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Virginia woman calls Emmett Till Antilynching Act 'critical to racial healing'

Kimberly Wilson: 'Lynching is like a tentacle of all the injustices that have occurred'
Emmett Till Church Preservation
Posted at 4:52 PM, Apr 05, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-05 17:46:35-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- When President Joe Biden signed legislation that made lynching a federal hate crime last week, it was a "remarkable" moment for Kimberly Wilson.

"It was really a moment in time where confronting that legacy of racial terror -- which is lynching," said Wilson. "The Emmett Till Antilynching Act is just critical to racial healing, as well, to identify that we're not going to tolerate this type of racial terror anymore."

For Wilson, it went beyond her personal feelings to include her ancestor -- who was a leading figure in the fight against lynching.

"I think that would he would have really rejoiced in the moment," said Mitchell. "I think he would have felt that relief of finally, after all of these years, that not just him, but others have been heard."

Wilson is the great-great-niece of John Mitchell, Jr. who served as the editor of The Richmond Planet, a newspaper founded by 13 former slaves in 1882.

The newspaper was honored in the last General Assembly session, when lawmakers passed a bill that would allow for the issuance of special license plates bearing the paper's name. The bill only needs Gov. Glenn Youngkin's (R) signature to become law (a spokesperson for the Governor said he is currently reviewing the legislation).

Mitchell took over as editor at the age of 21 and held the position for the next 45 years. During that time he earned the nickname the "Fighting Editor" and among the issues he tackled was that of lynching in Virginia and across the United States.

"He just reported and fought fearlessly and openly campaigned against racial terrorism and lynching. And he really never just sat at his office at his desk, he was always out speaking to it and fighting injustices head on," said Wilson. "He published on a daily basis, every lynching that he heard about. Where it was, who it was, and he would identify if it was Black and White or just anyone… It wasn't just about Black injustice, it was human, it was humanity. You know, he just abhorred it and thought that it was clearly terrorism and murder."

In one instance, in May 1886, Mitchell was threatened after covering a lynching in Charlotte County and warned not to come to the area.

"Well, he went to Charlotte County to confront anyone that wanted to talk to him about it," said Wilson. Mitchell wrote he was never confronted. "He was not scared. He was only 22 years old at that time and I think that started his legacy of what I call the fight for injustices around racial and lynching inequalities."

While different groups that have researched in the United States report different totals, University of Richmond History Professor Ed Ayers said there were around 4,000 lynchings, with the victims being predominantly Black, between 1880 and the mid-20th century.

"The lynching epidemic, as it was called, really afflicted the United States, especially the American south, between 1880 and 1930 and Virginia was a part of that," said Ayers, who added Virginia's total was at least 86. "In comparison to Georgia, for example, Virginia, had many fewer lynchings, but the ones that did have bore the same hallmarks of those we could find across the south -- which were ritualized, very large mobs, publicly acknowledged by local newspapers, often permitted by local law enforcement."

Ayers said lynchings were "very public demonstrations of White control of the landscape" and the perpetrators were often prominent White men in the community.

"They were doing it to ensure order by which they meant they wanted to make sure that Black people didn't get out of control as White people saw it," added Ayers. "What that could mean is any infraction of what White people determine was the proper racial order. So, it could just be as trivial as looking at someone the wrong way or, as we saw in the Emmett Till case, of whistling. And so, the boundaries of what might trigger lynching were alarmingly vague."

Ayers said while many lynchings were publicized in some newspapers, in other communities efforts were made to hide them -- meaning the true number of lynching may be undercounted, but there are ongoing efforts to find unknown cases.

"It's painstaking work that takes a lot of patience and also sort of determination because the stories are just horrifying," added Ayers.

In Virginia, part of the work is being done by the Virginia Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Commission.

"We really teed off of the work of the Equal Justice Initiative and their Lynching in America project, which documents lynchings across the country that led to the memorial that they have in Alabama," said Commission Chair Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D - Richmond). "We started with a resolution passed in 2019 on behalf of the Commonwealth expressing profound regret, that racial terror lynchings occurred here -- over 100."

McClellan spoke to CBS 6 at Brown's Island, the site of another recent initiative by the Commission, The Emancipation and Freedom Monument, where Mitchell is one of the people honored.

McClellan said on the issue of lynching, they are working with the Department of Historic Resources, EJI, and James Madison University to research and memorialize those that happened in Virginia, including with historical markers — the first of those was erected in Charles City County in 2019.

"There are some we know a lynching occurred, but we don't know the name of the victim. So, here in Richmond there's a case like that. And we found that a lot of communities didn't know about the lynchings that occurred there and helping to raise awareness in those communities has been pretty impactful," added McClellan. "It's really important that this history be told, not only because it happened, but it impacts communities even today and we need to talk about that."

For Wilson, it is an effort she applauds.

"I'm just so proud of their work, perhaps even thinking about how we memorialize it and talk about it and educate our young people to what has occurred and how to promote, what I would call the healing from this trauma," said Wilson. "Because it was trauma. We Black people have been terrorized through lynching. Specifically, lynching is like a tentacle of all the injustices that have occurred."

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