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Elizabeth Cook: A difficult subject

Words matter. Choose them carefully.

That principle came home to me last week while preparing a story on the Truth, Healing and Reconciliation service planned here on Aug. 6. The service will commemorate the 1906 lynching of three men accused of a family’s murder. Without trial, Nease Gillespie, John Gillespie and Jack Dillingham were hanged.

Lynching is not a topic to approach lightly. The subjects we would rather avoid, though, often are the very things that need to be discussed.

Susan Barringer Wells wrote a book about the dreadful summer of 1906, “A Game Called Salisbury.” A descendant of the Lyerlys, she encountered resistance to her conclusions. The depth of her research and unblinking examination of the times are undeniable, however.

White politicians played up to distrust and fear of blacks, she said. “Propaganda was the igniter, and newspapers provided politicians with the consummate kindling for the flames that followed,” she writes.

Historian Dr. Claude Clegg, a UNC professor, lived in Salisbury as a child and has also written a book, “Troubled Ground: A Tale of Murder, Lynching, and Reckoning in the New South.” Clegg, too, says the press and politicians whipped up racial animus. People didn’t always recognize when political leaders used overblown rhetoric to get votes, and they still don’t, Clegg said in an interview. “It can lead to tragedy when people act on things they hear from above.”

All the more reason to respect people who approach this difficult subject in a spirit of openness and reconciliation.

The descendants of one of the lynched men, Nease Gillespie, are leading by example. They did not ask for this commemoration, but as they say in a piece here, they hope that it will have a positive impact. May it open dialogue about both the past and the present.    

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