By Albert Turner Goins
As a young man, maybe even a teenager, or at least by the age that I was old enough to understand some of the psychological complexity of racism that led white Americans to historically see Black men as threats, my late mother, who grew up in the Tuskegee Institute, taught me about the great Tuskegee sociologist, Monroe Work.
She didn’t preface her stories with the warnings that many African American parents teach their children today; yet, in retrospect, I can see that this may have been among her reasons for teaching me about Mr. Work and his study of lynching. At the time, the brutal deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were far in the future. Lynching, it seemed, was far in the past.
But what I learned was that sociologist Monroe Work was the Tuskegee academic and researcher who tracked, recorded and published the number of lynchings in the nation each year until his death in 1945. Mr. Work, who was trained at the University of Chicago, was brought to Tuskegee by Booker T. Washington In 1908.
Once at Tuskegee, Mr. Work founded the Department of Records and Research. Work and Booker Washington plainly understood the most essential and rudimentary requirement for sociological study: First, you must have raw data.
I doubt that white America was collecting meaningful data about crimes against Black America in the early 20th century, so the job was left to Monroe Work.
Even now, in an age of computer-assisted collection, there is an ongoing struggle to convince our governments, state and federal, to collect easily available data on police excessive force incidents against African American citizens. The passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act might meaningfully aid this process. But that alone will not be enough.
I surmise that Monroe Work knew a basic social scientific truth: Without any raw data easily accessible for statistical evaluation, any argument for new policy initiatives becomes too easily refutable.
But he likely knew something else. It is the people themselves who must be always vigilant. It is the people who must reflect the conditions of the times.
In 1912, when Mr. Work began publishing the Negro Year Book, he published yearly state-by-state statistics for lynchings in the United States. He made the facts known to a public that urgently needed to understand the precarious nature of American life for Black Americans.
According to the website BlackPast.org, Mr. Work published 66 lynching reports. How he accomplished this might itself be the subject of a book — for lynchings were often not done out in the open. They were carried out as surreptitious counterfeits of justice — albeit some were done in macabre, carnival style, with photographs and postcards that were taken as grotesque memorials of murder.
But we now should see we plainly deceive ourselves if we assume that lynching has truly ended. As civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson has so piercingly observed: "I don’t believe slavery ended in 1865, I believe it just evolved.” Likewise lynching has evolved.
For if by “lynching” we mean a form of nearly instant extrajudicial punishment imposed merely for the act of being, then the crisis we face today is a mere continuation of the earlier crisis of lynching.
And whether in this century or the last, one of the messages carried with each lynching was an unwritten declaration to the survivors of violence: "Remember this in case you thought you were free..."
Attorney Stevenson, in an important effort that is as much spiritual as it is historical and sociological, has recalled this legacy through his efforts to call America to a place of reconciliation about lynching and the violence it has so willingly countenanced in its former brutal manifestation.
Attorney Stevenson’s Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Ala. stands only miles from Tuskegee; perhaps in some form reconsecrating the foundation stones of justice set by Monroe Work.
Its existence also teaches us that the violence we face today may not be found in an isolated Southern grove. It may not be marked by the horrors of burning skin on a Sunday picnic with souvenir photographs and grinning smiles. Or broken necks hanged by burning ropes. It is not left as strange fruit hanging on poplar trees.
Instead it is as ubiquitous as traffic stops or street encounters by American law enforcement. Its only real similarity to old-style lynching is that it is as unpredictable as lightning in a summer storm.
However, if we view the violence Black Americans face today in historical isolation, we risk becoming insensitive to a larger condition of ongoing historical jeopardy.
As we watch the repeated showings of video-graphic recordings of brutal crimes masked as official acts — outbursts of violence under color of law by those who once swore to protect and to serve — we must see it and ourselves in an historical context. We must understand our history to confront this new American dilemma.
For unlike the old-time lynchings which in their day were separated from any real pretense of lawfulness — thereby unmixed by what Lincoln called the “base alloy” of hypocrisy — these official killings are now inextricably connected to our basic social institutions and our agencies of law enforcement.
By this, they are made all the more pernicious because in order to root them out we must be ready, willing, and able to confront and to prosecute our own agents of public safety. No longer do we see unofficial acts of violence but instead a rising wave of official brutality.
But, they are historically linked by a deeper unwillingness of large portions of American society to acknowledge the independent dignity and rights of their fellow citizens.
It is now this prima facie conflict between the authority of our ministers of law and their acts of brutality upon which we too often founder; but it is in this that we must measure our true commitment to justice.
If we fail in this test, by shrinking from the demands of justice, we dishonor the highest calling of American justice and its most enduring principle — that even our ministers of justice cannot be above the law.
But to honor that principle, Americans must likewise confront that ancient and seemingly inescapable conundrum of civilization: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” Who shall guard the guardians?
The answer is that in a democracy, it is the duty of all of us to guard those with power by raising up courageous and incessant demands for accountability from those guardians. For only by unending vigilance, by developing enhanced structures of transparency, can we keep power from overwhelming justice — from overwhelming us all.
Knowing this, understanding this, learning this, we must, if it is possible, also learn to be tirelessly indignant and alert in our calls for justice.
By remembering this obligation, we can honor the historic legacy of the labors of Monroe Work, Ida B. Wells, and others like them — for by this alone can we be assured that we will march forward.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act may be signed and policing may ultimately be reformed, but we nevertheless will always need ordinary people to remember our painful legacy of lynching. We will need ordinary people to know and remember each new injustice — no matter how painful or troubling.
For if we abandon this troublous knowledge, we will be unable to chart America’s progress towards justice or to fairly determine whether we are indeed going backward or forward.
If we do not chart this course with the map of history — or if we forget the path Monroe Work once tirelessly measured out — then the horizon of justice will likely fade and become only a mirage. If we fail to place George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Eric Garner in the historical context of our long path toward justice, we will never see any horizon of justice.
If we risk forgetting, we may never learn the painful lessons of a history we thought had long ago been buried by time.
Albert Turner Goins is a lawyer in Minnesota who practices criminal and civil rights litigation. He’s a longtime former member of the ACLU-MN board.