I walked into the gallery and headed straight for the photograph that had haunted me for weeks. The little girl, seven or eight years old, stood in the near background of the picture, only a few feet from the hanging body of Rubin Stacy. I'd hoped she had disappeared-that I had remembered wrong. But there she was, arms down, wrists crossed in front of her in an eerie likeness of his manacled hands.
The small exhibition room in the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site wasn't crowded on this last day of December, so I could move in closely to study the expression on her face. There was none; she was neither smiling in approval nor frowning in shock and distaste. She was just impassively gazing up at the horrific sight before her as if it were a run-of-the-mill occurrence.
The girl's short, light-brown hair was parted on the left side. Her thin legs emerged from underneath a starched dress with a wide collar. The photograph, minus the dead man with the bulging eyes, could have come from an old family album of ours. This little girl looked as I did at her age. I could just as easily have been the one standing there.
I'd been to visit the King Center on a cold, rainy Saturday in November with three friends from church. We'd gone together to see and experience the James Allen-John Littlefield Collection, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. I don't think I would have gone alone.
The late Billie Holiday's rich blues voice filled the entrance hall of the gallery as the four of us began our journey:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.i
Framed sepia photographs and postcards hung on the room's three walls. Glassed-topped cases occupied the fourth wall and the center of the floor. It was crowded, and we shifted in synchrony from image to image, as if an unseen choreographer were directing our movements.
The shuffling of feet and soft sighs and gasps were the only sounds I remember. No one talked out loud. For myself, I had no words to express the shock and deep sadness welling up inside. I was a little afraid. I could not help glancing to the right and to the left, hoping my whiteness did not make me as conspicuous as I felt. When I finally came to Ella Watson, "Cattle Kate," lynched in Sweetwater County, Wyoming, for cattle rustling, pernicious relief rushed through me. Finally an Anglo-Saxon, woman victim! I thought I was exonerated. I thought I had joined the club.
But as I neared the end of my stay, I passed an older African-American man sitting on a stool weeping. His shoulders shook, and tears poured down his lined cheeks. I watched him for a short while, wanting to make contact, wanting to express my solidarity. At last, I touched him lightly on the shoulder and murmured, "Me too." He turned away. Instantly I knew I had made a mistake. I had no idea what these pictures had stirred up in him, and I should not have imposed myself upon his grief. So much for insensitive quick fixes. So much for shallow common ground. I left feeling sick at heart-and embarrassed.
As with a labyrinth, the way out was the way in. Others were entering as we exited; there was no back passage providing a private escape. We who had made it around the room, whose countenances displayed the impact of what we had seen, came face to face with those about to view the horrors ahead. The door was narrow. We rubbed shoulders.
Later I found a picture of a little girl with light hair parted on the left side: of me, Caroline, who spent summers with grandparents in rural South Georgia. My paternal grandfather and grandmother, Mr. Ben and Miss Bessie, ran a general store in the small town of Arlington, and I delighted in helping out, especially on Saturdays when the street was full of mule-drawn wagons from the country. Their owners, whom I remember as mostly black tenant farmers, came in once a week to purchase food and supplies.
I loved going to the stocked shelves and pulling down canned goods and sacks of flour. I loved cutting wedges of sharp yellow cheese from the big round on the front counter, popping small pieces into my mouth. I loved fishing dill pickles from the barrel and pickled pigs' feet from the wide-mouthed glass jar. My grandmother instructed my cousins and me to ask, "How may I help you?" These people were our customers. We knew them by name and waited on them respectfully, thanking them for their business. But we did not think it odd that separate water fountains and rest rooms were the accepted order of the day. Such thoughts would not emerge for me until much later.
And then there is another child and another store.
Carolyn Bryant waited on Emmett Till when he came into her husband Roy's grocery store to buy candy. The 14-year-old from Chicago was visiting relatives in the rural town of Money, Mississippi, in the summer of 1955. While accounts differed, Mrs. Bryant experienced him as insolent and cheeky. His cousin today verifies that Emmett whistled at her. A few days later, Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam woke the boys up in the night. They savagely beat Emmett and shot him in the head before sinking his naked body in the Tallahatchie River. Emmett's uncle identified the mutilated, naked corpse by an initialed ring on its hand. Otherwise it was unrecognizable. Emmett's mother insisted that his casket remain open for all to see.
