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Thursday, June 2, 2011

June 2, 2011: On Speaking Out

To say that the vast majority of white Southerners did not condemn lynching during its many-decade epidemic—which lasted at least from the 1870s until the 1950s, although certainly the murder of the three Civil Rights workers in 1964 Mississippi qualifies as well—would be to understate the case significantly. In fact, as the online photographic and historical compilation Without Sanctuary (to which I know I’ve linked before, but which can and will never become anything less than horrific and powerful and vital no matter how many times one views it) thoroughly documents, a significant percentage of white Southerners viewed lynchings as celebratory occasions, opportunities to bring the family, take some photos and souvenirs, express communal pride and solidarity. And even if we take all those who attended such vicious communal celebrations to represent a minority (if a sizeable one) of the white South during these years, the best that can be said of almost everyone else in that community is that they did not take part—few and very far between are the white Southerners who actively wrote or spoke out against lynching; and during those periods when African American activists such as Ida B. Wells did bring national and more critical attention to the issue, nearly all white Southerners who responded publicly (in the press, for example) did so by both minimizing and defending the practice (even if they sometimes apologized for its more extreme brutalities).
I had a debate earlier today on Facebook with a friend of a friend; the starting point had to do with federal foreign aid, and specifically aid to what he called “countries that would like to kill each and every American if they had the chance.” But in the course of that debate, our focus turned for a couple exchanges to the question of why, if Muslim terrorists represent both a small percentage of and an aberration from most adherents to that religion, more non-extremist Muslims haven’t spoken up in outrage about and opposition to the terrorist acts. That’s another one of those narratives that I’ve heard so often, from so many different sources—even President Obama explicitly reached out to Muslim religious leaders after Bin Laden’s death and asked for more such condemnations, making clear that in at least some ways he shares this narrative—as to make it seem just a given, a reality that we might analyze or understand in very different ways but that can’t be disputed. It will likely come as no surprise to any reader of this blog that the first of my two responses here would be to dispute such a narrative—the fact of the matter is that numerous Muslims, both here in the United States and in the international community, have indeed spoken and written in explicit condemnation of these terrorists and their actions. The second link below represents simply a starting point archive, if certainly a very extensive and impressive one, of such statements. That’s another one of those sources to which I wish I could point every American, since seeing it would make it impossible for the conversations on this issue (and on related ones like efforts to build mosques) to proceed as they mostly have, and thus might lead to other, more complex and certainly more productive, discussions in their place.
And one such discussion, I believe, could build on the context of white Southern responses to lynching. Not in the sense of recognizing that Americans have throughout our history committed brutal acts of terrorism on our fellow citizens; that’s certainly true, and such recognition would indeed make it harder to see ourselves as entirely exceptional and good, but the presence of historical brutalities doesn’t in any way excuse or mitigate contemporary ones. Instead, I think one benefit of a much fuller understanding of that Southern context would be to make clear two distinct but interconnected effects of extreme and violent communal actions: how easily they can produce a mob mentality that extends well beyond the initial perpetrators (I find it impossible to believe that every white Southerner who attended the lynching parties was evil or anything close, and through that lens many of the Muslims who have for example taken part in anti-American demonstrations or celebrations can be seen as likewise having been swept up in these mob mentalities); and how difficult it can be for individuals to speak out at all against, much less strongly condemn, such powerful mob mentalities. In this case, the contextualizing actually speaks to the credit of the international Muslim community, which has, as that second link makes clear, spoken out against terrorism far more frequently and thoroughly than white Southerners did against lynching.
There are all sorts of ways to analyze that interesting fact, reasons why that might be the case. But I would argue that one very prominent reason is the simple fact that many of the Muslims included in that archive are Muslim Americans—and that their speaking out makes them exemplary Americans, voices who are living up to the best of our national identity and ideals. The Southern comparison makes clear how often we have strayed from that best self, and how hard it can be to speak out when we do. But these Muslim Americans prove that it’s possible to do so, making it all the more important for us to acknowledge and celebrate them. More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      Without Sanctuary:
2)      The compilation of Muslim statements:
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

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