In the 1920s and the 1930s the NAACP used to hang a flag outside the window of its offices in Manhattan with the words “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday.” The narrative often told in histories of the civil rights movement is that lynching declined and was outlawed in the 1960s. Lynching is often described as extra-legal punishment; that is punishment that takes place outside of the bounds of the law. During the age of lynching the murderers of people of color were frequently exonerated for their actions by courts of law.
The killing of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson’s acquittal fits a pattern. A black man is killed by police, or in Trayvon Martin’s case under legal pretenses, and a court fails to convict the killers. I refuse to believe that the verdicts in all of these high profile cases in recent years have been untainted by white supremacy. I refuse to believe that justice has been served. I want to raise the questions: Is it time to bring back the word lynching to describe the killings of black men by police officers? Can we say that Michael Brown was lynched? What about Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice?
Lynching is an act of public violence. It is legally sanctioned by the society in which it takes place, it does not matter that this occurs after the fact. Lynchers escape legal punishment for their acts. Michael Brown was killed in public. His killer will not be punished. His body was left in the street for four hours. It was put on public display, images of it appeared throughout the media.
Many people might argue that using the language of lynching to describe what happened to Michael Brown is unnecessarily inflammatory. I disagree. By using the word people who care about justice can signal that justice does not reign in the United States and that the civil rights movement did not bring racial justice to this country. We do not live in a post-racial society. There is a direct line of continuity that can, and should, be drawn from slavery through Jim Crow to the present day.
More than fifty years ago, in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. made the distinction between unjust and just laws. He wrote, “A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” King wrote these words to defend his civil disobedience against white supremacy in the 1960s South. A law that consistently acquits police officers of the killing of black men is an unjust law. It is a law that stands outside of any moral law. It must be overturned. Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Amadou Diallo… a man was lynched yesterday.