STRANGE FRUIT

For Clarence Thomas, Lynching Is Personal. Only.

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By Emma Coleman Jordan
Sunday, October 14, 2007

" As far as I'm concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves."

With his Supreme Court nomination on the line in 1991 over the sexual harassment charges made by Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas famously played the highest race card in the deck of American history: the lynching of black men for real and imagined sexual offenses.

Sixteen years later, lynching and its symbols are rarely far from the national consciousness. Just last week, an African American Columbia University professor found a noose hanging on her door. A younger generation has adopted the noose as an emblem of racial intimidation, harking back to the era when violent mobs of whites could keep blacks in their place by mutilation and murder without fear of prosecution. Nooses have been the centerpiece of recent racial conflicts at schools in Jena, La., and College Park.

Thomas explained that he emotionally invoked this imagery at the Senate hearing because he had a firsthand understanding of the lingering effects of this history of racial violence. Unfortunately, his legal reasoning since suggests that this powerful show of indignation was a self-interested, even cynical, misappropriation of a potent symbol of national shame.

I first heard the lynching metaphor being used to defend Thomas when I was a guest on "The Phil Donahue Show" the day before the 1991 hearings began. I was then counsel to Anita Hill. Linda Chavez, now a conservative commentator, defended Thomas on the show. Toward the end of our exchange, Chavez turned to me. "This is what they used to do to black men in the South," she lectured, almost shouting. "This is a lynching."

Surely this is a miscalculation, I remember thinking; the rhetoric is really getting out of control. Little did I know that the metaphor would soon become the emotional centerpiece of the Thomas defense. The same words -- delivered by an angry black man facing an all-white male panel of senators -- would have a vastly different impact from the Chavez trial run.

Lynching is a powerful symbol of America's racial past precisely because it sits astride a deep and largely invisible divide in the memories of blacks and whites. Blacks and whites sometimes have conflicting and irreconcilable accounts of the use of horrific violence to keep blacks "in their place" between the end of the Civil War and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Lynching still touches an intensely sensitive nerve because it conjures up multiple images: violent enforcement of residential segregation, brutality and unfairness in the criminal justice system and myths about black male hypersexuality.

Thomas's new autobiography, "My Grandfather's Son," vents his rage and indignation over what he believes was his humiliation by haughty senators and "left-wing zealots." He was also acutely aware of the impact of lynching on his and his grandfather's lives during the 1991 hearings, he writes: "Segregation, lynchings, black codes, slavery: the endless litany of injustices raced through my head."

"I was intensely aware of America's long and ugly history of using lies about sex as excuses to persecute black men who stepped out of line."

Decades ago, his grandfather's fear of lynching led him to limit his travel to "the three contiguous counties that he knew well" and to warn his grandsons to avoid the "mistake of leaving home."

Thomas goes on to voice his rage at the limitations on his life options imposed by private hate groups: In the '50s and '60s, "blacks steered clear of many parts of Savannah, which clung fiercely to racial segregation for as long as it could."

"The Ku Klux Klan held a convention [in Savannah] in 1960 and 250 white-robed members paraded down the city's main street one Saturday afternoon. No matter how curious you might be about the way white people lived, you didn't go where you didn't belong. That was a recipe for jail, or worse."


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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