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The pieces are falling into place faster than I thought. I'm lacking maybe two pieces of information to put Cookie Thornton's suicide terror attack on the Kirkwood City Hall into perspective. Whether I get those pieces or not, no later than Monday, I'll have something to say about it. But before I do, there's one more piece of non-Kirkwood history that will help you understand it better, and I can make that column a lot more concise and coherent if I don't have to explain it in an aside.

If you studied American history prior to about 2000, even if you studied it at the college level, you were almost certainly taught something wrong, because the truth was one of America's last, best-kept secrets. And it has to do with lynching. You see, if you studied before then, one of the things you were told about lynching was that lynching was usually motivated by anger, by hatred, by exaggerated fear of "impurity," by anger over Reconstruction, by irrational over-reaction to minor black crimes. But then a historian made a lucky find, one that unlocked a whole field of study. A set of records, more or less accidentally compiled, gave us a longer and more comprehensive list of lynchings than we had. A very macabre set of records. It turns out that hundreds of lynchings between roughly 1860 and 1950, some of which we didn't even know had happened, had offered souvenir postcards for sale the next day. And among the very few people who knew that, any more, were a few collectors of those grisly souvenirs.

When one of those collections fell into the hands of a professional historian, it opened up a whole large statistical universe of lynching incidents, each of which came with a location, one or more names, dozens or hundreds of faces that can be identified, and importantly, a date. That made it possible to research not just a few lynchings, but hundreds of them, and to compile statistics on what had happened before and after them. And the terrible, but fascinating, bit of secret history turned out to be the immediate aftermath of over half of those lynchings. Over half of those lynchings turned out to involve black men who owned their own successful farms and/or businesses. And the day after the lynchings, those farms and businesses were sold to white neighbors, in closed auctions, for pennies on the dollar, and the surviving real heirs were run out of town. And in a terrifyingly large number of those cases, historians were able to show one or more of the following facts. The buyer was the person who made the initial accusation against the victim. And the buyer was a relative of one or more of the following: the mayor, the chief of police, the local minister and/or the municipal judge.

I want you to get this through your head, and never forget it. Lynching was not a hate crime. Lynching was an economic crime. In cities all over America, the best kept secret of 80 years' worth of white politicians was that if they wanted to steal a black man's property, they could arrange to have that man murdered, take his property for little or nothing, give it to whoever they wanted to have it, and know with 100% certainty that no police officer would arrest them, no prosecutor would indict, no jury would convict, no judge would sentence.

You've heard me go on and on about the American Dream: the discovery, by 1630s Puritans, that irregardless of any spiritual benefit, if you got as much education as you could afford, stayed out of trouble, worked hard, spent as little as possible on pleasures, and invested that money in three and only three things (a home, a business, and education for your kids) that it would make each generation of your family an entire social class wealthier than the generation before. That you could even have things go wrong, along the way, and if you at least tried to follow that formula, you could be very nearly 100% confident that at the very least, you and your children would get to keep what you have. What I did not clearly enough footnote that with is: "Some exceptions may apply." 80 years worth of black men, in many but not all towns in America, learned that this offer was not extended to them. They learned that if they stayed in school, stayed out of trouble, worked hard, bought and improved a home, started and invested in their own business ... some white politician and his less-successful-than-you businessman friend would come along and steal it. And as likely as not, kill you if you weren't willing to let them have it for whatever pittance they offered you, although the thefts continued long after the killings stop. And the courts and the cops still mostly don't care.

Ever since I learned that, I haven't marveled that so many black men have given up on the American Dream, choosing to instead gamble on insane long-shot professions like music or pro sports, or turning to crime. I've marveled that so many of them haven't.


( 41 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 9th, 2008 06:55 am (UTC)
Lynching was not a hate crime. Lynching was an economic crime.

It needn't be thought of as either/or. It can be both/and.