I asked a close friend if she had gone to the King Center. "No," she said with chagrin, "I just couldn't. I've been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, but that was different. They were responsible for those atrocities. We carried out the lynchings. I knew I couldn't bear it." I too have been to the Holocaust Museum, and it was easier to take than the lynching exhibit at the King Center. The awful deeds I encountered in Washington happened in a far away country, perpetrated by a foreign people. Rubin Stacy and Emmett Till's murders occurred on my home turf, carried out by people who look and talk like me.
I never heard about lynchings during my halcyon summers in South Georgia, and I cannot imagine my gentle and devout grandparents ever attending. But they must have known something: that such things happened somewhere, sometime. Just as the rosy-cheeked Germans I encountered years later on the streets of Dachau had to have known something about the horrors perpetrated just outside their picturesque town. Just as I know today about atrocities occurring on this ever-smaller globe we inhabit. I know and am inured to them.
Three pictures of three children with three different stories move on and off my internal screen, images in a running presentation: the little girl at Rubin Stacy's side, the young Caroline, and Emmett Till. Then the projector stops with Caroline front and center. Next to her emerges the faint outline of the girl at the lynching-like a pentimento, the ghostly reappearance over time of an earlier figure on a canvas, covered over when the artist had a change of heart. The word "pentimento" comes from the Italian pentirsi, to repent.
If the Caroline of today and tomorrow is to be whole and sane, she must keep that little girl's image before her. She must allow the demonic illusions, those stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, to be shattered. She must confess that given circumstances other than those she knew as a child, she could have stood next to a hanging body. She must acknowledge that she is vulnerable to evil's seduction. She must embrace the citizens of Dachau, Germany, and Money, Mississippi, as her people, loving them as Christ commanded.
Only then can she be a worker for peace and justice. Only then can she engage the man at the entrance/exit to the lynching exhibit with authenticity and integrity and solid compassion. Perhaps, then, he can accept her greeting. Perhaps, then, they can grapple together with their common membership in God's free-will, human race. Pentirsi and freedom! Save us from the time of trial. Let my people go. The next time I sing the familiar spiritual, Were you there when they crucified my Lord? my answer will be yes, I was there-or I could have been.
I don't know if Rubin Stacy's lynching made a difference to any of the onlookers or perpetrators. I would like to think that over time, the little girl asked questions, that her countenance changed from the reflection of indifference to a mirror of shock and sorrow: pentirsi-repentance. But, nevertheless, the picture of her became for me a point of engagement and confession. She shook my complacence to the core. Today I am compelled to keep before me the question, "Whom do I leave swinging in the breeze?"
Some biblical scholars contend that Jesus was lynched, put to death without proper legal sanction to quell mob turmoil, the trial before Jewish authority pure fiction. Whatever the case, his lynching is the turning point of history: In his willingness to join the likes of Rubin Stacy and Emmett Till, the murdered and risen Jesus demonstrates that violence will not have the last word. Rather, Christ's suffering provides the final pronouncement of love.
While we are all guilty at the foot of his cross, we are all absolved there as well. For Christians, the cross is where God's judgment and grace come together, where we receive the hope of fresh possibility, where God paints us anew, restoring the divine image. In words attributed to Teilhard de Chardin: "Christianity does not ask us to live in the shadow of the cross, but in the fire of its creative action."
I met an incarnation of new possibility as I left the King Center on that last day of December: a fourth child, joining my images of Rubin Stacy's companion, the young Caroline, and the brutalized Emmett Till. Sydney, a beautiful dark-skinned toddler in denim overalls and a pink shirt, danced around the reception area, gurgling happy baby noises. She lifted my spirits, and I thanked her mother for bringing her. I pray she will find her way to fend off the slithery enticements of the Evil One. I pray she catches the creative fire of love.
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
- Psalm 139:23-24
O God of justice and peace, grant us the grace to see below the surface of life and our lives so that we might be cleansed of our prejudice, and then empower us to be a reconciled and reconciling people, and all for your love's sake. Amen.
i Abel Meeropol (pseud. Lewis Allen), "Strange Fruit," in David Margolick, Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song (New York: Ecco Press, 2001), 1.