Book Review: Hanging Bridge: Racial Violence and America’s Civil Rights Century by Jason Morgan Ward
The site of a lynching rarely receives official recognition. “The best way to forget…” writes historian Jason Morgan Ward “is to have nothing to remember.” Yet in writing Hanging Bridge, Ward ensures that readers never forget the six victims who once swung from the bridge over the Chickasaway River in Shubuta, Mississippi. Through Ward’s accounts of the victims’ deaths—as well as the morally bankrupt system that perpetuated such violence— readers come to understand a more complicated view of racial progress throughout the 20th century. Rather than rehash the “steady march toward freedom” narrative, Ward offers a “a more truthful, if less triumphant” version; one in which for every step forward there are two steps back, less a “steady march” than a foot-dragging lurch forward.
The book begins by recounting the lynchings of two young men and two pregnant women, all of whom were alleged to have been involved in the death of a white dentist. Evidence was scant, the dentist’s reputation was suspect, and yet the culture of the era demanded that the alleged African-American murderers be brought to justice. And they were, at the hands of a mob, shortly after their brief hearing.
Next, the book goes on to recount the lynching of Ernest Green and Charlie Lang, a pair of young boys alleged to have attempted to rape a white, 15-year-old named Dorothy Martin. Once more, there was little evidence to convict the boys, but as Ward notes, “the details mattered less than the allegations.”
None of these instances of extralegal violence are terribly surprising. In fact, to some extent, they fit neatly within the typical lynching narrative: there was a perceived offense, followed by vigilante justice, and concluded with an investigation courtesy of an ineffective local law enforcement agency. By 1942—the year of Ernest and Charlie’s murders—lynching protocol had become well established. Everyone knew his role, it seemed, and it was simply a matter of playing it out.
Though much of Hanging Bridge’s narrative focuses on the lynchings themselves, Ward’s work is at his best when he looks beyond the violence to recount the lesser-known, related stories of the era. Such as the harrowing work of Walter F. White and Sara Craigen Kennedy—two undercover lynching investigators who infiltrated southern communities in an effort to find information related to the crimes. White, a light-skinned African-American, posed as a traveling insurance salesmen, providing himself an airtight alibi for his interactions with local African-Americans. Kennedy, a white graduate of the University of Alabama, claimed to have been hired to conduct a “public opinion survey” when in fact the survey was her one—one aimed at learning more on southern racial attitudes.
Though the book’s third section—a fast-forward to 1966—proves less than satisfying given what’s come before, Ward’s epilogue makes up for the momentary lack in tension. In the book’s final pages Ward returns us once more to Shubuta’s Hanging Bridge, which today is hidden far from view behind a gate. “That the landmark is largely forgotten and intentionally obscured,” Ward writes, “reminds us that heritage is a poor substitute for history.” He’s right. But thanks to Ward, we’ve now got the history, too.
B.J. Hollars is the author of several books, most recently From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human, as well as a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test. In February, he’ll release Flock Together: A Love Affair With Extinct Birds. He serves as the reviews editor for Pleiades, a mentor for Creative Nonfiction, the founder of the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. For more, visit: www.bjhollars.com