Jealousy and greed combined with a hatred of the successful black business owner and his race make for a powerful entitlement complex.
Feb. 9th, 2008 06:56 am (UTC)
I have actually heard of this happening...but its still cool that you bring it to light. I'm gonna link this. Thanks !
Feb. 9th, 2008 09:01 am (UTC)
Fascinating. Thanks!
Feb. 9th, 2008 09:07 am (UTC)
Impressively argued. I hadn't realised it was the more economically successful who were disproportionately attacked, and the property redistribution, but this is convincing.
Feb. 9th, 2008 09:47 am (UTC)
I thought of him as an less inspired Marvin Heemeyer.
Feb. 9th, 2008 11:58 am (UTC)
Not an unfair comparison. But it doesn't answer the question of why they went out of their way to pick on this particular guy. Truthfully, until I get one or two more pieces of information, all I could do is speculate.
Feb. 9th, 2008 01:14 pm (UTC)
Do you have any links to more details of what the town was doing to steal this guy's property rights? I haven't looked deeply into the story.
Feb. 9th, 2008 07:16 pm (UTC)
No, and those are the details I'm waiting for. At this point we can already tell that he was singled out for enforcement of rules and laws that are almost never enforced on any other small business; the biggest remaining question is why. We do know from his family's statements why they think he was targeted, but I want more details about the business itself, and about the very first interactions between Thornton and city hall, before I go forward. If possible, anyway. And to my great relief, at least some of the local reporters appear to be digging for just that part of the story.
Feb. 9th, 2008 03:47 pm (UTC)
At least Heemeyer didn't kill anyone. (I don't think he'd have the incipient folk hero status he does if he had.)
Feb. 9th, 2008 12:15 pm (UTC)
Thanks. Do you have a link for the research? If so, I'll pass it around.

an article about a recent lynching in India that pretty much follows the economic model, though I agree with flewellyn that it's hatred-amplified greed.
Feb. 9th, 2008 07:24 pm (UTC)
Allen et al, Without Sanctuary.
Feb. 9th, 2008 01:28 pm (UTC)
Wasn't it also economics which served as the catalyst for the events in Rwanda, but the ethnic element was the fuel for the fire.
I doubt it was just economics, otherwise shouldn't there be data for whites lynching whites?
Feb. 9th, 2008 03:57 pm (UTC)
You can only get the 'town' behind you if you're in the majority and they're a minority of some sort - black, female, weird, whatever.
Feb. 9th, 2008 01:42 pm (UTC)
Holy fuck, it's Salem all over again.
Feb. 9th, 2008 03:26 pm (UTC)
That's what I was thinking.
Feb. 11th, 2008 06:55 pm (UTC)
I was thinking that too.
Feb. 9th, 2008 03:02 pm (UTC)
One of these days, someone from the media is going to read your blog. Someone pure and true.

And all Hell is going to break loose.

By the way, I still have that composite PDF of "Christians in the Hands of an Angry God". Any word on whether it's ready to be rolled out to the non-connected masses?
Feb. 9th, 2008 03:43 pm (UTC)
I think Harper's would totally publish it, given some reformatting to make it one big piece.

...or maybe publish it over five months, I think that would actually be better.
Feb. 9th, 2008 06:58 pm (UTC)
I've already put it all together, with footnotes and references, but it's being reviewed by some folks to make sure it's ready.
Feb. 9th, 2008 10:31 pm (UTC)
Well, that's pretty awesome.
Feb. 9th, 2008 03:54 pm (UTC)
That was pretty much what was behind the Salem "witch" killings, too; amazing what you can get away with if you're in the majority and have a well-placed relative (not that that's any surprise).
Feb. 9th, 2008 04:52 pm (UTC)
Holy fuck.
Feb. 9th, 2008 05:24 pm (UTC)
Can I link this?
Feb. 9th, 2008 07:17 pm (UTC)
Feb. 9th, 2008 06:08 pm (UTC)
Brilliant as usual.

I'm reading the end of Naomi Wolf's "The End Of America" and she mentions powerful bloggers like yourself as the last bastion of free speech and dissemination of accurate information in a country where the mass media is more or less under the control of the state.

She says we all have a responsibility to take the reigns from our mass media because it's been hopelessly corrupt, and I find myself agreeing.
Feb. 9th, 2008 07:08 pm (UTC)
It Has Begun...
As Gerald Thornton stood there, his eyes welling, a steady stream of men and women walked up to drop off bouquets. Some glared at him. A few jostled him as they passed.

Suddenly a woman ran over from across the street, shouting: "You don't deserve to be here! Your brother is the reason we're grieving."

"My family lost someone," Thornton said. "We're grieving too."

The woman turned to walk away.

"Why is it that we can't come together right now?" Thornton called after her.

