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Lynchings and The Sun: Coverage with a huge blind spot

The Sunpapers’ coverage of two lynchings on the Eastern Shore in the early 1930s lives in the paper’s institutional lore as a moment of courage. The Sun reported the news of the mob killings of Matthew Williams in 1931 and George Armwood in 1933 under screaming front-page headlines. Editorials in both cases — including one that ran on the front page after Armwood’s lynching — deplored the violence and demanded prosecutions of those accountable. H.L. Mencken wrote a now famous column after Williams’ killing that was so blistering in its condemnation of Salisbury’s white community, its elected officials, police and newspapers, that he was threatened with death should he ever cross the bay. The Sun lost advertisers and subscriptions, yet the paper and its publisher, Paul Patterson, did not back down.

All that is true, but it isn’t the whole truth. It is impossible to read the news articles, editorials and columns about those lynchings without noticing a massive myopia. The Sun deplored the inhumanity of the perpetrators without ever really acknowledging the humanity of the victims. The Sun was an all-white institution, and it treated the lynchings as if they were only a matter of concern to the whites who carried them out and the white mayors, state’s attorneys, governors and police chiefs who did or did not prevent them. If The Sun’s reporters spoke to a single black person in their coverage, it’s not apparent.

That clearly affected the basic structure and facts of the stories. The Sun’s account had Williams taken “quietly” from the hospital where he was being treated and “escorted” to the courthouse square. In the New York Times, he was “snatched from his hospital bed” and “dragged” to the square. The Afro printed an eye-witness account describing a semi-conscious Williams, barefoot, covered in bandages and clad in a hospital gown, thrown out a first-floor window to the waiting mob.

The Afro interviewed Williams’ friends and relatives. The Sun got its information about him from whites, principally the son of the man he allegedly killed. Surely not coincidentally, The Sun evinced no doubt whatsoever that Williams was guilty of the murder of which he had been accused, and that it occurred just as white witnesses — none of whom saw the alleged crime — described. Two years later, it would similarly accept without question the story that Armwood had confessed to killing an elderly white woman. The Afro did not take white officials’ word for anything but instead sought to square their accounts with verifiable facts and reporting on the character and habits of Williams and Armwood.

The Sun’s commentary took a similarly white-centric view of events. It referred to Williams’ lynching as a “shame for the State of Maryland.” After Armwood’s killing two years later, The Sun would opine, “In this crime is more than the lynching of a Negro criminal. In this crime is the lynching of the law in Somerset County and the State of Maryland. In this crime of a mob is the lynching of the civilization of the State.” The idea that it was an assault on a human being or a means of terrorizing an entire population seems not to cross The Sun’s mind.

Similarly, Mencken’s 1931 column, “The Eastern Shore Kultur,” barely mentions Williams and never uses his full name. It reads as a screed against the “poor white trash … knavish politicians, prehensile professional patriots and whooping soul-savers” of Salisbury, not as any sort of call to racial reconciliation or justice. Mencken’s record on race is, to say the least, complicated. He railed against lynchings here and elsewhere but also was so free in his use of racist epithets that he had to invent his own to avoid being repetitive. Larry Gibson, the law professor and Thurgood Marshall biographer, gave a lecture a few years ago on the question of whether Mencken should be considered a racist or civil rights activist, ultimately settling on the latter. Mencken wasn’t a racist but what we might call an elitist, Gibson said.“Mencken just didn’t think much of most of mankind” — black or white, it made no difference, Gibson said. Consequently, he could enter a towering rage about an Eastern Shore lynch mob without exhibiting more than token sentiment for its victim.

Is it fair to judge The Sun’s work of eight decades ago by these standards? Sherrilyn A. Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, argues that it is. She writes in some depth about The Sun’s coverage of the Williams and Armwood lynchings in her book, “On the Courthouse Lawn,” and compares it unfavorably to the Afro's much deeper coverage. If a very young Clarence Mitchell, reporting for the Afro, could show up in Princess Anne the morning after Armwood’s lynching and realize that he needed to interview not just black residents but whites, too, at obvious risk to his life, The Sun’s white reporters could clearly have figured out that they should talk to blacks, Ms. Ifill said in an interview. “There are actual physical victims. There is a community that is terrorized," Ms. Ifill said. “To the extent the reporting never touches actual victims … no one would think that is credible reporting today. It also wasn’t credible reporting then.”

Painful as it is to admit, we have to agree.

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