The American lynching era produced no shortage of arresting photographs, but few captured the expansive cruelty of the period as memorably as that of Laura and L.W. Nelson, a mother and her 14-year-old son, hanging from a bridge over the North Canadian River southwest of Okemah, Oklahoma. Taken in late May 1911 and sold as a postcard, the image depicts roughly three dozen white people — overwhelmingly men, but including what appear to be at least two small children — standing at the guardrails, overlooking the water above which dangles the pair of black corpses.
Laura’s head tilts toward her left shoulder, her body covered by an ankle-length dress. L.W.’s body is depicted in profile; his chin is wrenched skyward by the rope encircling his neck, and his pants dangle from around his feet. Both suffered the wrath of the Okemah mob while Austin Nelson, Laura’s husband and L.W.’s father, was incarcerated in a state prison for theft. Sheriff’s Deputy George Loney and a posse had entered the Nelson family’s farm earlier that month with a search warrant, seeking information about a steer that had been stolen from a local white family.
The posse found the animal’s remains on the Nelsons’ property. Austin confessed to its theft, claiming he had stolen it to prevent his wife and children from going hungry. Accounts differ regarding the details of what happened next, but at some point after officials moved to arrest Austin, one or more members of the Nelson family opened fire with a Winchester rifle and killed Loney. The version in which Laura plays the most active role, as reported by the Okemah Independent, finds her reaching for the gun at the same time as her son, L.W., with the ensuing struggle causing it to discharge. (Loney’s murder is nevertheless attributed to L.W.)
Austin was arrested by constables later that day and quickly tried and convicted of theft and sent upstate. Laura claimed responsibility for the shooting in an effort to protect L.W., but both were taken into custody the day after Austin and booked in the local jail. On May 25, mother and son were kidnapped from their cells by a white mob, dragged six miles to the bridge over the river, and killed. Austin survived the ordeal, imprisoned 60 miles away from his family.
The narrative around racist lynchings that predominates is that black men were their primary targets, and that advances toward or violations of white women — whether real, alleged, or imagined — were the driving force behind most of them. This is partly true. Of the more than 4,000 lynchings documented by the Equal Justice Initiative that took place across the South between 1877 and 1950, most killed men, with about 25 percent stemming from rape accusations. An additional 30 percent resulted from murder accusations, but social transgressions that were neither illegal nor even transgressive by today’s standards accounted for many others. A gesture or statement that caused offense was often enough to draw blood. “Anthony Crawford was lynched in Abbeville, South Carolina, in 1916 for rejecting a white merchant’s bid for cottonseed,” according to EJI.
But in the cases where black women were lynched — and by most accounts, scores were — it was frequently in the course of defending or abetting black men. Mary Turner provoked the ire of a Brooks County, Georgia, mob by raising hell over the May 1918 lynching of her husband, Hayes Turner. Mary, then eight months pregnant, threatened loudly and repeatedly to report Hayes’s killers to the authorities — a direct threat to the anonymity under which lynch mobs were sanctioned to operate. History and custom suggest that law enforcement would have done little about Hayes’s murder anyway, but the mere suggestion proved to be fatal: The mob suspended Mary from a tree by her ankles, cut her unborn fetus out of her stomach, set her on fire, and shot her multiple times.
In reports, Laura Nelson is portrayed as equally dogged, even ruthless in defending her son and husband. In addition to claiming responsibility for the shooting of which L.W. stood accused, one newspaper account has Laura remarking, upon seeing Loney hit by the Winchester’s bullet, “Let the white [redacted by the Okemah Ledger] die.” The Ledger further reported that Laura was combative while in jail, at one point physically fighting with a guard after attempting to grab his firearm when he brought her food. This is to say nothing of the extent to which thousands of other black women and girls fought and suffered during this era whenever their fathers, grandfathers, brothers, husbands, or sons were murdered by lynch mobs — or the lengths they went to in order to ensure that their deaths were not in vain. Mamie Till-Mobley’s decision to allow her son Emmett Till’s 1955 funeral to be open casket and open to news photographers resulted in gruesome images that galvanized the burgeoning civil-rights movement.
