The American Spectator's Mistaken History


As if there already wasen't enough self-inflicted damage from last week's Shirley Sherrod affair to go around, The American Spectator manages yet more this morning, posting a shameless, ignorant column by Jeffrey Lord.

Lord insinuates that Sherrod is a liar for using the word "lynch" to describe a 1940s murder in Baker County, Georgia. Bobby Hall, a relative of Sherrod, was beaten to death by sheriff's deputies who had come to arrest him for stealing a tire. Lord says Sherrod's characterization of the beating as lynching is dishonest and inflammatory.

It's possible that Ms. Sherrod simply doesn't know the truth…

It's also possible that she knew the truth and chose to embellish it, changing a brutal and fatal beating to a lynching. Anyone who has lived in the American South (as my family once did) and is familiar with American history knows well the dread behind stories of lynch mobs and the Klan. What difference is there between a savage murder by fist and blackjack—and by dangling rope? Obviously, in the practical sense, none. But in the heyday—a very long time—of the Klan, there were frequent (and failed) attempts to pass federal anti-lynching laws. None to pass federal "anti-black jack" or "anti-fisticuffs" laws. Lynching had a peculiar, one is tempted to say grotesque, solitary status as part of the romantic image of the Klan, of the crazed racist. The image stirred by the image of the noosed rope in the hands of a racist lynch mob was, to say the least, frighteningly chilling. Did Ms. Sherrod deliberately concoct this story in search of a piece of that ugly romance to add "glamour" to a family story that is gut-wrenchingly horrendous already?

Again, I have no idea.

There is also a third possibility for what appears to be a straight-out fabrication. Having watched Ms. Sherrod's speech and read the transcript, I think it's abundantly clear that she is a liberal or progressive political activist.

Lord also has no idea . . . what he's talking about. The term lynching refers to a mob execution unsanctioned by law. It's often associated with hanging, but there are dozens of documented, racially-motivated lynchings in American history that had nothing to do with hanging. (The murder of Emmit Till is probably the most famous example.) Lord is also flat wrong about federal anti-lynching legislation. These bills sought to punish local governments for sanctioning or refusing to prevent all forms of lynching, not just hanging. Here's the text of the Dwyer bill, the first piece of federal anti-lynching legislation, introduced in 1918:

…the phrase "mob or riotous assemblage," when used in this act, shall mean an assemblage composed of three or more persons acting in concert for the purpose of depriving any person of his life without authority of law as a punishment for or to prevent the commission of some actual or supposed public offense.

The bill never uses any form of the word hang. The more famous Costigan-Wagner anti-lynching bill also made no distinction about a lynch mob's chosen method of execution. Had either bill passed, they would have held local law enforcement responsible for failing to prevent extrajudicial mob murders of any kind, including murder by black jacks and fisticuffs.

But Lord isn't finished. Sherrod mentions in her speech that Hall's murder made it to the Supreme Court, which overturned the civil rights conviction of Sheriff Claude Screws by a 5-4 vote. Lord next criticizes Sherrod for not telling her audience that one of the justices who overturned the conviction (Hugo Black) was not only a member of the Ku Klux Klan, but also an FDR appointee, New Deal supporter, and a "committed liberal activist," just like Sherrod. How conniving of her!

It gets even better. Lord also helpfully informs us that….

Hugo Black was, of course, a lawyer. His law partner? That would be a man named Crampton Harris. Mr. Harris was the Klan "Cyclops" of the Birmingham Klavern. Does this weird term ring a recent bell? It should. "Exalted Cyclops" was the Klan post held in a later time in West Virginia—by another prominent future Democratic Senator named Robert Byrd.

It goes on like that. There's no question that there's a long, ugly history of racism in the progressive movement, and that today's left glosses over that history. But it's more than a little absurd to suggest Sherrod was being dishonest for not drawing all sorts of connections between progressives and racism simply because a New Dealer sat on the Supreme Court that denied her relative justice.

But that is Jeffrey Lord's charge. So black people, take note. If you're ever giving a speech in which you recount a racially-motivated injustice, be sure you're thoroughly familiar with and relay to your audience not only any subsequent legal action related to the case, but also the political affiliations of any and all judges who presided over those legal proceedings, both at trial and on appeal, and whether or not they or any of their business partners (and presumably family members, friends, or golfing buddies) were racist. Also, and most importantly, never, ever, ever talk about any historical racial injustice without also mentioning that the late Sen. Robert Byrd, a Democrat (be sure to mention this part, it's important!), was once an Exalted Cyclops in the Ku Klux Klan.

Anything less would be dishonest.

UPDATE: On The American Spectator's blog, John Tabin and Phil Klein both take issue with Lord's article. Good to see. Klein does object that my headline to this post implies that Lord's article reflects an institutional position at The American Spectator. Though I do think the publication as a whole deserves some scorn for publishing the piece in the first place, Klein's point is is still well-taken. His and Tabin's posts show that not all the staff agrees with Lord or with the decision to publish the article.