Tuesday, March 13, 2007

An Averted Lynching

Came across this jaw-dropping story in the 1922 autobiography of Laurence Jones, the early twentieth-century black educator who founded the Piney Woods School in Mississippi:
In the South, as may be imagined, I had various experiences, and some are written upon my mind in letters of flame. Of them all I feel that I must tell the story of one, not only because it was the most fearful of all, but also because it reveals the gleam of hope that sometimes lurks beneath the surface even with those whom we consider hostile.

Just before we entered the World War a friend of mine who was a minister in a state west of the Mississippi asked me to come and help him in a revival, saying that while I was not a preacher he thought that I might still be able to help him. On the third night I happened to use various words and phrases drawn from military life and operations, telling the people that life itself was a battle, that we must stay on the firing line, and battle against ignorance, superstition, poverty, and all the evil elements of earth and air. Some white boys who happened to be riding near the church stopped and listened a few minutes and then hastened away to their settlements spreading the news that I was urging the Negroes to "rise up and fight the white people."

The next day about noon half a hundred men rode up to the church door and called for me. The people in the church with blanched faces looked toward me, and fear such as I never before saw on human faces looked pitieously out of their eyes. I went to the door and said to the men, "I guess I'm the one you're looking for." The leader in a harsh voice ordered me to get in the center. The others closed around me; one threw a rope over my head and drew the noose, and down the road we went.

The rest is a nightmare through which somehow sing strains of old Negro melodies. We went to a place rather free from trees, save one with a stout, jagged branch reaching out from it. Under this branch had been piled wood, branches, and fagots, and around the pile was a sea of stern faces, while riders on horses and mules kept coming in an unending stream. A horrible yell rent the air and two or three young boys climbed the tree ready to catch the rope. I was picked up bodily and thrown on the top of the pile of wood, while another roar of noise went up from every throat. Meanwhile I could hear the cocking and priming of guns and revolvers, and from various parts of the crowd random shots had begun to be fired.

Then a strange thing happened. One man jumped to the side of the log heap and, waving his hat for silence, demanded that I make a speech. With a prayer for help I did speak; I spoke as I had never spoken before about the life in our Southland and of what we should all do to make it better. I told stories that made the crowd laugh, I explained what I had really said the night before, I referred to different white men in the South with whom I had had helpful dealing, naming such men as Hon. R. F. Everett, [several other names], and I finally said that I knew there was no man standing there who wanted to go to God with the blood of an innocent man on his hands.

Then an aged man wearing a Confederate button pushed his way through the crowd and waving his hand for silence, said, "I know those men, they're all right folks; this must be a good darky." Turning, he grasped my hand -- "Come on down, boy," he said, as he pulled me to him and took the rope from around my neck, then others reached out and shook hands with me. God had delivered. Some on the edge of the crowd were muttering, for they felt they had been cheated out of their fun, but the majority seemed to be with me. Then someone shouted, "Let's take up a collection for the Parson;" and several began passing hats. Some actually threw money at me. Some asked, "When are you going to preach again, Parson? We want to be there." The collection finally amounted to fifty dollars. Then one man let me have the use of his horse, he took another, and together we rode back to the church.

As we drew near the church it seemed deserted, but as we approached the door we could hear a mellow voice in prayer. We learned that in their fright the people had scattered to their homes, all save half a dozen of the older men, who had been down on their knees all the time I had been gone asking God to perform a miracle as He did with Daniel in the lions' den and with the three Hebrew children in the fiery furnace.

But although they had been praying for my return they could hardly believe it, and as they looked at me were frightened enough to run. Then my companion said, 'This ain't no ghost; it's the same teacher we took away. It's all a mistake and he's all right; I mean to come out and hear him myself. He's done us more good today than he's done you all ever since he's been here. Next time you have a meeting I'll be out and tell you about it."

Then he departed, leaving me with my own; and those dear old men, bent with years of toil and struggle, always longing and hoping for the better day that never came, hugged me and cried and sang and prayed, and as we came out of the church the west was aglow with a wonderful sunset, the most wonderful I had ever seen. The stillness was enchanting, and far across the pine trees the fading light brought a feeling of relief and contentment.


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