What our uncomfortable secrets teach us

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 15, 2015

Every community has dirty little secrets that it would rather sweep into the dustbins of history and act as though they never took place.

Rowan County is no exception. It’s hard to imagine Salisbury as home to a wartime prison — the Salisbury Confederate Prison — where thousands of Union soldiers perished from hunger and sickness.

We would rather forget the popularity, especially during the mid 1960s, of the Ku Klux Klan in Rowan County and how the KKK’s rallies and racist vitriol found a welcome audience.

Likewise, it’s uncomfortable to talk about the days when Rowan County gained notoriety — and not the good kind — for the mob violence lynching of African Americans. A 1906 Salisbury lynching and mutilation of three black men, pulled out of jail and hanged by an angry mob before they were ever tried in a court of law, stands as one of the darkest days in local history.

The days when lynchings were commonplace gained renewed attention this past week when the Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery, Ala., released a report putting the number of “racial terror lynchings” in the South at 3,959 victims between 1877 and 1950.

Why bring up, relive and put before the public again a terrible part of the country’s history that for the most part happened a century ago? In trying to give context to its research on lynchings, which took five years, the EJI said it was essential “that we begin to discuss our history of racial injustice more soberly and to understand the implications of our past in addressing the challenges of the present.”

Make no mistake. The lynchings of black Americans were terrorist attacks. They were, as the EJI said, “violent and public acts of torture that traumatized black people throughout the country and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials.”

Americans like to believe something such as state-sponsored terrorism could never take place in a democratic society, but it did — and it does — whenever society as a whole and its local, state and federal leaders conveniently look the other way and ignore racially or ethnically motivated injustices.

Why bring up something such as the history of lynchings in the South? Something so depraved and unjust will never happen again here or anywhere else in the United States, right?

If you believe that, you haven’t learned much from history or the dark side of humankind.