Bearing Witness: No longer lynching, but still taking time

“Incarceration is sustained, lifetime lynching, meant to discard your soul and make a shell of you in plain life. Make you into your monster self, the beast that comes out when you are forced to survive in the absence of love and safety. Never mind that most of us come broken and traumatized, we still are no longer worth our own humanity. We are a criminal. We need punishment and to be rehabilitated. We need shame and exclusion. We are not worthy of control of our own lives; we are hopeless and evil. We are not individuals or of a womb or a family. We are not absent from anywhere else; because we are here, we simply non-exist. The world is better without us. In this society we are taught our crimes are the summations of our lives and define the limits of our possibilities. Our only potential is to harm and destroy.”  

– Junauda Petrus

By John Cole Vodicka

As someone who is researching lynchings in northeast Georgia and who also regularly attends criminal court proceedings in the Athens Clarke-County courthouse, I could not help but reflect on the above quote from Junauda Petrus. a writer and creative activist who lives in Minneapolis. For me, incarceration and lynching have always been ways to discard the souls of African Americans and make a shell of them in plain life.

It’s astonishing how many lynchings happened in our country’s history where the Black victims were taken from jail cells to be publicly and grotesquely executed by mobs of white men, some of whom were often law officers in those communities. Here briefly are the ones I have come to know about. Each person was lynched less than 30 miles from Athens.

Last month, on February 16, about 50 people gathered on the steps of the Athens-Clarke County courthouse to remember a man named John Lee Eberhart. Exactly 100 years earlier, on February 16, 1921, Mr. Eberhart, a 25-year-old African American farm worker, was taken by force from the Clarke County jail – then located on the top floor of our present-day courthouse – by a mob of white men intent on killing him. Indeed, after removing Mr. Eberhart from the jail, the mob brought him to Barber Creek just north of Watkinsville. There, near the site where the murder of a young white woman had occurred earlier that day, a crowd of an estimated 3,000 people watched as the young Black man was tied to a rail, set afire and slowly burned to death. No one was ever prosecuted for the lynching.

Elsewhere in this part of our state, over a span 60 years, the Black men named below were also lynched by white mobs after being jailed for crimes they had only been accused of committing:

Ross Griffeth, was arrested on July 9, 1887, and taken to the Oglethorpe County jail. A mob seized him at the jail, tied a rope around his neck, dragged him along a road, beat him senseless, then broke his neck and left him hanging from a tree one mile from Lexington. No one was ever held responsible for the lynching.

Brown Washington was locked up in the Morgan County jail on February 27, 1890. He was accused of killing a nine-year-old white girl. A group of white men met at the Madison Town Hall and decided to take Brown from the jail and deliver him to a mob that waited at a nearby telephone pole. Brown was hung. The mob left a note on the telephone pole. “Our women and children will be protected,” it read.

None in the mob was identified.

In the early morning of June 29, 1905, a mob of 50-75 white men marched down Main Street to the Oconee County jail in Watkinsville. Thinking they’d have to break into the jail cells, the mob had kidnapped a local blacksmith to bring along with them. There was no need though. The jailer gave the mob the keys and nine men were removed from the jail. Outside, each prisoner was then chained to fence posts one block away. The mob opened fire–as many as four dozen volleys were shot into the victims. Rich Robinson, Lewis Robinson, Gene Yerby, Claude Elder, Rich Allen, Bob Harris, Lon Aycock and 20-year-old Sandy Price were killed. All but Aycock were African Americans. One of the nine, Joe Patterson, somehow survived the massacre. Despite the fact that no one in the mob wore a mask to hide their identity, the deaths were attributed to “hands of persons unknown.”

Tom Allen and Joe Watts were lynched by a mob in Walton County. On the night of June 27, 1911, just hours before Mr. Allen was due to stand trial in Monroe, a mob took him off the train in Social Circle after authorities transported him from an Atlanta jail, where he had been held for safekeeping. The mob took their prisoner from the depot to a spot a few miles north of town. Mr. Allen was hung by the railroad tracks. Riled up after their kill, the mob traveled the 10 miles north into Monroe, where they stormed the jail and seized Joe Watts, brought him outside to a tree near the Walton County courthouse, and hanged him as well. No one in the mob was brought to justice.

On April 11, 1936 Lent Shaw, a Black farmer and property-owner who lived with his family near Colbert, was arrested and charged with “threatening” two white women. He was captured by a Madison County posse and brought to the county jail in Danielsville. When a mob of whites gathered outside the jail demanding Mr. Shaw be handed over to them, the sheriff managed to secret his prisoner to Atlanta, where, for the next two weeks, Mr. Shaw was locked up for safekeeping. Then, during the early morning hours of April 28 Mr. Shaw was transported to Royston, near Danielsville, where he was jailed until his trial was to begin later that day. Another white mob formed, stormed the Royston jail and captured Mr. Shaw. They drove him back to Colbert, near the site of the alleged incident with the women, tied him to a tree and fired dozens of bullets into his body. A gruesome photograph exists showing some of the mob proudly posing in front of Mr. Shaw’s lifeless body. Still, no one was ever identified and prosecuted for the killing.

