When George King, a black man in South Carolina, was freed from slavery by the 13th amendment to the US constitution in 1865, his former slave owner came to him to clarify how things were going to work from now on.
“The Master, he says we are all free,” King later recalled. “But it don’t mean we is white. And it don’t mean we is equal.”
The true horror of those words, and the blast of racial terrorism such sentiments ignited across the deep south in the immediate aftermath of the civil war, are laid bare in a harrowing new report by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).
The report, Reconstruction in America, documents more than 2,000 black victims of racial terror lynchings killed between the end of the civil war in 1865 and the collapse of federal efforts to protect the lives and voting rights of black Americans in 1876.
In that brief 12-year period, known as Reconstruction, a reign of terror was unleashed by Confederate veterans and former slave owners in a brazen effort to keep black people enslaved in all but name. Technically freed slaves were lynched at an average rate of almost one every two days – putting paid to the hope that Emancipation offered millions of black people and effectively terrorizing them into submission.
The report is a prequel to EJI’s groundbreaking 2015 research that identified and recorded more than 4,400 black victims of racial terror lynchings from the post-Reconstruction period, 1877 to 1950. The new report allows that grim tally to be further expanded with the addition of the 2,000 documented victims from the Reconstruction era itself – bringing the total number of documented cases of black people who were supposedly free yet were lynched in the most sadistic fashion to a staggering 6,500 men, women and children.
EJI notes that its newly revised toll of racial terror lynchings in America is likely to underestimate the total by hundreds or even thousands given gross underreporting of racial violence and widespread efforts to suppress the truth.
Bryan Stevenson, EJI’s executive director, told the Guardian that the new report highlights the capitulation and complicity of American institutions – from local sheriffs right up to the US supreme court in Washington – in the face of white supremacist violence. “It’s one of the few times in American history where there is an almost complete concession to lawlessness and an abandonment of constitutional protections,” Stevenson said.
He added: “That explains much of the moment we are now in – until there is a deep reckoning of this history of violence and racial oppression we cannot repair and remedy, and without that we are not going to be able to create the society we want.”
The light shone by EJI on the brutal events of Reconstruction comes at a critically important time for racial justice in America. The country is in the grip of protests following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, with demonstrations in more than 750 US cities demanding change.
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SOURCE: The Guardian, Ed Pilkington