GLEN COVE, NY – Christian societies are characterized by their insistence on proof of guilt prior to punishment. This insistence, however, does not prevent mobs from illegally inflicting punishment on suspects. Lynch mobs are still with us, but their character has changed greatly.
One popular impression of lynch mobs from the previous century is that of black bodies hanging from trees in southern Indiana, while young white women pose for photographs beneath them. Or perhaps it is of a mob storming a Georgia jail and dragging out a prisoner and hanging him.
Between 1907 and 1921, 31 people were lynched in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This heinous practice culminated in an incident in 1921 in which at least 39, and possibly more, blacks were killed; thousands of blacks had their houses burned and left the city.
One particularly tragic lynching case was that of Leo Frank. He was the manager of a Georgia pencil factory. A young girl, Mary Phegan, an employee, was murdered in 1915. The murderer forced a black worker to accuse Frank, who was convicted and sentenced to death. A prominent Georgia politician, Thomas Watson, ran an anti-black, anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic newspaper called The Jeffersonian, and he used it to stir up hatred of Frank because he was a Jew.
My great-uncle, Arthur Powell, a prominent Georgia lawyer and judge, was given evidence of Frank’s innocence in confidence, which he was ethically required to safeguard and not disclose publicly until his own death, more than a generation later. He did, however, have a confidential conversation with Georgia Governor John Slaton, connected by marriage to the other side of my family, and the governor then commuted the death sentence. A mob took Frank from jail and lynched him. More than 50 years later, the witness against Frank at his trial acknowledged that his testimony was false. No one any longer thinks Frank was guilty.
The classic lynch mob has vanished. When a black man who was clearly guilty of murder was acquitted in southwestern Georgia, nobody was lynched. When a black gang member killed Yale student Christian Prince, the gang member was convicted of conspiracy but not murder. Nobody suggested reacting violently to the verdict.
In some ways, today’s mobs resemble the one in Tulsa more than those in Georgia. They are like the classic lynch mob, however, in that they refuse to accept jury verdicts.
Today’s mobs are determined to see police officers, or security or neighborhood guards, punished summarily for beating or killing black people. Like the classic lynch mob, they have no patience with the due process of law. In a classic pattern, they devastated Watts, Los Angeles.
The riots in Ferguson, Missouri, are in the new classic pattern. Some witnesses says a policeman shot a black man in the back. Others say that this strong, tall, 200-pound young black man was charging the police officer. The ballistic evidence seems to back up the police officer.
Demagogues flew into Missouri from around the country to proclaim the police officer’s guilt before hearing both sides. Riots went on night after night. Stores were looted. Fires were set. The mobs demanded the immediate punishment of the police officer without a trial.
The mobs want a presumption of guilt, not of innocence, for any white man accused of a crime against a black man. Their desire is for something stronger even than the presumption of guilt, three generations ago, of an undistinguished black man accused by a white woman with a good reputation.
The perfect symbol of the new lynch mob is the noose carried by one of the Ferguson “demonstrators” recently. That noose clearly illustrates the reality that mob rule has come to America.
The Confederate Lawyer column is copyright © 2014 by Charles G. Mills and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation,www.fgfBooks.com. All rights reserved. This column may be posted or published if credit is given to Charles Mills and fgfBooks.com.
Charles Mills, Esq., is the Judge Advocate (general counsel) for the New York State American Legion. He has forty years of experience in many trial and appellate courts and has published several articles about the law. The Confederate Lawyer archives
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