Friday, June 6, 2014

0 The Warmth of Other Suns - Florida and the Lynching of Claude Neal

This summer I'm reading The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.  The book was cited heavily by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his discussion (read: trouncing) of Jonathan Chait and I am hopeful that I will expand my own cultural and historical awareness through reading it.  

For those who haven't read it, Wilkerson follows three different individuals as they discuss their own migrations from the South to the North. She uses them to illustrate the context in which sharecropping, Jim Crow, housing segregation, and the many other maladies of the hundred years of the Great Migration.  At times, this has been slightly frustrating but the effect, as I continue to read, has only enhanced my enjoyment. I keep circling quotations in this book and I think that this summer, I will be copying many of them down here.

To the extent that you would like, please read on.  And, of course, I encourage you to purchase the book.
Now, with a new century approaching, blacks in the South, accustomed to the liberties established after the [Civil War], were hurled back in time, as if the preceding three decades, limited though they may have been, had never happened. One by one, each license or freedom accorded them was stripped away. The world got smaller, narrower, more confined with each new court ruling and ordinance.
Not unlike European Jews who watched the world close in on them slowly, perhaps barely perceptibly, at the start of Nazism, colored people in the South would first react in denial and disbelief to the rising hysteria, then, helpless to stop it, attempt a belated resistance, not knowing and not able to imagine how far the supremacists would go. The outcomes for both groups were widely divergent, one suffering unspeakable loss and genocide, the other enduring nearly a century of apartheid, pogroms, and mob executions. But the hatreds and fears that fed both assaults were not dissimilar and relied on arousing the passions of the indifferent to mount so complete an attack.
The South began acting in outright defiance to the Fourteenth Amendment of 1868, which granted the right to due process and equal protection to anyone born in the United States, and it ignored the Fifteenth Amendment of 1880, which guaranteed all men the right to vote.
Politicians began riding these anti-black sentiments all the way to governors' mansions throughout the South and to seats in the US Senate.
"If it is necessary, every Negro in the state will be lynched," James K. Vardaman, the white supremacy candidate in the 1903 Mississippi governor's race, declared. He saw no reason for blacks to go to school. "The only effect of Negro education," he said, "is to spoil a good field hand and make an insolent cook."
Mississippi voted Vardaman into the governor's office and later sent him to the US Senate."
- Pg. 38
Lake County and the rest of central Florida were far from the lights of Miami and the palm-tree version of paradise that tourists came for. This was the Florida that had entered the Union as a slave state, where a Florida slaveholder could report without apology, in 1839, that he worked his slaves "in a hurrying time till 11 or 12 o'clock at night, and have them up by four in the morning." Florida went farther than some other slave states in the creativity of its repression: Slaves could not gather together to pray. They couldn't leave their plantations, even for a walk, without written permission from their owner. If they were accused of wrongdoing, "their hands were burned with a heated iron, their ears nailed to posts," or their backs stripped raw with seventy-five lashes from a buckskin whip. The few free blacks in the state had to register with the nearest probate court or could be automatically enslaved by any white person who stepped forward to claim possession.
As the country neared the point of collapse over the issue of a state's right to slavery, Florida in the early winter of 1861, became one of the first to secede from the Union in the months leading up to the Civil War. Florida broke away on January 10, 1861, three weeks after the first rebel state of South Carolina, and a day after Mississippi. Florida heartily joined a new country whose cornerstone, according to the Confederacy's vice president, Alexander Hamilton Stephens, was "the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery--subordination to the superior race--is his natural and normal condition." This new government, Stephens declared, "is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth."
- Pg. 59
That October (1934), a twenty-three-year-old colored farmhand named Claude Neal was accused of the rape and murder of a twenty-year-old white woman named Lola Cannidy. Neal had grown up across the road from Lola Cannidy's family. He was arrested and signed a written confession that historians have since called into question. But at the time, passions ran so high that a band of more than three hundred men armed with guns, knives, torches, and dynamite went searching for Neal in every jail within a seventy-five-mile radius or Marianna.
