February 1, 2019 Blog

Guest Op-Ed: Legacies of Hatred: The New Normal?

By Dr. Brian K. Clardy, Associate Professor of History at Murray State University; Executive Committee Member, Calloway County Democratic Party


On October 3, 1908, several members of the Walker family were murdered by a bloodthirsty mob in Hickman, Kentucky. A well to do African American family living in the Jackson Purchase area, their home was surrounded and set ablaze by a clandestine organization called “The Night Riders.”  When the Walkers tried to escape, they were gunned down and left to die in the cold of that terror-filled autumn night. A few members survived to tell their harrowing tale, but no one was brought to justice for their deaths.

The lynching of the Walker family was part of an all too familiar story in the history of race relations in the United States.  An African American could be accused of an unforgivable affront (e.g. “being uppity” or “acting suspicious”) and thus targeted for summary public execution. These extra-legal murders often had a carnival atmosphere where witnesses would wear their “Sunday best” and bring picnic baskets while a black body dangled from the end of a rope, or was a twisted smoldering corpse. As was the custom, professional photographers took pictures of the deed with smiling lynch mob participants with the expectation that there would be no legal recompense for a clear case of cold-blooded murder.

After all, no jury in America would convict a white person for murdering some “uppity Black” who had what was coming to them.

For many decades following that “nadir” in race relations, Americans have tried to bury that sordid tale in the American story.  With the great Civil Rights gains of the 1950s and 1960s, those bloody tales of woe were relegated to what happened “way back when.”

Over the last few years, however, a climate of hatred, recrimination, racial resentment, and violence has resurfaced. This spirit of antagonism and intolerance threatens to engulf our nation as it had so many years ago.

Whether it is microaggressions in the workplace, places of business, or on social media, we are confronted with the legacies of hatred and bigotry that this nation has yet to fully address.

If our Twenty-First Century, post-modern America is going to avoid being sucked into the vortex of its past sins and transgressions, there are steps that need to be taken right away.

First, we must demand that our leaders on the national, state and local levels create conditions in which bigotry and prejudice are not tolerated or encouraged.

Whether these are hateful musings of the President of the United States or the head of the local PTA, our leaders need to set a standard in the body politic that is inclusive and welcoming. This does not mean that the government has to enforce false conformity, nor does it call upon us to adhere to a cynical form of political correctness. However, it does mean that the official organizations of government establish a zero-tolerance policy that uproots and destroys the seeds hatred and discrimination before it can germinate and grow.

Second, we must demand that our faith-based institutions, take the lead in articulating an ethic that discourages racism and labels it what it is: a sin against the Divine. By whatever name the Divine is called, a common thread among most organized religions is the equality of the human race and our common destiny. This means that organizations of varying faiths and hues must form needed coalitions to be the bulwark against intolerance and intransigence.

We need dialogue, not confrontation.

We need less arguing about petty differences and more cooperation in finding common ground.

Finally, our institutions of learning must take the lead to teach the entirety of the American story (good and bad) so that young people will see themselves and their actions against the larger backdrop of history. That they study the past in order to avoid its often-bloody lessons. No matter how disturbing the story or how bitter the outcome of the narrative, our young people need to know in no uncertain terms that our society cannot afford to go backward. That they must recognize each other’s humanity and acknowledge that racial violence is wrong should never be encouraged. Period. Full stop.

Only in this way can we send the message that our nation will go forward in a spirit of multicultural and multiethnic cooperation. In the process, we can bring our society into a new era of peace combined with the imperative of social justice. Together, we must pull ourselves back from the brink of a terrible social precipice upon which we currently sit.