In 1918 a Negro woman, about to give birth to a child, was lynched with almost unmentionable brutality along with ten men in Georgia. I reached the scene shortly after the butchery and while excitement yet ran high. It was a prosperous community. Forests of pine trees gave rich returns in turpentine, tar and pitch. The small towns where the farmers and turpentine hands traded were fat and rich. The main streets of the largest of these towns were well paved and lighted. The stores were well stocked. The white inhabitants belonged to the class of Georgia crackers ⎯ lanky, slow of movement and of speech, long-necked, with small eyes set close together, and skin tanned by the hot sun to a reddish-yellow hue.
As I was born in Georgia and spent twenty years of my life there, my accent is sufficiently Southern to enable me to talk with Southerners and not arouse their suspicion that I am an outsider. (In the rural South hatred of Yankees is not much less than hatred of Negroes.) On the morning of my arrival in the town I casually dropped into the store of one of the general merchants who, I had been informed, had been one of the leaders of the mob. After making a small purchase I engaged the merchant in conversation. There was, at the time, no other customer in the store. We spoke of the weather, the possibility of good crops in the fall, the political situation, the latest news from the war in Europe. As his manner became more and more friendly I ventured to mention guardedly the recent lynchings.
Instantly he became cautious—until I hinted that I had great admiration for the manly spirit the men of the town had exhibited. I mentioned the newspaper accounts I had read and confessed that I had never been so fortunate as to see a lynching. My words or tone seemed to disarm his suspicions. He offered me a box on which to sit, drew up another one for himself, and gave me a bottle of Coca-Cola.
“You’ll pardon me, Mister,” he began, “for seeming suspicious but we have to be careful. In ordinary times we wouldn’t have anything to worry about, but with the war there’s been some talk of the Federal government looking into lynchings. It seems there’s some sort of law during wartime making it treason to lower the man power of the country.”
“In that case I don’t blame you for being careful,” I assured him. “But couldn’t the Federal government do something if it wanted to when a lynching takes place, even if no war is going on at the moment?”
“Naw,” he said, confidently, proud of the opportunity of displaying his store of information to one who he assumed knew nothing whatever about the subject. “There’s no such law, in spite of all the agitation by a lot of fools who don’t know the niggers as we do. States’ rights won’t permit Congress to meddle in lynching in peace time.”
“But what about your State government ⎯ your Governor, your sheriff, your police officers?”
“Humph! Them? We elected them to office, didn’t we? And the niggers, we’ve got them disfranchised, ain’t we? Sheriffs and police and Governors and prosecuting attorneys have got too much sense to mix in lynching-bees. If they do they know they might as well give up all idea of running for office any more ⎯ if something worse don’t happen to them ⎯” This last with a tightening of the lips and a hard look in the eyes.
I sought to lead the conversation into less dangerous channels. “Who was the white man who was killed ⎯ whose killing caused the lynchings?” I asked.
“Oh, he was a hard one, all right. Never paid his debts to white men or niggers and wasn’t liked much around here. He was a mean ’un all right, all right.”
“Why, then, did you lynch the niggers for killing such a man?”
“It’s a matter of safety ⎯ we gotta show niggers that they mustn’t touch a white man, no matter how low-down and ornery he is.”
Little by little he revealed the whole story. When he told of the manner in which the pregnant woman had been killed he chuckled and slapped his thigh and declared it to be “the best show, Mister, I ever did see. You ought to have heard the wench howl when we strung her up.”
Covering the nausea the story caused me as best I could, I slowly gained the whole story, with the names of the other participants. Among them were prosperous farmers, business men, bankers, newspaper reporters and editors, and several law-enforcement officers.
My several days of discreet inquiry began to arouse suspicions in the town. On the third day of my stay I went once more into the store of the man with whom I had first talked. He asked me to wait until he had finished serving the sole customer. When she had gone he came from behind the counter and with secretive manner and lowered voice he asked, “You’re a government man, ain’t you?” (An agent of the Federal Department of Justice was what he meant.)
“Who said so?” I countered.
“Never mind who told me; I know one when I see him,” he replied, with a shrewd harshness in his face and voice.
Ignorant of what might have taken place since last I had talked with him, I thought it wise to learn all I could and say nothing which might commit me. “Don’t you tell anyone I am a government man; if I am one, you’re the only one in town who knows it,” I told him cryptically. I knew that within a hour everybody in town would share his “information.”
An hour or so later I went at nightfall to the little but not uncomfortable hotel where I was staying. As I was about to enter a Negro approached me and, with an air of great mystery, told me that he had just heard a group of white men discussing me and declaring that if I remained in the town overnight “something would happen” to me.
The thought raced through my mind before I replied that it was hardly likely that, following so terrible a series of lynchings, a Negro would voluntarily approach a supposedly white man whom he did not know and deliver such a message. He had been sent, and no doubt the persons who sent him were white and for some reason did not dare tackle me themselves. Had they dared there would have been no warning in advance ⎯ simply an attack. Though I had no weapon with me, it occurred to me that there was no reason why two should not play at the game of bluffing. I looked straight into my informant’s eyes and said: “You go back to the ones who sent you and tell them this: that I have a damned good automatic and I know how to use it. If anybody attempts to molest me tonight or any other time, somebody is going to get hurt.”
That night I did not take off my clothes nor did I sleep. Ordinarily in such small Southern towns everyone is snoring by nine o’clock. That night, however, there was much passing and repassing of the hotel. I learned afterward that the merchant had, as I expected, told generally that I was an agent of the Department of Justice, and my empty threat had served to reinforce his assertion. The Negro had been sent to me in the hope that I might be frightened enough to leave before I had secured evidence against the members of the mob. I remained in the town two more days. My every movement was watched, but I was not molested. But when, later, it became known that not only was I not an agent of the Department of Justice but a Negro, the fury of the inhabitants of the region was unlimited ⎯ particularly when it was found that evidence I gathered had been placed in the hands of the Governor of Georgia. It happened that he was a man genuinely eager to stop lynching ⎯ but restrictive laws against which he had appealed in vain effectively prevented him from acting upon the evidence. And the Federal government declared itself unable to proceed against the lynchers.