Wednesday, July 26, 2023

The erasure of racist violence gave Jason Aldean plausible deniability. (WaPo column by Dr. Travis Patterson, Ph.D. candidate)

Certain St. Johns County rebarbative Republicans are actually defending this hick's hateful hauteur. Not surprising.  From The Washington Post:

The erasure of racist violence gave Jason Aldean plausible deniability

Public acknowledgements of racist violence ensure that stories like Henry Choate’s are part of our collective memory

Jason Aldean performs at Nationals Park in Washington in 2014. (Kyle Gustafson for The Washington Post)
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Fierce criticism has erupted over the music video for country singer Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town.” Liberals have decried the song’s vigilante themes, especially in light of where the video was shot. The lyrics describe a variety of crimes and unpatriotic or disrespectful behavior and promise: “Well, try that in a small town, see how far ya make it down the road. Around here, we take care of our own, you cross that line, it won’t take long.” The video was filmed at the Maury County Courthouse in Tennessee — the site of the lynching of Henry Choate, an 18-year-old Black man accused of assaulting a White woman in 1927.

This combination smacks of celebrating vigilantism, extralegal “justice” and a deeply sinister and racist chapter of the past in which White communities committed and condoned violence against people of color as a form of political, social and economic control.

Despite this history, many on the right have rushed to Aldean’s defense. Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R-S.D.) denounced people for trying to “cancel Jason and his beliefs.” Meanwhile, presidential candidates Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy added the song to their rally playlists.

The incident exposes the dangers of selectively remembering and memorializing our past. The lynching of Choate is well known among Black Tennesseeans, but the story never received proper public commemoration and is not well known nationally. That has helped fuel the battle over “Try That in a Small Town,” as the story spills over into the mainstream conversation. Properly acknowledging the history of lynching with official memorials and historical markers in public spaces would prevent the sort of blind spot that has produced this fiery debate.

In November 1927, a 16-year-old White girl accused Choate of assault. Choate was arrested and held at the county jail in Columbia. In the South at the time, such an accusation was explosive — embodying the very fears that justified segregation.

White women’s bodies were thought to hold the color line and preserve White privilege. Claims of assault, especially if the purported attack led to a pregnancy, threatened the segregation that held Jim Crow intact. This was also the perfect accusation to falsely level at a Black man because no evidence needed to be collected — as it would not be considered proper to examine a White woman’s body after such an attack.

Given the gravity of this alleged crime for segregationists, it was common for them to demand vigilante justice. The county sheriff and his deputies averted mob action twice the day Choate was arrested. Undeterred, vigilantes armed themselves with sledgehammers and returned a third time for an all-out assault on the county jail with the goal of seizing Choate from custody.

The sheriff and the mother of the alleged victim pleaded with the mob to let the legal system play out. The estimated 250 vigilantes, however, rejected their entreaties. They saw mob rule and extralegal punishment as more legitimate than formal law enforcement. Although the victim could not unequivocally identify Choate as her assailant, the mere allegation of rape motivated the mob to demonstrate to African Americans that interracial sexual relations had fatal consequences.

Worried that the mob might dynamite the jail, the sheriff eventually capitulated and ordered one of his deputies to unlock the door. The mob proceeded to beat Choate with a sledgehammer, remove him from jail and drag him with an automobile to the Maury County Courthouse — the “supposed citadel of justice” in this segregated town, as one Chattanooga Daily Times editor characterized the building. In fact, the local courthouse lawn was often the backdrop for such vigilante violence. The message was clear: Equal justice did not apply to African Americans.

Vigilantes proceeded to hang Choate from a second-story window as hundreds of spectators watched. According to the Chicago Defenderone of the ringleaders told the African American teenager “We are going to send you to hell” moments before the mob sent him plunging to his death. On Nov. 29, a grand jury declined to indict anyone for Choate’s murder, maintaining that jurors were “unable to identify any of those who took part,” despite the large crowd witnessing it.

The murder was one of thousands of similar lynchings during the 19th and 20th centuries. Recalcitrant White vigilantes frequently refused to recognize the constitutional rights of African Americans to due process and equal protection under the law. Even allegations of less serious crimes in the Jim Crow South, such as robbery or vagrancy, or minor social transgressions — like refusing to step off a sidewalk for Whites to pass or speaking “disrespectfully” to them — risked a mob organizing and taking matters into its own hands.

Lynchings produced unimaginable trauma and psychological scars for survivors, witnesses and relatives of victims. African Americans who witnessed lynchings or lost relatives to extralegal violence were reluctant or scared to discuss the incidents in public so as not to provoke violent reprisals. Moreover, as the Choate lynching indicates, the judicial system rarely held vigilantes legally accountable for lynching African Americans.

Even after the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, this history remained submerged in public space. Although monuments celebrating the leaders and successes of the civil rights movement have entered the public landscape during the past few decades, there remains a paucity of memorials acknowledging the violent resistance to the Black freedom struggle.

The absence of public acknowledgment of this history exacerbates the suffering for individuals haunted by memories of racial terrorism. As the Equal Justice Initiative argued in a 2015 report, “survivors, witnesses and members of a community affected by lynching need to know that society has acknowledged” this violence to recover. Creating memorials to the victims of lynching and racial violence helps establish “trust between the survivors of racial terrorism and the governments and legal systems that failed to protect them.”

Accordingly, activists are fighting to acknowledge this violence in public spaces, particularly in the South.

In 2018, the EJI established the first national lynching memorial in the United States — the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. At its center is an open-air, pavilion-like structure featuring 800 steel columns suspended from the roof. Each one represents an individual county where a lynching was documented. The names of each county’s lynching victims and the dates they perished are engraved on the individual columns.

Yet, the national memorial alone is not sufficient. The “Try That in a Small Town” video exposes as much. Local and regional acknowledgments of past atrocities are a crucial component of making stories like Choate’s visible and accessible in public space. This is especially true at courthouses because they were so often the site of brutal racist violence.

Constructing such memorials would illuminate the stories of this violence and modify the public landscape to reflect the memories and experiences of all residents. It would also signify that while it hasn’t always in the past, the courthouse administers equal justice for all residents, regardless of race.

Commemorating past violence would reduce the chances that artists (or producers or directors) would make the sort of choice Aldean made for his music video. At the very least, it would eliminate the excuse that someone did not know about such past atrocities when choosing spaces. Dismissing the lynching of Henry Choate as a liberal ploy concocted to disparage White conservatives like Aldean encourages and reinforces the collective silence in public space when it comes to lynching. This is perhaps the greatest tragedy of the uproar surrounding “Try That in a Small Town.”

Travis Patterson is PhD candidate and instructor in the department of history at the University of Mississippi. His dissertation explores the memory of the 1934 Claude Neal lynching, which took place in Jackson County, Fla.

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