“An altered photograph of a public lynching, Marion, Indiana, August 1930,” by John Lucas. Original photo by Lawrence Beitler, used with permission from Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The Great American Press Release
By Maurice Carlos Ruffin
In the moment, I think a fire truck is rushing to save me. But the siren comes from a police car, and the man inside has a message for me. This is perhaps five or six years before I’d hear the names Sandra Bland or Walter Scott or Freddie Gray or Samuel DuBose or Philando Castile. Still, I know my own New Orleans Police Department, whose job it seems is to waterboard men like me in waves of shame. And they are good at their craft.
I’m ten feet from the front door of my home. I sit buckled up in my suit and tie, still fresh after a day of working in an air-conditioned law office forty-odd stories above the city. To say New Orleans is an illiterate town and a poor town is not accurate, but we have more people who can’t read and more people who can’t make ends meet than we should. But I was taught that because I can read, because my belly is always full and my Oxfords freshly polished, I’m safe from police harassment. Yet, here I sit in my own car in my own driveway with both hands gripping the steering wheel so that I don’t appear dangerous. My tie chafes my neck. So much for class privilege.
Over the years, I had adapted my look—adapted my whole life really—to reduce the number and variety of my police encounters. I stopped tinting my windows. I removed my killer sound system. Red cars were out, as were aftermarket sweeteners like spoilers or flashy rims. I kept my hair high and tight or shaved. No dreads, no braids, no cornrows. Nothing to draw an officer like a kitten to catnip. I got a college degree. First in my family. Became a lawyer. First in my family. I wished to be invisible to the hungry gazes of police officers—first in my family there, too. But my parents always said I was prone to fancy.
The officer who pulls me over is young and white, a redhead, but his race isn’t important. All cops receive the same training, support the same system. My officer takes his position just over my left shoulder, just out of easy view. I try to calm myself. I’ve been pulled over at least once a year for a decade or so, since I turned sixteen. I know how to get out alive. Raise the pitch of my voice a couple octaves, but keep my volume low. Stare at the officer’s shoulder, not his eyes. Be obsequious, halting; project fear, but not so much fear to make him fear me. That would be counterproductive. He needs to think I want to polish his shoes, not shoot him. But my heart is a kettledrum and my hands won’t stay still on the steering wheel. My defenses are failing. I love myself too much to keep living this way.
The police officer tells me that he stopped me because I came around the corner too fast and that’s how people get hurt. That’s how I could get hurt. His job is to protect me. The side of his car says as much. I’ve been well protected my whole life by these public servants. They’ve checked up on me after school dances and while driving to visit my loved ones. Once, as a caravan of family members fled the state during Hurricane Katrina, a police officer pulled us over to make sure I was okay. That officer gave me a ticket and told me to be safe. I didn’t feel safe.
In the summer of 2018, I traveled with my friend Tad and his teenage son from New Orleans to Montgomery, Alabama, to see the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. These are good, if somewhat euphemistic, names. I couldn’t help but think of the locations collectively as “the lynching museum.” Lynching represented a gap in my understanding of America. I wasn’t taught much about it in school. I rarely encountered it in my readings. I couldn’t name a single person who was convicted for lynching, which, as it happens, was not declared a federal crime until 2018. It was as if the whole nation wanted me to forget. But I didn’t want to forget. I wanted to understand. Where did my fear of the police come from? Where did my fear of white people spring from? How did my father accept living this way? I believed the museum might offer some answers.
The Legacy Museum is a box built on the site of a former slave warehouse. Buses disgorge loads of tourists every few minutes, which I take as a kind of victory in and of itself. The Alabama State Capitol is only a few blocks away and is guarded on both sides by monuments to the important work of the Confederacy. The fact that the Legacy Museum was conceived, funded, designed, built, and opened means it had to achieve escape velocity, had to overcome the gravitational pull of propaganda positing the Civil War was fought by real Americans against socialist liberal elites. It wasn’t until 2019 that the Alabama governor signed a measure to erect monuments on the Capitol grounds to its two most famous daughters: Rosa Parks and Helen Keller.
Inside the museum, most make the clockwise circuit, but I opt to go the other way. The museum, which traces a through line from slavery to the modern death penalty, is arranged chronologically, so the counter-clockwise route slings me backward through time. It’s as though I’m traveling through a chamber of secrets, with an unobstructed view of America’s behavior toward Blacks: photos and videos and exhibits detailing murderous police stops and children incarcerated for life make way for stories of hunted freedom riders and holographic slaves, who sing spirituals and beg for the whereabouts of their loved ones. The perpetrators of these terrors are rarely seen, which is appropriate. We’re investigating a history of pain, and although I’m on the receiving end of that history, I find myself viewing it as one of those recently arrived enslaved humans might have. My God, these white people must hate me.
