Opinion writer

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

News of the noose found in one of the galleries of the National Museum of African American History and Culture was a gut punch. For many African Americans, the act of hate itself, and specifically where it was done, was deeply personal. It was akin to finding out something bad happened to a dear friend or a favorite relative. But for a white friend of mine, the racist affront at the museum was personal for him, too.

Joe McLean is a proud son of the South whose eyes are wide-open to the truth and pain of the region’s racist past. What happened at the NMAAHC moved him to write a powerful and honest recollection that centers around a lynching in Crockett County attended by his father as a young boy. Here it is in its entirety. Read it, and I’ll meet you on the other side.

Joe McLean. (Courtesy of Joe McLean)

Mark Twain is supposed to have said, “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Sadly, it’s beginning to rhyme with a vengeance.

This week, somebody hung a noose in the Museum of African American History. Reading the story brought a little slice of my family history into sharp focus, and perhaps revealed how the tragedy of one forgotten victim could reach across the generations and help change the nation.

When I was a little boy on our family farm, I was walking up a cotton “middle” one day, busting up dirt clods with my bare feet, and my daddy walked out into the field and told me a story. He said “Son, when I was a boy like you, just walking in this cotton patch one morning, my granddaddy rode up in his wagon and team of mules. He said, ‘Hey boy, you want to go see a hangin’?” And being a 12-year-old boy, my daddy said, “Yessir, Grandpa!”

So, he hopped up on that high wagon seat beside his grandpa and together they rode out about two miles to Coxville, where a mob had hanged a ‘colored boy’ at dawn. Somebody said he was lynched because he assaulted a white woman. Daddy said he didn’t know then what ‘assaulted’ meant, but it couldn’t be good. The body was still hanging there, left as a warning for any other ‘colored boys.’

He went on to describe the awful scene in detail, clearly horrified. He told me about how the young man, Joe Boxley, had been accused, arrested and taken to jail. Later that night, a mob of local men broke into the jail, overpowered the sheriff, took Boxley out to Coxville and lynched him. Later it became local legend that the sheriff “didn’t act entirely honorably” in protecting his prisoner.

My dad told me how the vigilantes stood Boxley up on the tail of a wagon bed, under a big oak tree. They put a noose around his neck and told him to jump off the wagon. When he refused, they said, “Boy, you jump off that wagon or we’ll cut your nuts off.” And he jumped.


Thousands of people gather in Waco, Tex., in 1916 in watch the lynching of a black teenager. (The Texas Collection, Baylor University via Associated Press)

This wasn’t unusual in those days. Between 1882 and 1930, there were some 214 lynchings in Tennessee alone. Thirty-seven were white, 177 were black, and the rest are unknown. Most were hanged, some were shot, and at least seven black men were burned at the stake. Boxley’s was the last known lynching in my home county, and his story made the New York Times, the Nashville Tennessean and even Time magazine. But nothing was ever done about it.

My father never told me who was in the lynch mob. He was a boy in 1929, and I doubt he ever knew. Nobody talked about it. Nobody asked. No names were reported in the newspaper. There was no investigation. The local folks seemed to believe Boxley was guilty and justice was done.

But it affected my father. I believe it changed his life — and mine — in ways neither of us could imagine at the time. My dad went on to a career in public service as chief of staff to our local congressman during the civil rights era, and I grew up to work in campaigns.

To be honest, I never gave much conscious thought to Joe Boxley. But with age I’ve come to realize how his story influenced my choices. You see, I opted to work for “New South” candidates and progressive challengers. I managed the campaign of Doug Wilder, the first African American ever elected governor — this in Virginia, the capital of the old Confederacy.


President Barack Obama greets former Virginia governor Doug Wilder as he visits the University of Richmond on Sept., 9, 2011. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

I was privileged to work for others, such as Mayor John Street of Philadelphia and Mayor Tony Williams in the District, and I was one of the very first consultants hired by a little-known state senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, as he began his rise to national prominence.

Wilder and Obama — I had a small part in helping elect them both. I wonder what Boxley would make of that.

On June 10 , thanks to the persistence of Crockett County attorney and civil rights advocate Jim Emison, Boxley will finally get a proper memorial. Although the “hangin’ tree” is long gone, an urn of soil from the site of his 1929 lynching will be dedicated by his family and local dignitaries at the Crockett County Courthouse. That urn, along with press clippings and photographs, will take its place beside exhibits from other lynchings on permanent display in the Equal Justice Initiative’s museum in Montgomery, Ala.

All those victims bear mute witness to a dark stain on the American soul. But they also show us how much the nation has changed for the better. We’re not perfect, but we’re a more open, a more just society than we were a century ago when my father was born. No less a statesman than Martin Luther King Jr. believed in America’s potential when he paraphrased Theodore Parker’s abolitionist prediction, saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And so it does.

But we live in troubling times. Today, the rise of the “alt-right” and it’s spiteful, vitriolic rhetoric seek to make naked racism, hatred and misogyny acceptable again — even fashionable. Suddenly, it’s okay to hang nooses, beat up minorities, abuse women, body-slam reporters and threaten lynchings.

Boxley and legions of martyrs from our benighted past rear their bloodied heads and cry warning. They command us to remember, lest America fall back into the darkness of racism and mindless hatred.

They demand we heed Mark Twain’s prescient warning; the history we make today must not rhyme with Jim Crow.


New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. (D) (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

What I love about McLean’s evocative piece is his willingness to share his story and the honesty with which it is told. He stepped forward to condemn the noose and put the horrible act into historical context for those who don’t realize or know its significance. And I especially appreciate how McLean unflinchingly puts his family in the middle of a vast national tragedy and acknowledges the impact it had on them.

Peggy Wallace Kennedy, daughter of former governor George Wallace, in Montgomery, Ala., on March 4. (Jonathan Capehart/The Washington Post)

You cannot have reconciliation without empathy. And you can’t have empathy unless people learn, know and understand the past pain that informs our present and hobbles our future. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu gets this, as his leadership in removing Confederate memorials attests. So does Peggy Wallace Kennedy, daughter of the segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace. Her eloquent voice in the cause of reconciliation will be needed even more in the years ahead. And now we have Joe McLean, who shows clearly what the first crucial step to reconciliation is: talking openly about the past in personal, human terms with the goal of moving forward.

We need more of this.

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