American by birth. Southern by the grace of God.
Having lived in the South most of my life, I have heard that refrain hundreds of times. I have seen it plastered on bumper stickers and written in large print upon friends' walls.
Southerners are incredibly proud of Southern culture. They dismiss, sometimes in jest and sometimes not, the arrogant, fast-talking Yankees from the North. They rave about Southern hospitality, Southern food, Southern women and just about everything else that lies below the Mason-Dixon line.
In particular, Southerners take special satisfaction in venerating their rich heritage, from the War of Northern Aggression (more commonly known as the Civil War) up through to the present. The Confederate flag still flies all over the South, a beacon not of racism, many argue, but of Southern individuality and culture.
In the South, embarrassing truths are smoothed over. Slavery, Jim Crow laws and segregated schools are simply ugly little isolated instances, events that took place long ago in a different time. The current attitude is that the modern South now represents the best of America. It is a land of gracious hospitality, a land where people still smile and talk to one another and whose people demonstrate true patriotism and love for the United States.
The South's ugliest facets are blamed on extremists, including the notorious Klux Klux Klan and other assorted bigots. The tendency is to argue that it has always been the acts of extremists, of a small percentage of Southerners who did not represent the honor and high moral fiber of the rest.
Despite its ardent efforts, however, the South will never be able to wash its hands clean of the atrocities that took place routinely throughout its lands. In reality, the South's history is one of barbarous cruelty. Its long heritage is nasty, brutish and repellent, and its crimes against humanity cannot be pinned on some fringe minority.
For those of you eager to defend the beloved South, I direct your attention to "Without Sanctuary," a collection of photographs and postcards taken in the late 19th and early 20th-century depicting lynchings of Southern blacks and the huge crowds that attended them. The collection is available both in book form and also online at www.journale.com/withoutsanctuary.
The graphic brutality depicted in these images sickens the stomach. Corpses burned, mangled and cut into pieces dangle in city streets. Most appalling of all, though, are the crowds. Dressed in their Sunday best, the thousands of onlookers stand around the bodies, smiling and chatting while a life has been tragically destroyed.
Let's examine one of these pictures.
On May 16, 1916 in Waco, Texas, Jesse Washington was hanged and tortured in front of a massive crowd. A mentally-retarded 17-year-old farm laborer accused of murder and then convicted in a Texas courtroom in a one-day trial, Washington found himself in front of 15,000 onlookers. Men, women and children upon their father's shoulders to get a better view cheered as the mob went to work on the young man.
After bludgeoning the victim with bricks, men hoisted Washington up with an iron chain. They cut off his ears and then castrated him. Still screaming, Washington was dipped into and out of a huge bonfire. Anxious to escape the flames, he tried to climb the chain. The mob soon remedied that situation by cutting off his fingers.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
What these photographs reveal is how thousands of normal Southern citizens reveled in the horror taking place in front of them. People smile and laugh, and, even with the shrieks of a dismembered man and the smell of charred flesh, they smile.
This is only one of many photographs depicting similar atrocities that took place all over Southern states, including, of course, North Carolina. Corpses hang from light posts near train tracks so as to show them off. Other times they simply hang from the branches of trees on some deserted farmyard. Then after the bodies had hung for a sufficient time, the crowd often took souvenirs. Body parts, including ears, teeth and fingernails, were cut off and taken home.
One could write for years about the horrific brutality that took place all over the South. One can extend the lens beyond the thousands of lynchings and murders to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, where crowds of tens of thousands strong shouted "Walk, Nigger, Walk" at student movements and where the police turned firehoses upon its own populace.
Having seen these images in film and in print over and over again from the time I was a little boy, I am absolutely astounded at anyone still magically enchanted with Southern heritage. The South's history of murder, cruelty and hatred depicts a culture guilty of atrocity after atrocity, a culture willing not only to torture and kill an entire race of people simply because of the color of their skin, but also eager to enjoy it.
There is no grace in being born a Southerner.
Nick Christie is a Trinity senior and an associate sports editor for The Chronicle. His column appears every other Monday.