The center of the Legacy Museum features exhibits about Black Americans who were hung by the neck until dead. I don’t remember where I first saw a photograph of a lynched Black person. It may have been one brought to class by a radical teacher who thought our textbooks were presenting the past with too much cream and sugar. Or maybe I stumbled across one in a library. Regardless, those photos of mutilated bodies have been in my head since I was a child. Even photos that don’t exist. My imagination has constructed complete images from the eyewitness accounts I’ve read. I’ve seen the man who was shot hundreds of times by his tormentors. I’ve seen the pregnant woman who was strung up and cut open, crotch to sternum. I’ve seen the unborn harvested. Family lines extinguished.
Once, in mixed company, another friend and I mentioned how pervasive lynching imagery was. A white friend admitted that she had never seen a single photo. I was shocked, but not surprised. A lynching was a warning. She didn’t need to be warned.
At home after that discussion with my friends, I surveyed lynching photos online. I daydreamed that I could have somehow escaped had I been the target. I could have outrun my tormentors or fought my way free. But then what of my family and my future? Banishing myself to save my own neck would not have ended the terror. I noticed details in the photos that I hadn’t in the past. The bystanders stood out. These were people who were living their workaday lives. They were stacking hay at the farm, grinding flour at the mill, canning preserves for the holidays. Then someone said there would be entertainment at the hill that very afternoon. In one photo, a half dozen white people stand around as if the dead man were a prize halibut. A girl in a pinafore dress smiles a curious, almost frustrated smile.
In another photo, hundreds of onlookers in fedoras and boater hats crowd around the charred remains of someone’s loved one. These photos appeared in small-town papers and were sometimes given away as souvenir postcards. It occurred to me that like a wedding or a funeral announcement, a lynching was a kind of press release. It was a quick way to communicate a set of facts to the community. This person has left the Earth. This person disrupted the natural order and paid the price. You had better not disrupt the natural order. You cannot afford the price.
At the exit of the Legacy Museum is a work of art made of wood and cast in bronze. A video gives some sense of its construction. It was carved into human shape. Then riddled with bullets. The bullets even obliterated one of the legs. My leg aches seeing it.
In the mid-eighties, the company my dad worked for would throw an annual picnic in the woods near the Louisiana-Mississippi state line. Dad was a country boy who was familiar with back roads, so our family spent the morning driving beneath the towering pines. Those trees were a rich green I did not often see back home. They made me think of Peter Pan; Asterix and Obelix; the Hundred Acre Wood. But my dad must have taken a wrong turn somewhere because we came to a dead end. We were blocked by a single-bar barricade. Suddenly, a Klan member in a flannel shirt appeared, and he carried a long gun in the crook of his arm. In fairness, I couldn’t prove he was actually a Klan member, and my hunch was never confirmed. But I understood even then that the difference between a rifle and white hood is semantical. Very few of the lynching perpetrators in the photos wore bedsheets.
Decades later, after Dad got sick with intestinal cancer, we would often talk about what it was like for him growing up in the rural South of the 1940s and 1950s before Rosa Parks, before “I Have a Dream,” before “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Wasn’t he afraid living in the middle of all those racists?
“Nah,” he said, his hands folded in his lap as if I’d asked him what the fishing was like back then. “We got along pretty well.”
This may explain why, instead of throwing the transmission in reverse and peeling out, he opened his door—over objections from my mother and me—and approached the gunman. Dad was a handsome man. Lean-bodied and self-confident. He was a car salesman. The dealership where he worked was in a suburb that had ballooned due to white flight. He was one of the few Black employees, but he could talk to anyone.
In my imagination, the gunman’s face was red with fury. He wore a red armband. And did I detect, even at my cowering distance, the trace of a toothbrush mustache? But I know better now. He was an average man of average build standing on a nondescript gravel road with an awfully real gun.
The way Dad talked to the man made me nervous. Dad had two ways of talking to white people: (1) the backslapping version of himself who could convince a cheapskate he was about to get the best deal of his life; and (2) the version of himself who simply agreed with everything. It was the latter version that made an appearance when he dealt with an irate customer or an officer during a traffic stop or a possible Klansman with a rifle in the woods.
Dad’s shoulders tensed. He nodded a few times as the man with the rifle pointed behind him to the road that led back into the green. When Dad returned to the car, he said that we were in the wrong place. He backed our car away quickly. From the rear window, I watched the man, legs spread to shoulder width, gun cradled across his body like a lamb.
I have no idea what lynching photos Dad saw during his life. He didn’t keep a little folder in my childhood home of Black bodies hanging like peaches. He never lectured me on the dangers of looking white people in the eye. He made his living looking white people in the eye. Looking white people in the eye paid for our vacations. Looking white people in the eye covered my college tuition. And lynchings were not an imminent threat in my time. If my father hoped to provide for me a better world than the one he was born into, his wish was granted. Still, neither of us was aware of the lynching of Michael Donald in 1981. James Byrd Jr. had not yet been chained and dragged across Texas until his body disintegrated—in 1998.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is found not on a mountaintop, but on a hill. Corten steel columns display the names of African Americans murdered in a given place and time. Though, the column for Phillips County, Arkansas, doesn’t list all the names of people murdered during the Elaine Massacre in 1919. There’s not enough space. More than two hundred were killed, and all their names are not known.
