Revisiting Mob Justice

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By: Graham Webster

This spring, residents of Waco, Texas, encouraged by one local newspaper editor, have discussed and debated the wisdom of erecting a historical marker commemorating one of the most brutal lynchings ever recorded.

On May 15, 1916, Jesse Washington, a 17-year-old black farmhand, was convicted after an hourlong trial of the rape and murder of a local white woman. The jury took less than five minutes to return a death sentence, but a mob would not wait for the state to carry it out. They rushed the courtroom, seized Washington, castrated him, chained him to a tree, then burned him alive before a crowd of 15,000 ? roughly half of the town’s population.

A commercial photographer had been tipped off and he set up his camera in the mayor’s second-floor office, where he planned to snap pictures to sell as postcards. At his side were the police chief and the mayor himself. Because the scene was even more grisly than the average lynching, the photographer, Fred Gildersleeve, was persuaded not to sell the photos. Nevertheless, the images and the story traveled far beyond Waco ? and some credit the incident with helping to turn the tide of public opinion against lynching in the United States.

But that doesn’t mean Waco is united on how, or whether, to remember it.

The lynching, one of more than 4,600 such crimes that occurred in this country between 1880 and 1930 (about 500 in Texas), has remained well known in the black community, and “a thing of the past” among whites, says Carlos Sanchez, editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald since 2001. Waco is a city of 113,000, and a neighbor of President Bush’s ranch in Crawford.

When Houston-based writer Patricia Bernstein published a book this year, The First Waco Horror, Sanchez heard from an angry caller who said there was no reason to resurrect the incident. Sanchez responded in his regular column by endorsing the book for everyone in the community. “I have no illusion that any discussion this community has about race and the dark chapters of Waco’s history would not be agonizing,” he wrote. “But as we know from our own family squabbles, such a discussion is a necessary first step toward reconciliation.”

Before Washington’s trial, The Waco Times Herald, an ancestor of the Tribune-Herald, editorialized against mob violence, saying it “has no proper place in a community where courts are properly organized and conducted. Let the law be supreme. Let the law take its course.” But the Waco Morning News compared the mob to fighters in the American Revolution who “would not stand for a fiendish brute to trample the chastity and sacredness of life and their women folk.”

After Washington was killed, the Times Herald ran a long, graphic account of the scene, using a detached voice that avoided naming the individuals who played the greatest role in the torture and killing. As if to set the community’s silence on the issue, the paper concluded, “Yesterday’s exciting occurrence is a closed incident.”

After writing his column, Sanchez assigned a reporter to produce a lengthy Page One story on the “Waco Horror.” That story included references to the Times Herald’s day-after coverage in 1916. Before it ran on March 6, however, the paper had to decide whether to reproduce the most graphic Gildersleeve photograph. “I had a really interesting discussion with my publisher, Dan Savage,” Sanchez says. Savage ? who retires next month ? was against publishing it in the paper. “The way we dealt with it was putting a prominent tease to our Web site,” Sanchez explains. It warned readers about the graphic nature of the picture.

When the first story appeared in March, the paper received strong objections from some readers. But subsequent stories have produced almost exclusively positive response. Sanchez sees an even-handed examination of the past, and a healthy debate about a possible commemorative marker, as healthy for the community. “As an interracial family, this community has refused to engage in such a discussion for far too long,” he wrote in his column.

His newspaper, in the past, was complicit, as well. “Among southern newspapers I think there has historically been a lot of evidence that they hid a lot of things,” Sanchez says. “I found out that there was a gentlemen’s agreement during the civil rights era that our paper would not run anything, but the white community would start to integrate.”

The publicity surrounding the lynching has long haunted Waco’s reputation. “It is with gloomy forebodings that we await the stinging lash of criticism and reproach ? criticism thrice hard to bear because it is merited, reproach thrice difficult to endure because it is justified,” the Houston Chronicle editorialized at the time. In its comment, The New York Times said the people of Waco brought “disgrace and humiliation on their country as well as on themselves,” adding that “it is not reported that anybody protested or objected.” As could be expected, the black press uniformly denounced the Waco mob.

The Tribune-Herald has not opined on whether a permanent commemoration should be installed in Waco. “We have taken a position that it should be discussed and that something could emerge from there,” Sanchez says. Whatever happens, he sees the debate as important for the city: “I really do have a sense that it might be connected to the legacy of Waco itself.”

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