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Souvenirs of a violent history

These were regular folks from ordinary American towns. They cared for their families and went to church, and occasionally they would gather to commit ritual murder.

The things they did to the bodies of African-American men would not make fit talk for Sunday dinner. Nonetheless, often enough someone took photographs to remember how the corpse looked hanging from tree or trestle, or burned on a pyre, and how townspeople young and old gathered around in white shirts and white hats. Sometimes they smiled for the camera.

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These photographs might be turned into souvenir postcards so a spectator could show friends and relatives far away that he was there, watching a man die.

"This is the barbecue we had last night" says the handwritten note on the back of a particularly ghastly image from the torture and burning of a black man. "My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your son, Joe."

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At the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, about 40 photographs and souvenir cards are on view through Dec. 30, the first exhibition of this privately owned collection in the South, where most, but not all, of about 4,700 recorded lynchings took place in the late 19th through the mid-20th centuries. Nearly 3,500 of those victims were black, though the figures are not considered comprehensive.

Considerable local anxiety preceded the Without Sanctuary exhibition's Southern debut, not least because these events, for all their medieval horror, occurred not so long ago or far away from the King site on Auburn Avenue. Second to Mississippi in the number of recorded deaths by lynching stands Georgia: 460 between 1880 and 1930.

The exhibition - presented by Emory University and the King site - has drawn bigger crowds than previous displays of these materials in New York and Pittsburgh. By early this month, the show, which opened in May, had been visited by more than 50,000 people, black and white.

Spectators walk through galleries where the walls have been painted black. Affixed to the walls are these photographs, most no bigger than a page of a paperback novel. The photographs are marked with captions about the lynching and, where information has been available, the life of the victim. Since the owners of the collection resisted the idea of enlarging the images, visitors must stand close to see the faces of the living and the dead.

That picture of visitors leaning into these horrifying photographs conveys something of what the organizers are after. By presenting as much information as could be found about the victims, they would have you make some connection to them as people. They would also have you see that their killers were not monsters but people from town: neighbors, mechanics, the guy who delivered milk.

The hope is to arouse "an awareness of the viciousness of racism," says Emory religion Professor Theophus Smith, who helped organize the exhibition. "The country is still in denial about the violence of racism. You couldn't look at these images without getting it."

Historian Benedict Anderson has argued in his book Imagined Communities that nations march to a cadence of remembering and forgetting. For the collectors of this material and the organizers of the display, white Americans appear to lean toward amnesia, especially in matters of race.

From white visitors, says exhibition volunteer Gerald Boyd, "I am always hearing: 'We can't believe this happened.'"

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Boyd, who has talked with visitors individually and in organized discussion groups, notes a "complete disassociation" from these events among white viewers, "as if some alien or some invading group of people did this."

Exhibition volunteer Valetta Anderson says even among people who knew about lynching, the display appears to be shattering preconceived ideas.

Says Anderson, "A lot of people thought lynchings were done in the dead of night in secret."

Many were, but many were public events. So-called "spectacle lynchings" were sometimes conducted with enough planning that notices appeared in newspapers. Crowds numbering in the hundreds gathered as if for a county fair. Anecdotal accounts suggest that food and drinks were occasionally served. According to historian Philip Dray, at one immolation in Pennsylvania in 1911, spectators were said to have enjoyed ice cream sundaes.

The exhibition includes images of white people standing around the corpse, many smiling, many looking at the camera. These pictures have left many visitors "shocked and disturbed," says Anderson. "They were disturbed that children were brought" to see the killing.

"These were not people who were shrinking; they were posing," says the exhibit's curator, Joseph F. Jordan. "They were placing themselves in close proximity so they could be associated" with the killing.

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"Most people are completely awe-struck at the fact that nothing was done, that in the eyes of the law nothing was done," says Adrian Tonge, volunteer coordinator for the exhibition.

Indeed, says historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, if the photographs reflect a kind of madness, they also show that this violence was "part and parcel of how a society worked," suggesting racism's deep systemic roots.

For Smith, the religion professor, the most compelling questions lie in those white faces.

"I've asked people to think about what was going on for white people that they regressed to this form of ritual sacrifice," he says. In the social turmoil of a defeated South, he argues, violence assumed a quasi-religious, redemptive power: "When all else fails, violence will save us."

Tuskegee Institute in Alabama started keeping records of lynchings in 1882, a few years after Reconstruction. In the re-emergence of Southern white supremacy that also saw the first segregation laws adopted in the 1890s came an onslaught of racial mob violence. Lynchings peaked in the five years ending in 1893. While they steadily diminished through the early 1950s, lynchings also grew more racial, with black Americans making up an increasingly large share of the victims.

In the worst of times, a black man or woman might be lynched for almost any reason. An argument with a white person, a display of perceived arrogance, an alleged crime, and, of course, allegations of rape or sexual advances involving a black man and white woman could incite a mob to murder. The killings would often be preceded by dismemberment.

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Atlanta antiques dealer James Allen, who is white, began collecting these postcards and photographs about 20 years ago. He set up a toll-free phone number and solicited information about the images through fliers, then on the Internet. People were finding them in old albums, hidden in a shaving mirror and stuck into a coffee can on a toolshed shelf.

He has amassed about 150 of them, and he's still at it. Through the collecting he has contacted people who either suspect or are certain that family members took part in lynchings.

In 1997, he decided to lend the collection to Emory, hoping it would become the center of a program of study and scholarship. He has been disappointed by the limited response and by what he sees as the school's reluctance to pursue the exhibition of the material. "I think there's a tremendous fear," says Allen. "Ultimately, these photographs undermine the entire Southern Christian experience."

Though there are no photographs of the most horrific aspects of slavery, the lynching images illustrate the brutality not only of these specific events, but of a system of American racial oppression.

"It's not deniable," says Allen, who is pleased with how the show turned out. "It's the evidence." To face these images as a white person, he says, "you've got to be willing to face black rage, you've got to be willing to face the shame that your grandparents were not willing to face."

John Crawford of Atlanta says he visited the exhibition on the day it opened and once more since. He may return, perhaps as part of a family reunion next month. A retired lab technician, Crawford, 70, is the grandson of Anthony Crawford, a successful black cotton planter with more than 400 acres in Abbeville County, S.C.

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On Oct. 21, 1916, after an argument with a white man over the price of cottonseed, Anthony Crawford was assaulted and exchanged blows with two men, then was jailed. A mob of 200 men overpowered jail guards, removed him from his cell and dragged him through town with a rope around his neck. He was then strung from a pine tree and shot to pieces.

John Crawford never knew his grandfather and found no image of him in the exhibition. But a written display panel told the story Crawford had heard before among family members.

"I believe I was more sad than angry" during the visit, he says. The exhibition, he says, has been "a step in the right direction" of bringing such stories into the open.

"Let's talk about it, that would be a big step," he says. "There's just a lot to be done."



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