Below is a portion of the text of the talk that Dr. Andre E. Johnson gave on Tuesday February 16, 2016 as part of Black History Month at the University of Memphis. To listen the talk, click here.
On Thursday, December 10, 2015, a jury found former Police Officer Daniel Holtzclaw guilty of multiple counts of rape — first and second degree — as well as sexual battery, procuring lewd exhibition, and forcible oral sodomy. Except for Roland Martin of News One Now and a faithful cadre of folks on Twitter and other social media outlets providing us updates, this case where 13 women came forward to testify against this man, went largely unnoticed. On an episode of the Melissa Harris Perry show, commentator Joy Reid acknowledged the media’s disregard toward this case. It just did not seem important to cover the story of a police officer who in fact was a serial rapist in the time when people all on Twitter were connecting this to the Black Lives Matter movement.
However, for those following this case, you know that this almost did not happen. During the trial, the prosecution argued that Holtzclaw selected his “victims” based on their inherent believable. In short, these women that Holtzclaw raped were women that society tended not to believe anyway. Indeed, before this case gain any traction, several of these women and some not part of the 13 attempted to tell officials about their dealing with Holtzclaw. They simply were not believed. It wasn’t until Mrs. Jannie Ligons, a 57 year-old grandmother of 12 testified against Holtzclaw that officials began a serious investigation…..
But enter Black Lives Matter. The movement birth after the Zimmerman verdict of not guilty, aims at affirming all black lives period. No matter condition or position; no matter one’s situation or infatuation, Black Lives Matter. According to Alicia Garza:
BlackLivesMatter doesn’t mean your life isn’t important–it means that Black lives, which are seen as without value within White supremacy, are important to your liberation. Given the disproportionate impact state violence has on Black lives, we understand that when Black people in this country get free, the benefits will be wide reaching and transformative for society as a whole. When we are able to end hyper-criminalization and sexualization of Black people and end the poverty, control, and surveillance of Black people, every single person in this world has a better shot at getting and staying free. When Black people get free, everybody gets free.
In achieving this freedom one way it happens is by way of testimony and the sharing of Black Truth. While the Black Lives matter movement operates on many different levels from protest, to research, to teach ins, to even electoral politics, at its core, it has always been a safe space for the sharing of one’s testimony. It has been the place where one could tell a story of one’s interaction with police, or at work, or at home and not have others questioning your story or looking disapprovingly upon you. It’s been the place where one could go and be whoever they were created to be and find the love that the wider society does not give. In short, it’s been the space where Black Truth has been affirmed.
It’s a space where Black Truth and testimony come to live because wider society has always viewed black truth as suspect. Black truth and testimony has always been questioned and viewed as inaccurate. It’s almost as if truth and Blackness could not coincide together–that Black truth was somehow tainted because of the conditions Black folks found themselves. For a long period in this country black testimony was not given in courts and black people could not testify in any case against a white person. This of course led to the banning of black people from juries and from courtrooms period unless they were in the role of defendants.
However, there was a time when Black truth seemed to matter–at least for a moment. There was this one time, back in 1866 right here in Memphis, Tennessee that some black folks came forward to testify about an atrocity that had happened to them May 1-3. Not long after the vestiges of slavery and still dealing with some form of PTSD, these brave women and men came forward and foreshadowed others would come later bearing Black truth in their bosom and as fire shut in their bones.
Shortly after the massacre, a congressional committee arrived in Memphis to investigate the massacre. During their investigation and interview process, the committee discovered that 46 black people died, 285 people injured, over 100 houses and other property belonging to African Americans burned. (And BTW, we don’t have the time to talk about the Black wealth that was lost and the serious need for a conversation centering on reparations). However, also part of the massacre was the rape of (at least) 5 black women.
The crowning acts of atrocity and diabolism committed during these terrible nights were the ravishing of five different colored women by these fiends in human shape, independent of other attempts at rape. The details of these outrages are of too shocking and disgusting character to be given at length in this report, and reference must be had to the testimony of the parties. It is a singular fact, that while this mob was breathing vengeance against the negroes and shooting them down like dogs, yet when they found unprotected colored women they at once “conquered their prejudices,” and proceeded to violate them under circumstances of the most licentious brutality.