It is this shared history of suffering and fight back that makes Justin Fairfax’s comments about lynchings so absurd. The 40-year-old black lieutenant governor of Virginia stands accused of sexually assaulting two black women — Meredith Watson, who claimed that Fairfax raped her in 2000 when the two were undergraduates at Duke University; and Vanessa C. Tyson, a Scripps College professor who claimed that Fairfax forced her to give him oral sex in a hotel room during the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004. On Sunday, Fairfax gave an unplanned five-minute speech before the Virginia State Senate, during which he equated his predicament with being lynched. “I have heard much about anti-lynching on the floor of this very Senate, where people are not given any due process whatsoever, and we rue that,” Fairfax said, according to the New York Times, referencing legislation the Senate had passed previously to amend for past racist vigilantism. “And yet we stand here in a rush to judgment in nothing but accusations and no facts, and we are deciding we are willing to do the same thing.”
The tradition of famous black men accused of sexual misconduct comparing their situation to lynchings in not new. Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas coined the claim in 1991 during his confirmation hearings, which featured testimony from Anita Hill, a black attorney, who accused Thomas of sexually harassing her while he was her supervisor at the U.S. Department of Education. “[From] my standpoint as a black American … it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas,” Thomas, a staunch conservative, told the Senate Judiciary Committee. Spokespersons for R. Kelly, the R&B singer currently out on $100,000 bail after being charged with ten counts of aggravated sexual abuse, in May responded similarly to the #MuteRKelly campaign — a black-woman-led effort to force music labels and streaming platforms to divest from Kelly — by dismissing it as a lynching. “We will vigorously resist this attempted public lynching of a black man who has made extraordinary contributions to our culture,” they said, according to Variety.
Kelly has a decades-long history of sexual-abuse allegations leveled by black women and girls, some as young as 13 years old, many of whom have been kept silent through settlement agreements. Thomas was elevated to the Supreme Court even as Hill was subjected to Senate grilling and passed a polygraph test regarding her allegations against him. Fairfax could be facing an investigation from the Republican-controlled Virginia House of Delegates, during which Watson and Tyson may be called to testify. The unifying theme is black women and girls risking disbelief, harassment, legal action, and reputational damage by speaking out against black men far more powerful and protected than they. The past lynchings evoked by Thomas, Kelly, and Fairfax bear little resemblance to these modern travails — the three men are alive, for starters, and have been afforded every degree of due process to which they are entitled, not to mention they wield influence that would have been unfathomable to most actual lynching victims.
But perhaps the most remarkable distortion being made is the inversion of the role of black women amid such violence, pursued here in the service of discrediting other black women. In all three instances, black women have been simultaneously cast as liars and mechanisms of white supremacy bent on tearing down black men — when, in reality, the polar opposite has almost always been the case. Black women’s advocacy on behalf of black men and boys is no mere historical phenomenon. Even today, black men and boys killed by police or vigilantes find their most dedicated champions in their mothers and woman activists — people like Samaria Rice and Lucy McBath, and organizations like Assata’s Daughters. By rewriting this narrative, Fairfax is rewriting the history of the very killings he evokes for sympathy. Lynchings were not just extrajudicial murders. They were attacks by white Americans on entire black communities, with terror, rupture, and, ultimately, the consolidation of white power as their aim.
Plenty of elements would have to be different for Fairfax’s predicament to be comparable to the kind of lynching he describes, and that for decades held black Virginians in a state of terror. High on that list is that his black women accusers would have to occupy a similar space on the racial and gender hierarchies as white women — not just worthy of white men’s protection, but held in such esteem and understood as so symbolic of white purity that allegedly whistling at them or “frightening” them — to say nothing of sexually assaulting them — was just cause for murder without trial.
But this has never been the case for black women, and it is certainly not today. Indeed, the devastation of black communities that resulted from racist lynchings like Laura Nelson’s in 1911 served the interests of black women no better than it would were Justin Fairfax being lynched in 2019. We are left instead with an empty analogy from the lieutenant governor, stemming from a mix of indignation and a misreading of history at best, and at worst, an effort to hide nefarious deeds by equating his accusers with racist terrorists. Neither speaks well of Fairfax as a person or a leader. And neither casts light on the history of lynchings in America — or brings us any closer to the truth about what happened between Fairfax and the two women speaking out against him.