Every black person, whether they were born in the 1930s like my grandmother, the 1940s like my parents, the 1960s like me, or the 1990s like my eldest niece knows the story of Emmett Till.
Emmett was 14 years old when, in 1955, he was kidnapped, beaten mercilessly, disfigured, lynched, and drown in the Tallahatchie River river in Mississippi after allegedly “wolf”-whistling at a young white woman, Carolyn Bryant Donham. In 2008, more than 50 years later, she told a historian that her allegations against Emmett were false. Emmett, who was from Chicago, had been visiting his mother’s family in Mississippi that summer when he was dragged out of their home in the night. His body was found near the river bed in Glendora, Mississippi where a makeshift memorial was put up, then defaced, then put up, then defaced, then shot with bullet holes, until this past week, a new bullet-proof steel sign was put in place.
Lynching is not a word to be used lightly: From 1882 to 1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the U.S., according to the NAACP. Of those men, women, and children we know of who were hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned, and beaten to death, 3,446 were black. And these are just the ones we know about.
And while lynchings are much rarer now, they do still occur. And at any number of college campuses, nooses have been found in recent years. When my law school alma mater, American University, elected its first black female college president she was greeted by a rope hanging with some bananas.
It is obscene for an American president—let alone a powerful white man who inherited a fortune from his father (himself once arrested at a Klan rally) and famously paid for full-page newspaper ads calling for the death penalty for five innocent young black men in the “Central Park Five” case—to say that he the victim of a “lynching” simply because he is being investigated and will likely be impeached by a co-equal branch of our government.
This man who is the very epitome of white male privilege has long cried about “witch hunts,” a term that recalls the infamous Salem witch trials of the 17th century, whose victims were white women who showed independence of thought, were unwed, and who spoke out for themselves. And now, he is talking about lynchings used not just to murder blacks who spoke out of turn, acted out of turn, or who simply were found being black—but to keep other blacks “in their place.”
For the president to compare his impeachment to a lynching is a national disgrace. But he is also, as my Nana from South Carolina used to say, “Crazy like a fox.” He understands that he needs to change the subject from his Ukraine quid pro quo and Syrian human rights catastrophe. What better way to do that than to send a Bull Connor whistle to his base about how he is being treated as unfairly as if he were a black person?
Let me call bull on the president since few other Republicans will. If you go to his rallies, you will see supporters wearing black T-shirts with the words “Rope. Tree. Journalist.” The president presides over a party that includes U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde of Mississippi—where nearly one in eight American lynchings took place, including that of Emmett Till—who could barely muster a half-hearted apology after praising a supporter on the campaign trail by saying that, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”
Bottom line: The Republican party is lost. It is no longer the party of the “Radical Republicans” of the 1860s who championed an end to slavery, the equal amendment clause, and voting rights for former slaves. It is no longer the party of Jack Kemp or Margaret Chase Smith, one of moral values, love of democracy, racial equality and economic liberty.
It is the party of Donald Trump, and it is the party of division, racial hatred, and cruelty toward black and brown people.