Waco, Texas. Lynching.
Sure enough, there it was: the charred corpse of a young black man, tied to a blistered tree in the
heart of the Texas Bible Belt. Next to the burned body, young white men can be seen smiling and
grinning, seemingly jubilant at their front-row seats in a carnival of death. One of them sent a
picture postcard home: “This is the barbeque we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross
over it. Your son, Joe.”
The victim’s name was Jesse Washington. The year was 1916. America would soon go to war in
Europe “to make the world safe for democracy.” My father was twelve, my mother eight. I was born
18 years later, at a time, I would come to learn, when local white folks still talked about
Washington’s execution as if it were only yesterday.
This was not medieval Europe. Not the Inquisition. Not a heretic burned at the stake by some
ecclesiastical authority in the Old World. This was Texas, and the white people in that photograph
were farmers, laborers, shopkeepers, some of them respectable congregants from local churches in
and around the growing town of Waco.
Here is the photograph. Take a good look at Jesse Washington’s stiffened body tied to the tree. He
had been sentenced to death for the murder of a white woman. No witnesses saw the crime; he
allegedly confessed but the truth of the allegations would never be tested. The grand jury took just
to return a guilty verdict, but there was no appeal, no review, no prison time.Instead, a courtroom mob dragged him outside, pinned him to the ground, and cut off his testicles. A
bonfire was quickly built and lit. For two hours, Jesse Washington — alive — was raised and lowered
over the flames. Again and again and again.
City officials and police stood by, approvingly. According
to some estimates, the crowd grew to as many as 15,000. There were taunts, cheers and laughter.
Reporters described hearing “shouts of delight.”