One of the testimonies came from Frances Thompson, who “had been enslaved and was cripple, using crutches because she had cancer on her foot.”
On Tuesday night seven men, two of whom were policemen, came to her house. She knew the two to be policemen by their stars. They were all Irishmen. They first demanded that she should get supper for them, which she did. After supper the wretches threw all the provisions that were in the house which had not been consumed out into the bayou. They then laid hold of Frances, hitting her on the side of the face and kicking her…….The woman was then violated by four of the men and so beaten and bruised that she lay in bed for three days. They were in the house nearly four hours, and when they left they said they intended “to burn up the last God damned nigger, and drive all the Yankees out of town.
Another case is that of Rebecca Ann Bloom who was ravished on the night of May 2nd. According to testimony:
She was in bed with her husband, when five men broke open her door and came into her house. They professed to have authority to arrest Mr. Bloom, and threatened to take him to the station-house unless he should pay them twenty-five dollars. Not having the money, he went out to raise it, and while absent one of the men assaulted the wife and threatened to kill her if she did not let him do as he wished. Brandishing his knife, and swearing she must submit to his wishes, he accomplished his brutal purpose.
Then there was the case of Lucy Tibbs.
A party of seven men broke into her house on Tuesday night and demanded to know where her husband was. She had with her two little children of the ages of five and two years, respectively. She implored them not to do anything to her, as she was just there with her “two little children.” While the others of the party were plundering the house, one man threatened to kill her if she did not submit to his wishes and although another man, discovering her situation, interfered, and told him to let that woman alone that she was not in situation for doing that, the brute did not desist, but succeeded in violating her person in the presence of the other six men. She was obliged to submit, as the house was full of men, and she thought they would kill her, as they had stabbed a woman the previous night in her neighborhood.
In listing the atrocities that the white mob committed, the report concludes that
Hardly any crime seems to have been omitted. There were burglary, robbery, arson, mayhem, rape. assassination, and murder, committed under circumstances of the most revolting atrocity, the details of which in every case are fully set out in the testimony. In many cases negroes were murdered and their bodies remained on the ground for forty-eight hours, and had reached stage of decomposition before they were buried; the relatives and friends of the murdered parties being afraid to appear on the street to claim the dead bodies, and the authorities permitted them to remain longer than they would have permitted the body of dead dog to remain on the street.
It was these and other testimonies that made it in the Congressional Report. As Stephen Ash argued in his book “A Massacre in Memphis,” that the Massacre “provoked the US government to take extraordinary measures to protect freed people.” The 1866 midterm elections ushered in Republican majorities in both the House and Senate that struck down President Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction measures. Under “Congressional Reconstruction,” the federal government imposed temporary federal military rule on the recalcitrant southern states, states had to adopt new state constitutions that granted black men the right to vote, and they must agree to ratify the 14th amendment. In the debates that ensued, the story of the Memphis Massacre and the testimony of black folk figured prominently in their decision making. This led to the first attempt at a bi-racial democracy that scholars now say produced some good outcomes.
What lessons can we learn as we navigate our own treacherous waters in our own time? This is what we hope to figure out together as we continue to study the Memphis Massacre together. During the Memories of a Massacre: Memphis in 1866 project, we will have a series of discussions and lectures all leading up to the Symposium in May. So stay tuned for that.
However, it is Black History Month and during Black History Month, there is always a lot of talk about what we can do to work together and to solve issues that face us. Well, the way for me that it starts with the recovery of Black Truth and as much as it is disregarded, we must recover it and then, dare I say, believe it. In short, Black Truth Matters!
So I live us with some questions to wrestle with. What would it look like today if Black truth was taken seriously by society? What would it look like if we actually believe the folks who tell us time and time again about being harassed, about being beaten, about being set up? For example, what would it look like to have a serious Congressional investigation where the people of Flint, Michigan can testify that they knew something was wrong with the water way before it became news? Indeed, what would that look like if Black Truth Mattered?