The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP

The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP

The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP

The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP

Synopsis

In 1916, a crowd of cheering spectators watched as Jesse Washington, a retarded black boy, was publicly tortured, lynched, and burned on the town square of Waco, accused and convicted in a kangaroo court. Patricia Bernstein has reconstructed the details of not only the crime but also its aftermath.

Excerpt

In April 1995, Lawrence Johnson, black city councilman from Waco, Texas, visited Memphis to attend the National Conference of Black Mayors. While he was there, he took the time to see the National Civil Rights Museum. Built around the remains of the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in 1968, the museum is designed, like the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., to take the visitor on a journey. The museum leads visitors through the history of the abuse heaped on black Americans over more than three hundred years and the long, grinding struggle to win equal treatment. Visitors see the tarnished hulk of a burned Freedom Riders bus from the 1960s and a complete re-creation of a Woolworth’s lunch counter where young black students protested segregation by “sitting in” while they were beaten, taunted, and splattered with ketchup and mustard. One can even step into an actual Montgomery, Alabama, city bus and hear a recording of a bus driver angrily ordering black riders to “move to the rear.”

But in one corner of the museum, in a display about the lynching of almost five thousand Americans, most of them black, between 1880 and 1930, Lawrence Johnson spotted a photograph that sears the sight of the viewer. The picture Lawrence Johnson saw is infamous among historians who study early-twentieth-century America. It has appeared in many books about lynching and in at least one history of Waco. This photo is still not well known to most Americans, though it should be as familiar as the flag raising on Iwo Jima in 1945, the image of the Hindenburg airship bursting into flame over Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937, or the Pulitzer Prize–winning photograph of a naked, weeping Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm bomb in 1972. The picture Lawrence Johnson saw, taken by Waco commercial photographer Fred Gildersleeve, is one of the few extant photographs of a lynching caught in progress rather than after the fact.

At first, the picture appears to be nothing more than a group of hundreds of men crowded into a city square, almost all of them wearing the flat-crowned . . .

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