, dead from a badly battered head. A local investigation ceased with a report that it "appeared" he had "met death in falling from a wagon." Since it is a common practice in the South to use physical means to run any "undesirable" Negro away from a logging camp, is it not possible that the pursuers may have become too zealous in the means to accomplish their desire?

In such an unexpected termination of a playful little chase, "death by natural causes," "falling from a wagon," "accident," or even "unknown causes," save the trouble of a courtroom explanation at the expense of the already heavily burdened taxpayers, especially if the victim's skin is black.

"That is not lynching. That is murder," a friend of mine protested when I recited the case. It satisfied him that the fair name of his state had not been scratched with another "x" at Tuskegee Institute for another lynching. To him there had to be a rope or a fire to constitute a bona-fide case of judge Lynch in action.

Murder, assault, "throwing stones" and "being a bad nigger" are some of the reasons other than rape I have heard assigned as the causes of recent lynchings.

Whatever the immediate cause assigned, it seems to me that the generating cause is overlooked. It is this: In the sections where the lynching toll is heaviest, there is a noticeable lack of crowd-drawing amusements and a type of employment that permits abandonment on sudden notice and a return at convenience without inviting the loss of a job.

Lynchings are rare in industrial sections and in cities. The Northerner will say that Northern residents are more law-abiding than their so-called "hot blooded" Southern friends. The real reason, it strikes me, is that in the sections where lynchings are rare there is something more than law-abiding citizenship and law-enforcing officers - there is a type of employment that does not permit employees to rush out at a moment's notice to join a lynching bee; and since mobs gather courage in proportion to number, the lack of available men sharply curtails the field operations of Judge Lynch.

In the sections where lynching records are heaviest there is a dominance of the type of work that permits sudden abandonment, like work in the fields. Few Southern cities of any size are now reporting lynchings within their corporate limits. Judge Lynch flourishes principally in the smaller towns or isolated communities, where the matter of raising a mob is a quick and simple process, unhandicapped by working conditions that make it necessary for a man to punch a clock, get a leave of absence or throw up his job to get away for an afternoon of amusement at a lynching.

In sections where there are few or no night attractions for the restless element, the crowd that gathers on the street corners or at the forks of the road is highly available material for a lynching party. Perhaps a few more picture shows, or even pool rooms and dance halls, would distribute the restless element sufficiently to keep it well occupied and amused until time for bed.

It is an obvious thesis that idleness has accelerated lynchings independent of all other causes in the past two years. Official figures show a sharp rise of the lynching graph since the beginning of the depression in America. In 1927, 1928 and 1929 - years of reasonably widespread prosperity and instalment contentment - the lynching graph was running along at a rather calm level. Up it shot in 1930 - more than 150 percent. The depression may or may not be to blame, but there seems to be a damaging case of circumstantial evidence. Moreover, the depression brought a sharp increase in the number of attempted lynchings. Judge Lynch endeavored to get into action thirty-seven more times in 1930 than the vital statistics show. He was defeated principally by the hasty removal of intended victims from the mob zone; several times he was defeated because his followers lacked the courage to look up the barrel of a national guardsman's rifle.

There were twenty-five lynchings in 1930, compared to ten in 1929. In 1929, before the crash, people generally were in a fairly good and unsuspecting humor. In 1930, the depression invaded everything from Broadway to the R. F. D.'s. Tempers grew short and ugly, restlessness demanded an outlet, hysteria became cyclonic - and lynchings more than doubled.

In Mississippi, for example, there are more men out of work today than at any other time in the history of the state, according to a survey made by Holt E. J. Ross, president of the State Federation of Labor. Such a situation not only sets up the danger of idlers taking the law into their own hands with real or imaginary criminals, but it gives added hours for crime commission.

Dennis Murphree, candidate for reelection as Governor of Mississippi in a 1927 primary, went so far, from a hard-boiled Southern political point of view, to prevent a lynching in the capital city of Jackson that he mobilized the national guard and threw up a barbed-wire barricade around the jail.

The Negro involved was hanged by due process of law, but Governor Murphree went down to defeat at the polls a week later by more than 10,000 votes. The man who succeeded him, the present Governor Theodore G. Bilbo, has called out the national guard to hunt a few criminals, but thirteen lynchings have occurred under his administration.

Georgia and Mississippi have long been engaged in a neck-and-neck race for the lynching honors. Their methods and provocations are largely the same. In Darien, Georgia, two Negroes loitered near a bank. Questioned by the night watchman, they shot him and fled. They were captured and jailed, but the mob invaded the jail and shot them to death. In DeKalb, Mississippi, two Negroes robbed a man and his wife, tourists, of less than $200 and, so the reports from that inland section said, threatened an attack upon the woman. Deputies taking them away for "due process of law" were overpowered and the setting of the sun silhouetted two swinging bodies against the west.

A mob took Harold ("Doc") Jackson from a jail at Poplarville, home town of Governor Bilbo. A rope was tied to "Docs" neck, and fastened to a bridge support. He was told to jump down toward the creek. Whether he jumped or was shoved off the coroner's jury did not say. But the next morning his lifeless form was dangling from the bridge.

The Governor sent a "law and order" telegram to the high sheriff, a grand jury was thrown into extraordinary sessions, and instructions were given it by the presiding judge to learn the names of the members of the mob and to bring in first-degree-murder indictments. For five days the jury deliberated. But its official report stated that "in view of the extreme precautions used by the mob, we have wholly failed in our efforts to apprehend them."

They cannot claim all the failure. The Negro uplift societies, the white nobility aligned with associations for the advancement of the colored, the ministry, the law, the state, the advocates of the Dyer anti-lynching bill and the great American press have failed to do half so much toward eliminating Judge Lynch as have, without effort and probably wholly without being heretofore credited with so doing, the radio, the movies, the dance halls, the hotel lobbies, the pool rooms, good roads and cheap automobiles.

The New Republic, July 22, 1931

back to The Camera Eye | The Scottsboro Freight Car Case