On Aug. 7, 1930, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith were lynched in Marion, Ind. A horrible crime against humanity? Not at the time. In fact, somebody had framed a photograph of this event with a lock of one of the victim’s hair in the picture frame; the caption read: “Bo pointn to his niga.”
On Nov. 26, 1933 John Holmes was lynched in San Jose, Calif. Photos of this exist as well.
On July 19, 1935, Rubin Stacy was lynched in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. A photograph of this event featured onlookers, including four young girls. According to the New York Times, “The suspect, booked as Rubin Stacy, was hanged to a roadside tree within sight of the home of Mrs. Marion Jones, thirty year old mother of three children, who identified him as her assailant.” Six deputies were escorting Stacy to a Dade County jail in Miami for “safekeeping.” The six deputies were “overpowered” by approximately one hundred masked men, who ran their car off the road. “As far as we can figure out,” Deputy Wright was quoted as saying,”they just picked him up with the rope from the ground-didn’t bother to push him from an automobile or anything. He was filled full of bullets, too. I guess they shot him before and after they hanged him.”
“Subsequent investigation revealed that Stacy, a homeless tenant farmer, had gone to the house to ask for food; the woman became frightened and screamed when she saw Stacy’s face.”
On Oct. 15, 1938, R. C. Williams was lynched in in Ruston, La. A photo of his body hanging from oak tree has his lower body covered with an apron with blood streaming down his legs (suggesting castration). The picture includes white men and young children looking on.
Over the course of those eight years, Bob Feller grew from a 12-year-old boy to a 19-year-old pitching phenomena. What’s interesting about the cited photos above is when those lynching occurred, nobody was hiding their faces, nobody was worried about repercussions, legal or otherwise. In fact, folks looked quite self-satisfied and pleased. The message was clear: They felt they weren’t doing anything wrong. Some claimed body parts (in some cases removed from the victim while they were still alive) as souvenirs. People used these photographs as post cards and mementos—even being found in family albums. In some cases, they were family heirlooms.
In those years, if you dared live together without being married, you were “living in sin.” Getting a divorce was a scandal. Children born out of wedlock were bastards. Harsh physical discipline of children was acceptable. A woman’s place was in the kitchen, where she should be kept “barefoot and pregnant.” Mental illness was considered more a weakness than a disease.
Can we fathom such a mindset today?
However, many people from that era are alive and well. Do they still feel this way? Probably some do, though we’d like to think that with the perspective of time that they’d feel differently today.
Of interest is Feller, who while with the Cleveland Indians, was the beneficiary of cheating by then owner Bill Veeck, who often directed his groundskeepers to build up the mound as high as possible for his benefit. This was one of a great many rules, written or understood, broken by Veeck to give Feller and Co. as much of a competitive advantage as possible. Of course, nobody weeps and rends their garments over this. It’s a part of baseball lore. It’s greeted with a nudge and a wink and a knowing “Wasn’t that Veeck as rascal, eh?” and we enjoy a good laugh.
Ah, when it was just a game.
Back then it was cheating, but five or six decades later it’s an interesting piece of baseball history. A footnote at best. During that time, however, the Lords of Baseball were up in arms over some of Veeck’s stunts. So much so that when they had a chance, they arranged matters so that he had no choice but to give up ownership of his ball club (the St. Louis Browns, at the time).
Now we chuckle at what a bunch of humourless stuffed-shirts the other owners were back then.
Funny how time changes our perspective. Things that were once acceptable become abhorrent and things once considered abhorrent become acceptable. Often it happens within the span of a single lifetime.
For the record, I’m not comparing lynching with the treatment of Bonds. This isn’t about Bonds, but rather our reaction to recent revelations about Bonds.
Still, there are parallels.
For example: many are thinking that Bonds has brought the current circumstances upon himself, and that had he not juiced he wouldn’t be in this situation. Or, for that matter, had he not been such a disagreeable sort, folks likely would be more forgiving.
Many lynching victims were accused and guilty of breaking the law; many were taken out of jail cells and strung up. Do you not think that a good number of people in those crowds were thinking, “He brought this upon himself,” and had he not committed the crime, he wouldn’t be dangling at the end of a rope?
During this period of time, not only was media complicit to these atrocities, they often helped plant the seeds that whipped up public opinion and aided people to feel that it was okay to go ahead and lynch somebody without due process. The media would even publish the time and location in advance of a lynching, so as to draw the largest possible crowds to the event—even going so far as to print the schedules of trains and buses that would be going in that direction, with nary a pang of conscience.
In other words, by acting on what “seemed right at the time,” terrible acts were committed that make us recoil today. The participants/spectators in those lynching photographs are our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.—not inhuman monsters. They were people just like us doing what they felt was right at the time. Chances are good that the following Sunday they went piously to church, feeling that all was well between they and their Maker. After all, in their minds they had done nothing wrong. They probably felt that they were just, enlightened, and open-minded just as we do today.
Of course, the perspective of history teaches us just how wrong their actions and mindset were, regardless of what crime the lynching victim may have committed.
How history will view Bonds’ accomplishments is one question, but let’s not forget the question of how will history view our reaction to Bonds. What if history plays out that Bonds’ drug usage is viewed as marginally worse than an illegal mound, a rigged infield, a corked bat, a loaded baseball, and greenies? Will there be “pictures” of us gleefully pointing at an asterisk in a record book and grinning like fools as we proudly point to a space in the wall in the Heroes Gallery in Cooperstown where Bonds’ plaque might have hung our; countenances beaming with a sense of pride because we felt we had a hand in it? Will our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren look back at those “photographs” and wonder, “What were they thinking?”
And it could happen in our lifetime. Look at the changes in attitude during Bob Feller’s lifetime.
But that’s what happens when we become impatient and want things to happen “right now.” Lynch mobs didn’t want to wait for due process, they wanted something done immediately. The media (and some fans) want something done with Bonds right now—asterisks, suspensions, ineligibility for the Hall of Fame, etc. History teaches us that immediate gratification can lead to terrible decisions—irreversible ones. However, the reason we want something to happen right away is because Bonds is threatening to overtake Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron on the all-time home run list, and something should be done right now to prevent that from happening.
What else has history taught us?
Well, Roger Maris topped Ruth’s single season home run record, Aaron eclipsed the Bambino’s career home run mark and guess what? It didn’t diminish Ruth’s stature in baseball history one iota.
History put Maris and Aaron in their proper place in baseball’s chronicles. It put them there the same way it put Ed Walsh and his career ERA record, Dutch Leonard’s single season ERA record, Cy Young’s career wins record, Charley Radbourne’s single season wins record, Sam Crawford’s career triples record, Chief Wilson’s single season triples record, Nolan Ryan’s career strikeout record, Matt Kilroy’s single season strikeout record, etc.
We understand that some of these records were set when the game was played under different circumstances than they are today.
We’re attempting to force Bonds’ accomplishments into historical perspective long before history gets a chance to weigh in. We must be patient with regards to Bonds. It may not be the most satisfying course, but it is the correct one and it protects our legacy.
In the short term, rules are in place to deal with Bonds, and he deserves baseball’s version of due process. As to his place in history—well, we’d be wise to wait because of the “Bo pointn to his niga” caption on the framed lynching photograph. “Bo” is somebody’s father, grandfather, brother, brother-in-law, uncle, cousin and friend—maybe yours. Were that the case, how would you feel about his legacy? After all, “Bo” was doing what he felt was right at the time, but …
We run the same risk.
How does that saying go? Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
References & Resources
Accounts of the lynchings are courtesy of Without Sanctuary.