By Lee A. Daniels
We live in a era when humankind seems awash in war-driven atrocities. Men, and in some instances, boys – for this is, overwhelmingly, a matter of the sins of males – who once lived within the boundaries of decency have dedicated themselves to committing crimes of shocking depravity.
Whether driven by tricked-up political ideologies, ethnic-group grievances, or pseudo-religious mumbo-jumbo, many of these killers display a seemingly unfathomable desire to be inhuman, monstrous.
I have a name for this bloodletting and the people who engage in it. I call it and them the Prime Evil. The phrase isn’t my creation. It was applied two decades ago to one man, Eugene de Kock, a colonel in South Africa’s police force during the apartheid era who directed the government’s terrorist squad that used torture and murder to try to destroy the freedom movement led by Nelson Mandela.
One of that unit’s many “specialties” was, after it had finished torturing a captive, to tie him up, place him over an explosive device and detonate it. Brought to justice after the fall of the Afrikaner regime, de Kock was sentenced to more than 200 years in prison for his crimes.
De Kock’s name has been in the news this winter because the Black-majority South African government announced in late January that it would parole him. I’ll explore that extraordinary decision further in my next column. My point here is that De Kock’s release reminds us that although the Internet now makes it possible for many of us to witness acts of horrific violence, such depravity isn’t new and has never been limited to just the colored peoples of the world.
That fact was underscored by the release earlier this month of a report documenting how widespread and horrific the dynamic of America’s Prime Evil – White racism – once was. The document, “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror,” was compiled by the Equal Justice Initiative, (EJI) a Montgomery, Alabama-based social justice organization.
It found that between 1877 and 1950 a total of 3,959 Black Americans were murdered by a “racial terror lynching” in the twelve most active lynching states, all but one of which had been part of the Confederacy. The report defines a racial terror lynching as one whose real purpose was not to punish an individual so much as to terrorize an entire group: Americans of African descent.
Contrary to the conventional view of these murders as furtive acts done by a few on the fringe of Southern White society, EJI documents that the “lynching frenzy” murders were often barbaric communal “festivals” involving ghastly rituals of mutilation and burning – symbolic of both cannibalism and necrophilia – that were attended by dozens, or hundreds, or even thousands of Whites. Some, in which Blacks locked up in local jails were targeted, were even advertised in local newspapers in advance. Further, these “celebratory acts of racial control and domination” were bolstered by the White South’s using Christianity to justify Jim Crow.
The Equal Justice Initiative wants to erect in these states, which are chock-full of memorials to the architects of the Prime Evil of Negro Slavery and Jim Crow, markers of and memorials to the lynchings at many of the sites where they happened – a plan, a New York Times article on the report noted “will involve significant fund-raising, negotiations with distrustful landowners and, almost undoubtedly, intense controversy.”
The latter prospect should be especially welcomed by those who think, as the EJI report states, America “must fully address our history of racial terror and the legacy of racial inequality it has created. … by urging communities to honestly and soberly recognize the pain of the past. Only when we concretize the experience through discourse, memorials, monuments, and other acts of reconciliation can we overcome the shadows cast by these grievous events.”
“Tsultrim,” a reader responding online to the Times Feb. 10 article put it even more poignantly.
“Imagine driving through your town today and seeing a body hanging from a lamp post, or a bridge. Imagine watching your neighbors burn a person to death in the public square. If we think this is shocking, then we must take steps to acknowledge our past, commemorate those who died, own responsibility for acts that have informed attitudes to this day. This is our holocaust. It’s past time to own it, examine ourselves, and change. Who are we if we refuse to look, refuse to acknowledge?”
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His essay, “Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Great Provocateur,” appears in Africa’s Peacemakers: Nobel Peace Laureates of African Descent (2014), published by Zed Books. His new collection of columns, Race Forward: Facing America’s Racial Divide in 2014, is available at www.amazon.com.