Roger Malcom, a Walton County sharecropper, got into a beef with his white boss man. The overseer was stabbed, not fatally. Malcom was arrested and jailed in Monroe. The stabbing happened on July 14, 1946. White folks in Walton County began plotting. On July 25, 1946, a white farmer posted $600 bond for Mr. Malcom with the understanding that he’d have to work on his farm to pay him back. Mr. Malcom left the jail in the farmer’s vehicle, along with his wife Dorothy Malcom, and friends, George and Mae Dorsey. Thinking they were going back to Roger Malcom’s tenant shack, the farmer’s car stopped at the Moore’s Ford Bridge on the Apalachee River. As if on cue a mob of several dozen were already gathered as if expecting Roger Malcom to be in the car. The mob seized Mr. Malcom and then, sensing they’d been recognized by the other three Blacks in the car, pulled them out. Each of the four were tied up and shot to death. When their bodies were turned over to the African American funeral home in Monroe they were practically unrecognizable. This lynching drew national attention and state and federal investigations ensued. Even though numerous men were identified as members of the lynch mob, no one was ever charged, indicted, prosecuted or punished for this quadruple lynching.

Here’s where I’m going with all this:Let me quote from the Equal Justice Initiative’s introduction to its publication, “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror”: “Most critically, lynching reinforced a legacy of racial inequality that has never been adequately addressed in America. The administration of criminal justice in particular is tangled with the history of lynching in profound and important ways that continue to contaminate the integrity and fairness of the justice system.”

Today, we don’t find mobs of white people storming jailhouses to seize prisoners and beat, maim or kill them. We don’t find Black men (or women) who’ve been arrested in Clarke County, leased out to farmers or businesses as convict laborers to pay off their debts or fines. We don’t have members of the Ku Klux Klan sitting on juries, or prosecuting, even defending, African American defendants, or overt white supremacists sitting on the bench. We’ve evolved, we might say. We might even go so far as to insist that our “legacy of racial inequality” has been “adequately addressed” in Athens-Clarke County.

I wonder though. When we look at the weekly jail stats published in this e-newsletter, what do we think when we see that three out of every four persons in our jail are African American? And that two of every three persons arrested and booked into the jail each week are people of color? How do we square with the fact that while nearly 80% of ACC’s criminal defendants who appear in courtrooms are Black, whereas 90% of the court officers are white? How do we digest the data that tells us African American defendants receive longer prison terms and outlandish probation sentences compared to their white sisters and brothers?

Do we believe that our community’s system of criminal justice is fair and racially unbiased when we allow George F., a 72-year-old Black man to languish in jail because we have no place for him to safely live? Or when we set the stage – under the guise of due process and equal justice – for Black individuals like Freddie C.Sally Mae T.Brice C.Justin C. and Shamon P. to be relegated to mental hospitals for long periods of time, if not for the rest of their lives? What is it with us? Is it, as the Equal Justice Initiative maintains, that this narrative of racial difference that lynching dramatized continues to haunt us?

No, the mobs are not storming our jail with torches, crowbars and rope today. But the legacy of racial inequality persists in our criminal legal system. Let’s admit it. Let’s own it. Let’s continue to work to change it.

As of Sunday evening:

  • 360 women and men were confined in the Clarke County jail. 
  • 257 of this total are African American.  
  • There are also 12 Latinx and 1 Asian American behind bars.  
  • 34 women are locked away in our jail.
  • One 72-year-old–George F. – was locked up, along with one 67-year-old; one 65-year-old; three 64-year-olds; two 61-year-olds; and two 60-year-olds. All told, 55 people (16%) of those in confinement were 50 years old or older.
  • There were five 18-year-olds and four 17-year-olds in jail.
  • Over the last seven days local law enforcement arrested and booked 88 people into the jail, 55 of whom were BIPOC.    
  • The oldest person arrested this past week was 87-year-old Frances C., a white woman charged with misdemeanor battery.  Ms. C. spent three hours in jail on Thursday night before being granted an Unsecured Judicial Release (no cash) bond. Ms. C. was born in 1934, the same year Adolf Hitler declared himself Germany’s Fuhrer. 
  • The youngest person arrested and jailed was 18.  

John Vodicka is a member of Oconee Street United Methodist Church, an organizer of Athens Area Courtwatch Project and a leader of Oconee Street UMC’s Racial Justice Task Force. He publishes his observations in a weekly column called Bearing Witness.