Friday, April 22, 2005

Mob justice

I have long maintained that one of the primary reasons why we still have the death penalty in the United States is because of the way the media covers (and fails to cover) crime, murders, executions and the failings of the criminal justice system.

Some people have drawn a connection between the modern-day death penalty and the era of lynchings that occurred in the early 20th century. And it is certainly true that when Congress acted to outlaw lynchings, the execution rate in this country skyrocketed, particularly in the Deep South.

One thing that is beyond argument is this: During that era, the media was responsible for creating an atmosphere that not only tolerated but actually encouraged lynchings to take place.

As evidence, I offer this excerpt from a wonderful column that appeared in today's Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The column examined the media's complicity in a spate of lynchings that took place in east Texas in 1908 and 1909:

After surrounding the jail, part of the mob went to the home of Jailer Paul Broadnax and called him out on the pretense of having more prisoners connected with the trouble. When he got into the crowd they took him in charge, took keys from him, left a guard with him so that he could not give the alarm, went to the jail and took their prisoners. ... The mob tied these six negroes by the hands and neck and led them to the place of execution. The keys of the jail were left on the steps of the jail."

Although the reporter called Hemphill a "peaceable little city," just a year earlier, The News had published a story with the headline "NEGROES MUST GO. -- Worthless Blacks to Be Driven Out of Sabine County."

With a Beaumont dateline, the story said, "A well-known citizen of Sabine Valley who was in the city today states that the movement to chase negroes out of Sabine County is sincere and positive on the part of the white people. There will be no violent action, but the people have given ample and certain notice that all transient negroes must leave the towns of Browndell and Brookeland. There are no negroes in Bronson and Hemphill, and the people in the other places are determined to rid themselves of the worthless blacks."

The News summed up its story of the 1908 lynchings with a conciliatory tone for the crowd and explained why it was necessary for the mob to take the action it did.

"There was no taking away of relics or souvenirs, no drinking or carousing connected with the lynching of the negroes last night," the report said. "The men went there determined and accomplished their purpose. The 6 negroes were cut down today and buried at the expense of the county.

"From all reports, those who attacked the jail last night were among the best citizens of the county. Sabine is one of the oldest settled counties of the State.

To read the entire column, and I highly recommend that you do, go here.

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