Ever hear of the Leflore County Massacre?
Me neither, or at least not enough that I could recall it when David Brown asked me that question.
Brown was a young reporter at the Commonwealth during the mid-1970s. Now 70, he returned to Greenwood this past week on a two-fold mission — to present a 1944 presidential election poster that had previously belonged to Mississippi John Hurt to the late blues musician’s family, and to do research on the record number of lynchings that had occurred in Leflore County’s past.
Brown says he didn’t realize during the two years he lived in Greenwood that Leflore County had been the lynching capital of Mississippi during the Jim Crow era. It wasn’t talked about in the white society that welcomed him, and it wasn’t something his journalist curiosity prompted him to unearth.
He knew of Emmett Till’s murder and Greenwood’s connection to the assassination of NAACP leader Medgar Evers. Evers’ killer, Byron De La Beckwith, would occasionally pop into the newspaper office, which was downtown at that time.
Brown also knew Leflore County was a place with a long history of racial intolerance. But the magnitude and the violent extent of it didn’t show up on his radar while he lived here, an omission that shames him still and for which he hopes to partially atone by applying his journalistic skills — and his nuanced understanding of the region — to tell an integral if difficult slice of that story now.
“It’s an attempt to come to terms with my own oversight and ignorance and cowardice and perhaps not alienate the few friends I have remaining here,” he says.
The Massachusetts native was one of the first out-of-state newsroom hires made by John Emmerich after Emmerich acquired the Commonwealth in 1973 and began to correct how the newspaper’s coverage had perpetually slighted the Black community. That included assigning Brown to cover the meetings of the Greenwood Voters League.
Brown went from the Commonwealth to the Baltimore Sun, then later to The Washington Post as its medical reporter for 22 years. In between, he earned a medical degree. Even while on staff at the Post, he worked one day a week as a physician at an inner-city clinic in Baltimore, where he continues to live today.
Forced into retirement in 2013 during an era of downsizing at the Post, he continues to do some freelance writing and has partially written a book about a rare disorder that left 10,000 premature newborns blind during the 1940s and 1950s.
His interest in Leflore County’s lynching history was sparked by a visit to the Equal Justice Initiative’s lynching memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. There some 800 steel columns break down, county by county, the more than 4,000 lynchings that occurred in 12 Southern states from 1877 to 1950. Mississippi had the most at 654, with Leflore County the most in Mississippi with 48. Carroll County is next at 29.
More than half of Leflore County’s total, 25, are listed as unknown victims of the 1889 massacre, when the county’s white sheriff directed a murderous posse to crush an effort by Black farmers and farm workers to organize into an alliance that would make them less dependent on white merchants and others who wanted to keep them subservient.
Lynchings like this were used to punish Blacks suspected of wrongdoing or to intimidate those who dared to challenge the racial caste system that prevailed even after slavery. They are an emotionally wrenching and potentially divisive subject to tackle. Victims were shot or hanged or even burned at the stake, sometimes preceded by stomach-turning torture.
Some will claim that rehashing those gruesome cruelties threatens to reverse the racial progress that has been made in recent decades. It’s like picking at a scab and never letting it heal.
Brown acknowledges the persuasiveness of that argument. “Denial and repression are two of the most important, most useful psychological defense mechanisms that have evolved in human beings. It’s just not persuasive enough. Even if white people who never participated in and don’t condone in any way this sort of violence don’t want to confront it, there are people living in their midst who do want to confront it.”
He understands from an academic perspective the historical and economic conditions that led Mississippi to violently suppress Blacks. He doesn’t believe there is anything inherently depraved in Mississippi’s nature that led it to defend the institution of slavery so stridently and then, after being on the losing side of the Civil War, choose to restore white domination through any means necessary, including sometimes by violence.
“Massachusetts would have been Mississippi if it had an agricultural economy and a region where there were 10 blacks to every white, but the whites were completely in charge and owned the Blacks for 150 years,” he says.
Still, according to Brown, that doesn’t let Mississippi off the hook for government policies today that he believes are rooted in racism, such as the refusal to expand Medicaid or trying to shift the tax burden from income to consumption. And it doesn’t lift the moral imperative to confront honestly a past whose unfairness produced in Blacks an emotional burden that continues to be passed on from generation to generation.
Brown worries that he may come across like the white Northerners he scorns, who over the decades have tried to tell those in the South how to act without any personal experience themselves of living in such a biracial society. And he recognizes that shedding the collective amnesia about parts of Leflore County’s past will be painful and difficult and could increase racial hostility, at least initially.
The physician journalist, though, offers a medical analogy to try to explain why the reckoning, however uncomfortable, is necessary if the races are to live amicably together.
“It’s like radical surgery or chemotherapy. The good comes with the cutting and the killing and the poisoning. There may be better health on the other side, but there’s a lot of pain and suffering.”
- Contact Tim Kalich at 662-581-7243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.