Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Florida no stranger to ‘spectacles of violence’

An infamous photograph was taken off Davie Boulevard on the western outskirts of Fort Lauderdale 80 years ago. It was a ghastly image, twice over.

The lifeless body of Reuben Stacey was dangling from a tree, suspend by a wire clothesline wrapped around his neck.

Just as appalling was the sight of the three small children and four teenagers, all girls, not far away in the background, staring at the dead man, his overalls and shirt rent with at least 17 bullet holes.

In their nice city dresses, they were among hundreds of white people who had come out to enjoy the public spectacle that July day. It was the bemused expression on the children’s faces that was so unsettling.

The report of the lynching of 37-year-old Stacey, no doubt orchestrated by that Broward County infamous crook of a lawman, Sheriff Walter Clark, and the photo of the children in attendance, was widely circulated by the NAACP in a failed attempt to rally support for a federal anti-lynching law. Lately, the old photo serves as a reminder that Florida was no refuge from the mob murders and racist terror that afflicted the Old South.

On Tuesday, the Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery, Alabama, released a scholarly study of what it termed “racial terror lynchings” in the southern states between 1877 to 1950. The report counted 3,959 lynching victims.

Florida mobs murdered 331 blacks during that period, not as many in absolute numbers as Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana or Texas, but when the authors of the study accounted for the relative racial populations in that period, the findings destroy the notion that we nurtured more moderate inclinations than places more often identified with Jim Crow. Statistically, blacks living in Florida were more likely to be lynched than those in any other state.

When the authors calculated the 25 counties across the South that counted the most lynchings, six Florida counties were included in that ignominious ranking (Taylor, Columbia, Polk, Alachua and Marion counties with Orange County leading the state with 34 lynchings).

These were not furtive acts. The added horror of these killings was their often public nature. “Festivals of violence,” scholars E.M. Beck and Stewart Tolnay called the phenomenon in their notable 1995 study that similarly found Florida particularly partial to racist mob justice. They found that one out of every 1,250 blacks living in Florida from 1882 to 1930 had been lynched.

The year before Reuben Stacy was killed in Fort Lauderdale, 23-year-old Claude Neal was snatched up by a mob in Marianna, in North Florida. Newspapers across the county told of what was coming. “Crowd Awaits Lynching,” said the headline in the Tampa Tribune. “Thousands in Throng to See Florida Mob Murder Negro.” Despite the advance notice, no state or local official intervened.

Neal, who was accused (with scant evidence) of raping and murdering a young woman, was tortured for 10 hours by the mob. Supposedly, he admitted the crime, though his confession came during an ordeal in which his penis and testicles were cut away and stuffed in his mouth, his sides and stomach sliced with knives, his fingers and toes cut off. He was periodically hoisted up by a rope around his neck, then lowered before he could choke to death.

The crowd was estimated at between 3,000 and 7,000. When Neal finally expired, the mob headed to the Marianna town square where the body was hung from a tree on the courthouse square. Hundreds of photographs of the mutilated corpse were sold for 50 cents each. His fingers were peddled as souvenirs.

This circus of horrors was hardly unusual in the history of Old South lynchings. About 90 percent of the U.S. lynchings between 1877 and 1950 occurred in the former slave states. (Most of the lynching victims were black, although one of the largest mass lynching occurred in New Orleans in 1891, when a mob murdered nine Italian immigrants in the city jail and dragged two others outside and hung them from lamposts.)

The lynching archives are filled with gruesome reports of mutilations and of victims burned alive or dragged through the streets behind cars, then hung up on display in the courthouse squares — rituals plainly designed to terrorize other blacks in the community. A modern reader can’t help but think that those loathsome, murderous lunatics of ISIS don’t have much new on these good southern Christian folk.

And it was all committed in places that have long made a show of religiosity. A map created by the New York Times (based on the Equal Justice Initiative study) to illustrate areas where lynchings were prevalent coincides with a region that professes strong, conservative religious values (Alabama Gov. George Wallace, in his infamous “segregation now, segregation forever” speech, invoked God 27 times).

As the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and poet Robert Penn Warren once wrote, sardonically, “After the Saturday night lynching, the congregation generally turns up a little late.”