A group of four or five Black women wander through the maze of columns a few steps behind me. These women are about my age—early forties. But they remind me of the women who raised me. My mother, grandmother, and aunties. I imagine that where I see printed names, they see children born of women. Children they could have birthed, nurtured, and then watched asphyxiated from afar.
The flow of the memorial is such that the columns elevate as visitors progress. The words on the final set of columns are too high to read. I’m incredulous that I have to crane my neck. I still can’t make out those last few words. I realize that gazing upward with a grimace on my face, I echo the odd smile of that girl in the pinafore.
The next object of the memorial is a vast black wall. Water runs down it. Words admit that we can never know how many people were lynched. This section is dedicated to them. I place my hand against the wall. The water is freezing.
Drowning was one of the only times I felt truly safe. I was at the same company picnic we had taken the wrong turn to. The memories come like clips from a movie trailer. Me: doing the twist at the annual dance off. Me: running around the woods with my white friend Tony. At some point I boarded a canoe. I fell out of the canoe in the middle of a pond. A weak swimmer, I thrashed, yelped, swallowed dirty, cold water. Dad was ashore fifty yards away. Then he was with me in the water, a laughing tugboat towing me to shore. I stopped flailing and smiled too, my cheeks warm from embarrassment, my chest warm from gratitude.
Inside the Legacy Museum, rows of jars are lined up on a shelf. Names, dates, and places are printed on pristine glass. The printing matches the information stamped on the columns at the Memorial. The dirt inside each jar is beautiful, either red clay, dusky brown, or pepper black. At family reunions in the country, I’ve walked across that red clay. Crumbled it in my fingers.
My parents taught me a great many things. How not to be taken advantage of by con men. How to treat a girl appropriately on a date. But they never gave me The Talk. I suspect this is because they didn’t need to. I had already been trained.
As a child of the eighties I had plenty of heroes to admire: Chuck Norris, Dirty Harry, Rocky. But sometimes those heroes beat up Black men in the name of justice and the American way. Clubber Lang never stood a chance. In the nineties, the television show Cops sometimes followed the police into poor, Black neighborhoods where ultimately the heroes threw Black men onto concrete as if they were playthings. Through my early adulthood in the late-nineties and 2000s, I watched the local news every night until I realized that on most evenings the lead story was about a Black person who had been convicted by the media of a crime before ever seeing a judge. In the past decade, I’ve awoken or fallen asleep to clips of Black men, women, and children being executed, including Tamir Rice, who was shot for playing with a toy. Micah Xavier Johnson allegedly shot several cops and probably would have shot more. I say allegedly not because I have any belief in his innocence, but because he was never arrested or tried but was instead dispatched in a unique and terrifying way. They killed him with a bomb-wielding robot, which to my understanding is a first. A death worthy of a Paul Verhoeven film.
That these clips of Black people being killed invariably appear bracketed by advertisements for banking services and cereal underscores the economic component that has always been intertwined with white supremacy. There is money to be made in removing The Other from the playing field. There is money to be had in convincing The Other he shouldn’t ever consider himself equal. When a Black man became president, talking heads called him unpresidential and un-American to convey the asterisk next to his name, and Black children learned that he could never be as rude or devilish as his white predecessors or successors. He isn’t the same kind of free as they are.
I do not have children. I don’t want the responsibility of protecting a Black child in this world. I come from a large family, and into my late twenties assumed that one day I would have many children: three, five, or more. But I’ve reconsidered this as I’ve lived my life and observed the lives of my Black peers. I’ve watched my friends couple, marry, and parent. Some parent radically, inundating their children with information about Black history and self-worth as a talisman against the corrosive narratives of Black criminality, animality, and inferiority. I can’t help but think those parents protest too much. If a Black child born in America is equal to a white child born in America, then why does it need to be stated? A Black child understands that the Constitution is a letter addressed to others.
Some of the names printed on the jars in the Legacy Museum and on the steel columns on the hilltop are familiar. George Washington. Robert E. Lee. Here, mothers had named their sons after two of the most important white men in American history. I can only assume the Black mother of the murdered George Washington gave her son that name out of a feeling of respect for the Father of Our Country. She may have even thought of the name as a kind of totem to shield her boy where the Constitution could not. It’s equally possible that Washington’s killers were incensed that a Black man could presume to be the equal of the first president. This may have doomed him.
The redheaded officer has my license and is running my plate. He won’t find anything. I’m fully insured. There are no warrants out for my arrest. My parking tickets are paid. I know that if the officer led a raid at one of the white frat houses a half mile from my home he could arrest dozens of offenders and confiscate untold pounds of oxycodone, cocaine, and other Schedule II drugs. It would be the bust of a lifetime. But locking up white drug-using college students isn’t the point.
The officer hands back my license and smiles. He tells me to have a good day. I loosen my tie, but I don’t take it off.