May 18, 2006– Vol. 41, No. 40

City asked to apologize for ‘Waco Horror’

Angela K. Brown

WACO, Texas — On the 90th anniversary of a lynching that became known as the “Waco Horror,” nearly 100 people gathered outside the county courthouse for the reading of a community group’s resolution denouncing lynchings in the 1800s and early 1900s.

The Community Race Relations Coalition, founded in 2000 to improve racial relations in Waco, wants the city and county governments to adopt the resolution, which apologizes for the “failure of past leadership to uphold and defend lynching victims’ most basic rights to life, liberty, and due process under the laws of our cherished democracy.”

“Reconciliation is one of the greatest things we can do,” coalition member Ed Bell told the gathering last Monday. “When you find it in your heart to apologize, then and only then can you begin the healing process,” said Bell, a former black athlete who played for the NFL’s New York Jets from 1969-77.

In Nona Baker’s family, the story of her great-uncle’s 1905 lynching was told through the generations in whispers or hushed voices, never uttered in public for fear of retaliation.

Sank Majors, a 20-year-old black man, was convicted of raping a white woman and sentenced to death after jurors deliberated for just three minutes. A judge agreed with the defense attorney’s claims of improper jury instructions and granted a new trial.

But two days later a mob of several hundred broke into the jail, dragged Majors away, tied a rope around his neck and forced him off a horse on top of a bridge. As his body was hanging, the crowd cut off his fingers and clothes.

“When my grandmother told us the story, I could tell it really hurt her to talk about it,” said Baker, 60, whose family maintains Majors’ innocence. “I’m in favor of the resolution because we’re not trying to blame anybody. We know that nobody is alive now that did this (lynching), but that’s part of Waco’s history that needs to be acknowledged. It should be an official apology from the city and county.”

The City Council and McLennan County Commissioners Court were scheduled to discuss the resolution at their separate meetings last Tuesday.

Last year, two new books revived discussions about lynchings: William Carrigan’s “The Making of a Lynching Culture: Violence and Vigilantism in Central Texas 1836-1916” and Patricia Bernstein’s “The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP.”

On May 15, 1916, a crowd of about 15,000 — half of Waco’s population — cheered as a mob dragged a black 17-year-old from the courthouse, cut him with knives and dangled him over a fire. Jesse Washington had been convicted of killing a white woman who had been raped.

It was one of the few lynchings photographed in progress. Newspapers referred to it as the “Waco Horror” after the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s magazine published an article and the rare pictures, now displayed in the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn.

Of the more than 4,700 lynchings nationwide in that era, about 500 were in Texas.

Coalition members decided to address the lynchings and what reparation to seek after Bernstein, whose book also details the 1905 Majors lynching, held a community forum last summer.

Then the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce’s 2005 strategic economic development plan recommended commemorating the Washington lynching to improve the city’s image and soothe tensions between some community groups.

Other cities’ groups have worked to address similar racial events. In 2000 a Tulsa, Okla., commission recommended monetary reparations for survivors and descendants of the 1921 race riot, in which a white mob burned the prosperous black business district after clashing with blacks outside the courthouse where a black man accused of assaulting a white woman was being held.

In 2003 about 150 black survivors and about 300 descendants of those who lost property or their lives in the riot sued the city of Tulsa, police and the state. But lower courts ruled the statute of limitations had run out, and last year the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear their appeal.

Later this month a commission in Greensboro, N.C., is to release recommendations on how the community can make amends after five people were gunned down during a 1979 “Death to the (Ku Klux) Klan” rally.

The painful legacy remains because the lynchings were a means of social control, said Jo Welter, a Community Race Relations Coalition member.

“When someone lynches a man in front of his son, it does teach them their place: not to mix, not to upset,” said Welter, who is white. “What we are addressing is the mob lynching mentality. How can 15,000 people come to a point where they cheer every time a 17-year-old boy is lowered into the fire?”

So far the coalition, whose population is about half white and one-fourth black, has obtained more than 800 signatures from residents supporting the resolution. Members say leaders should publicly acknowledge and apologize for the lynchings because lawmen allowed mobs to drag away the black men from jails or didn’t try to stop them, thus denying victims their due legal process.

Opponents say leaders shouldn’t apologize for something that happened before they were born.

Mayor Virginia DuPuy, who is white, said she believes the council will adopt a resolution condemning the lynchings but isn’t sure if will have the same words — such as “apologize” — as the coalition’s document.

“We’re very interested and serious in addressing this issue,” DuPuy said. “This is too important an issue to start being careless with the words we use.”

Lester Gibson, the only black county commissioner, has said he doesn’t expect the county to approve the resolution. In 2002, the group rejected a similar resolution Gibson drafted after officials restoring a courthouse mural about Waco’s history refused to paint over or post an explanatory plaque near the image of a noose hanging from a tree.

According to a recent Waco Tribune-Herald online poll, 80 percent of the 3,200 votes were “no,” that a community apology for lynchings was not necessary.

But Welter said the resolution has broad-based support and that the 50 coalition members have obtained hundreds of signatures from people who want the city and county to adopt it.

If the city or county does not adopt the resolution, or adopts a different one without an apology, many in the community will remain hurt, Baker said.

“The first step to reconciliation is admitting there was a problem,” Baker said. “Just the terror of it was something that hung over the black community, and not talking about it didn’t make it go away.”

Rabbi Gordon Fuller, one of the 14 people who read a paragraph of the 800-word resolution this past Monday, said a community apology is appropriate.

“By apologizing we are sorry for what happened; it doesn’t mean we are guilty of the action itself,” said Fuller, who is white. “I’m more concerned with education and how we move forward. Hatred is a taught behavior, and we have a responsibility to teach tolerance instead.”

(Associated Press)



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