AFTER THE CHANTS
Just a week or so after Black History Month concluded, the civil rights movement experienced a special commemoration. Tens of thousands thronged to Selma, Alabama for a historic march across the Edmond Pettus Bridge, marking March 7, 1965, the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday when armed police officers attacked peaceful marchers attempting to walk to Montgomery, the state capital. More than ten thousand people were attacked in 1965, including Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), whose powerful eloquence puts the entire protest movement in context.
President Obama was there, delivering one of the best speeches of his presidency, correctly asserting that there has been much change in the last fifty years. Not only is the President correct, but also his speech reminds us that we spit on our ancestors when we say that things are the same as they were fifty years ago. Still, the YouTube recording depicting members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon at Oklahoma University gleefully engaging in racist chants, was disgusting, chilling and informative. The fraternity, whose mantra is “The True Gentleman”, was founded before the Civil War and brags of its founding in the “Deep South”. One of its early twentieth century handbooks limits its membership to those of the Caucasian race. While many in these United States have moved at least a bit from the country’s racist foundations, the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, at least at Oklahoma University, has not much moved from theirs.
OU President David Boren was absolutely right to remove Sigma Alpha Epsilon from the campus. I also agree with his decision to expel the “ringleaders” in the chant, Parker Rice and Levi Pettit. Will there be consequences for the rest of those on the bus, those who were enthusiastic in participating in the chants? Who birthed these young people? Who raised them? Who instilled no sense of right and wrong in them? Who let them know that lynching is not so funny as to be included in an already-racist chant?
What kind of history is taught at Oklahoma University? Do American history classes at OU touch on our nation’s history of lynching? Alternatively, are students required to take African American history (which really are American history) classes? Has the fact that people in the United States pointedly ignore our collective history of lynching empower young fraternity members to treat lynching casually. As reported in the New York Times in early February, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama, inventoried the nearly 4000 lynchings that took place in a dozen Southern states between 1877 and 1950. Their report showed a pattern of terrorist intimidation directed at African American people.
These lynchings were an institutional attempt to keep black people in our place. We were lynched because white men feared interracial sex (civil rights leader Ida B. Wells wrote that white women’s virtue was an excuse to cover the real reason for lynching, an assertion that caused angry whites to put a price on her head). We were lynched for challenging the status quo, for refusing to yield a sidewalk to a white person, or failing to address a white person by an appropriate title. We were lynched when we were accused, but not convicted, of crimes as petty as minor theft. We were lynched when we were organized and protested mistreatment or demanded economic equity. We were lynched because we had too much money.
White folks treated these lynchings as celebratory affairs with, according to EJI, vendors selling food, and photographers producing postcards of lynching victims. So-called “decent” white people (early twentieth century version of Parker Rice and Levi Pettit) posed for pictures with lynched bodies. On some occasions, they had their children and young neighbors pose with them. These “Christian” people came together to watch black people tortured, mutilated, dismembered, and burned. They vied for their body parts – toes, fingers, bones, and even genitals -- as souvenirs, sometimes bidding on them.
Oklahoma University President David Boren might turn the Sigma Alpha Epsilon incident into a teaching moment if he were willing to insist that all students at OU learn about African American history, either through including a required class on race and resistance in the South, or by expanding and requiring that all students take an African American history class. He might take it a step further by establishing an internship program with OU students and EJI, and providing a significant contribution to the organization. Finally, as a condition of reinstatement to OU as students in good stating, Parker Rice and Levi Pettit could be required to spend a semester or year working with EJI to help document lynchings through the monuments EJI would like to erect at the sites of lynchings in the South.
It is easy to decry the ignorance that fueled the ugly racist chants that have now come to light. It would be far more substantive if President Boren were to use this opportunity to encourage (or require) his community to learn why casual references to lynchings are so heinous and unacceptable.