The manhunt forced the authorities to move Neal across the panhandle, from Marianna to Panama City by car, to Camp Walton by boat, to the Escambia County sheriff, fearing that his jail in Pensacola was too dilapidated to withstand attack, decided to take Neal out of state altogether, to the tiny town of Brewton, Alabama, fifty-five miles north of Pensacola. Someone leaked Neal's whereabouts, and a lynching party of some one hundred men drove several hours on Highway 231 in a thirty-car caravan from Florida to Alabama. There the men managed to divert the local sheriff and overtake the deputy. They stormed the jail and took Neal, his limbs bound with a plow rope, back to Marianna.
It was the early morning hours of October 26, a Friday. Neal's chief abductors, a self-described "committee of six," an oddly officious term commonly used by the leaders of southern lynch mobs, set the lynching for 8 P.M., when most everyone would be off work. The advance notice allowed word to spread by radio, teletype, and afternoon papers to the western time zones.
Well before the appointed hour, several thousand people had gathered at the lynching site. The crowd grew so large and unruly--people having been given sufficient forewarning to come in from other states--that the committee of six, fearing a riot, tok Neal to the woods by the Chipola river to wait out the crowds and torture him before the execution.
There, his captors took knives and castrated him in the woods. Then they made him eat the severed body parts "and say he liked it," a witness said.
"One man threw up at the sight," wrote the historian James R. McGovern.
Around Neal's neck, they tied a rope and pulled it over a limb to the point of his choking before lowering him to take up the torture again.
"Every now an then somebody would cut off a finger or toe," the witness said. Then the men used hot irons to burn him all over his body in a ritual that went on for several hours.
"It is almost impossible to believe that a human being could stand such unspeakable torture for such a long period," wrote the white undercover investigator retained by the NAACP.
The crowd waiting in town never got to see Neal die. The committee of six decided finally to just kill him in the woods. His nude body was then tied to the back of a car and dragged to the Cannidy house, where men, women, and children stabbed the corpse with sticks and knives. The dead girl's father was angry that Neal was killed before he could get to him. "They done me wrong about the killing," the father said. "They promised me they would bring him up to my house before they killed him and let me have the first shot. That's what I wanted."
The committee hanged the body "from an oak tree on the courthouse lawn." People reportedly displayed Neal's fingers and toes as souvenirs. Postcards of his dismembered body went for fifty cents each. When the sheriff cut down the body the next morning, a mob of as many as two thousand people demanded that it be rehanged. When the sheriff refused to return it to the tree, the mob attacked the courthouse and rampaged through Marianna, attacking any colored person they ran into. Well-to-do whites hid their maids or sent cars to bring their workers to safety. "We needed these people," said a white man who sat on his porch protecting his interests with a loaded Winchester. Florida Governor David Sholtz had to call in the National Guard to quell the mob.
Across the country, thousands of outraged Americans wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt demanding a federal investigation. The NAACP compiled a sixteen-page report and more files on the Neal case than any other lynching in American history. But Neal had the additional misfortune of having been lynched just before the 1934 national midterm elections, which were being seen as a referendum on the New Deal itself. Roosevelt chose not to risk alienating the South with a Democratic majority in Congress at stake. He did not intervene in the case. No one was ever charged in Neal's death or spent a day in jail for it. The Jackson County grand jury, in the common language of such inquests, reported that the execution had occurred "at the hands of persons unknown to us."
Soon afterward, it was learned that Neal and the dead girl, who had known each other all their lives, had been lovers and that people in her family who discovered the liaison may have been involved in her death for the shame it had brought to the family. Indeed, the summer after Neal was lynched, the girl's father was convicted of assault with intent to kill his niece because he suspected that that side of the family had had a hand in his daughter's death.
In sentencing the father to five years in prison for attacking the relative, the judge said, "I hate to pass this sentence on an old man such as you, but I must do it. To be perfectly fair with you, I don't believe you have any too many brains."
The father replied, "Yes, judge. I am plumb crazy."
Thereafter, Florida continued to live up to its position as the southernmost state with among the most heinous acts of terrorism committed anywhere in the South. Violence had become such an accepted fact of life that, in 1950, the Florida governor's special investigator, Jefferson Elliot, observed that there had been so many mob executions in one county that it "never had a negro live long enough to go to trial."
- Pg. 60

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