Today's Paper Latest Coronavirus Cooking The Article Families Core Values Story ideas iPad Weather Newsletters Obits Puzzles Archive

OPINION | REX NELSON: The lynch mob

by Rex Nelson | January 17, 2021 at 8:20 a.m.

Historian Guy Lancaster is an expert on racial violence in Arkansas. His book "American Atrocity: The Types of Violence in Lynching" is scheduled for release this fall by the University of Arkansas Press.

In the wake of this month's attack on the U.S. Capitol by the insurrectionists incited by President Donald Trump, Lancaster described the invaders as a "modern-day lynch mob."

"The fact that they did not succeed in lynching anyone is rather immaterial," he wrote for History News Network. "They were prepared to do so, even down to the gallows they erected on the National Mall. And every other facet of their actions harkens back to the spectacle lynchings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. First, just consider the impunity with which they operated. These terrorists besieged the Capitol building and then roamed its halls undisguised.

"Likewise, on Dec. 31, 1904, a mob of about 700 people broke into the jail at Newport and took Louis Allwhite, whom they marched to a railroad trestle outside of town, where they hanged him. This occurred in the full light of day, and despite the fact that members of the mob were described as 'generally known' by the press, the coroner's jury nonetheless concluded that Allwhite 'came to his death at the hands of an unknown mob.' . . .

"The greatest manifestation of the mob's impunity was taking pictures of themselves with the lynching victim, knowing full well that documenting their crimes would not affect their lives at all."

And so we saw the Capitol invaders of Jan. 6 documenting their crimes on social media.

When people ask if I'm over-reacting to what occurred in the building I once worked out of as a congressional correspondent for the Arkansas Democrat, I simply point them to a widely circulated photo. It shows that an insurrectionist scrawled "murder the media" into a door at the Capitol.

In case you haven't noticed, that would be me. That would be my colleagues. That would be some of the people I respect most in this world who are being targeted. Hell yes, I take it personally.

CNN senior national security correspondent Alexander Marquardt tweeted during the attack: "Protesters swarmed and mobbed my team at the Capitol after figuring out who we are. Extremely aggressive, had to get out fast. After I called them rioters just now on air, the crowd converged on the area press had gathered so we took off. This is a mob of violent rioters, no other way to put it."

In the speech that incited the insurrectionists to attack the Capitol, Trump once again had called the media "the enemy of the people."

"There were no police around us," said Chip Reid of CBS. "We were on our own. I remember one of the protesters standing next to me said, 'The police don't care about you guys. They're only protecting the senators. You're on your own, buddy.'"

Photographers and video journalists captured the rioters seizing and destroying media equipment.

"Both groups, those older lynch mobs and these more modern terrorists, collected souvenirs of their deeds," Lancaster wrote. "The examples of lynch mobs taking souvenirs is extensive. After the lynched body of Henry James was finally taken down after his May 14, 1842, hanging, residents of Little Rock rushed to grab pieces of the rope that had been used to string him up.

"On June 19, 1913, the mob that lynched Will Norman in downtown Hot Springs, at the site of the current Hot Springs Confederate monument, burned his body to ashes and then sifted through the remains to gather up bits of bone that could be kept or sold to tourists.

"Our modern American terrorist groups are likewise obsessed with souvenirs of their deeds. One of the thugs who raided Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office, an Arkansan named Richard 'Bigo' Barnett, made a public show of having stolen a letter from her desk. Other members of the mob grabbed furniture, with one terrorist in a Trump hat even making off with a podium."

In most Arkansas lynchings through the years, the mobs had a good relationship with law enforcement officers.

"Consider the May 4, 1927, lynching of John Carter in Little Rock," Lancaster wrote. "One picture of the event shows a policeman at the place where Carter was initially hanged by the mob, and although we cannot determine too much from this single image, he does not seem to be exerting himself against the murderers who surround him.

"According to some accounts of the lynching, when the mob decided to take Carter's body to the heart of the Black business district of Little Rock to burn it, Sheriff Mike Haynie was watching and made no move to stop them.

"When the mob reached its destination and began rioting downtown, the police played cards in their basement and made no effort to restore order, forcing the governor to call out the National Guard. Even when law enforcement was not so accommodating to the mob as they were in Little Rock in 1927, we can see certain patterns emerge.

"Sheriffs post maybe one lone jailer at the county lock-up so that it is easy for the mob to overcome him. Sheriffs refuse to call the governor for reinforcements even as they are intimately aware of the potential for mob violence."

Lancaster noted that Gov. Asa Hutchinson made a name for himself in the 1980s as a U.S. attorney prosecuting a white supremacist group known as the Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord.

"This group wanted to overthrow the government and purify the nation of Jewish and non-white influence, especially in the media," he wrote. "However, the rhetoric of the CSA is now the mainstream rhetoric of the Republican Party, a party whose most prominent leaders have been promoting distrust of the mainstream media and urging the violent overthrow of our democratically elected government.

"About a century ago, it was the Republican Party that was pushing for anti-lynching legislation. Now, Republican legislators such as Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz cheer on those who construct a gallows on the National Mall. Democracy in America will not come to its death 'at the hands of an unknown mob.' We know who the mob leaders are. They are 'generally known.' They have been broadcasting their intentions for a long time now."

Yes, the attack on the Capitol was all too predictable. Here in Arkansas, the saddest thing these past two months was the lack of courage shown by elected officials as Trump and his co-conspirators called into question what was without a doubt a fair presidential election.

The faith of voters in a fair outcome is the bedrock of American democracy. Through their silence, these Arkansas officeholders were accomplices in the attack on democracy. History will not remember them kindly.

The worst of the bunch is Republican U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford of the 1st District, who kept up his attack on democracy through his votes just hours after an invasion by people clearly intent on harming his House colleagues. The 1st District is Republican country, but hopefully a worthy opponent can take out this coward in next year's GOP primary.

I think about the story of Brooks Hays of Arkansas, a U.S. representative and president of the Southern Baptist Convention. As a member of Congress, Hays tried to mediate a standoff between the federal government and Gov. Orval Faubus during the 1957 Little Rock Central High School integration crisis.

He paid the price the following year when a write-in candidate, segregationist Dale Alford, beat him. To Rick Crawford and those like him, I ask this question: "Is an office worth having if being re-elected to that office forces you to sacrifice your integrity?" Hays knew the answer.

It's an ugly, indelible stain, Congressman Crawford. Arkansas history will record the actions of those in office at this critical period in our nation's history. Trust me.


Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.


Sponsor Content