She kept walking.Story here.

This will get worse.

The white community and the media are already painting Cookie as a sue-happy psycho.

This isn't over.
Feb. 9th, 2008 10:07 pm (UTC)
I've heard similarly pointed questions about the Salem witch trials. Mary Beth Norton, In The Devil's Snare.

Again, looking at exactly who were the victims, who denounced them, and who reaped the benefits.
Feb. 9th, 2008 11:51 pm (UTC)
"Cheerokee Nation"
If I recall my "Lies My Teacher Told Me" correctly, much the same was done to the Cherokees: They had long been exemplars of European-style assimilation, and were sent down the Trail of Tears for their efforts.
Their farms, business and schools were taken over by whites immediately after.
Feb. 10th, 2008 02:27 am (UTC)
If we want to read more about this, can you tell us what historian(s) have written about this research? Thanks.
Feb. 10th, 2008 03:35 am (UTC)
The second website I linked to above is the website for a book on the subject called Without Sanctuary, which is an excellent start, and I think its bibliography will take you further.
Feb. 10th, 2008 02:41 am (UTC)
Not without many historical precedents. Happened to the Jews with some regularity. Since they were almost always the only ones legally allowed to be usurers in Catholic dominated areas, a powerful debtor would bring up the blood libels and such and get them run out of town or executed. From Clifford's Tower to The Merchant of Venice. Sad, but true. As with the lynchings having little to do with race, so did these have little to with religion.
Feb. 10th, 2008 07:30 am (UTC)
Well explained. I have read corroborating articles from other American historians. Thanks for bringing this up.
Feb. 10th, 2008 05:39 pm (UTC)
this is a really interesting post - i didn't know the bit about white men stealing the businesses of black families post-lynching. have you ever heard of "black wallstreet"? it refers to a small town near tulsa, oklahoma that developed a separate, successful economic system run entirely by black businesses - and was bombed to the ground by the US government.

i do hope that when you argue "Lynching was not a hate crime. Lynching was an economic crime." that you aren't arguing the supremacy of classism over racism in terms of oppression. this post is a good indication of how racism works hand in hand with classism. poor white people in the antebellum south were treated in much the same manner as poor black people - sharecropping was exploitative regardless of the race of the family involved - and there came a point when poor black people and poor white people had more in common than all whites regardless of class. which is when white supremacist organizations like the kkk started forming - to make white men feel as if they were better than black men, even if their economic reality was not dissimilar, to keep both populations poor, to oppress black families further and keep power concentrated in white families who had inherited their class status from a history of slavery.

lynching was absolutely a hate crime, but this hate was not so irrational as to have no benefit to its enforcers.
Feb. 10th, 2008 08:16 pm (UTC)
Ah, no, that's not my argument at all. I'm arguing that lynchings were consistently stirred up by white criminals who knew that the racism of the general population would protect them from any punishment for spreading false criminal accusations, and would protect them from anybody thinking to ask what happened to the black guy's property afterwards and noticing the coincidence. For the mobs that killed the guys, the motive was unquestionably racial, at least in so far as that race is why they were willing to believe criminal accusations made without any evidence at all. But for the people who spread those accusations, and who stirred up the mob, and who profited handsomely thereby, the motive wasn't race, it was robbery.
Feb. 11th, 2008 04:36 pm (UTC)
economic eminent domain is the new lynching.

"i can make more monies/taxes with your property so i should have it (for cheap)"... it's perfectly fair, until the people it's being done to, are the people who originally supported it. see CT and NH for examples that i recall.

(Deleted comment)
Mar. 14th, 2008 03:36 pm (UTC)
Re: Sources?
This is very compelling. What historian came up with this information? Where can I find more about this? You just have a link to Wikipedia and a site with photos. I would to find the data the historian compiled for my own research purposes. Can you direct us there?
Mar. 14th, 2008 04:39 pm (UTC)
Re: Sources?
The site with the photos you referred it is also the website for one of the two books on the subject, and I think it refers to the other one.
Mar. 24th, 2008 04:07 am (UTC)
thank you
nice work, brother
Apr. 5th, 2008 08:43 pm (UTC)
thanks much
well done, man
Aug. 16th, 2008 04:21 am (UTC)
I'm new here, just wanted to say hello and introduce myself.
( 41 comments — Leave a comment )