The Claude Neal lynching

5 Jun

In The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson‘s hard-to-put-down chronicle of the Great Migration,  she describes the lynching of Claude Neal in Marianna, Florida in 1934.

It is  a gruesome tale of unspeakable acts, including the mutilation, hanging, rehanging, dragging and shooting of one  man.

And though we can only hope that this orgy of gratuitous hate and voyeurism was what Wilkerson says was “perhaps the single worst act of torture and execution in twentieth-century America,”  we know it was illustrative of the reign of terror, humiliation and intimidation that prevailed in the American South well into the 1960s.

“Across the country, thousands of outraged Americans wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt demanding a federal investigation,” Wilkerson writes. “The NAACP compiled a  sixteen-page report and more files on the Neal case than any other lynching in American history. But Neal had the additional misfortune of having been lynched just before the 1934 national midterm elections, which were being seen as a referendum on the New Deal itself. Roosevelt chose not to risk alienating the South with a Democratic majority in Congress at stake. He did not intervene in the case. No one was ever charged in Neal’s death or spent a day in jail for it,” Wilkerson adds.

My father was one of those outraged writers, who inveighed against Roosevelt and the Episcopal Church.

In a column published November 10, 1934, Ebenezer pointed out the contradictions in the editorial pages of the Pittsburgh Courier, which he said “flaunts the glories of the New Deal,” yet criticized “Uncle Sam” for failing to intervene in the Neal lynching case.  My father  warned that FDR’s inaction might cost him the black vote in the 1936 election:

“The front pages of some of the daily papers in New York during the week past bore a symbol of America’s ‘New Deal’ to the Negro  — the mutilated body of Claude Neal hanging [from] a tree on the lawn of a courthouse in Marianna, Florida. President Roosevelt, while laboring honestly to turn the nation ‘around the corner’ where prosperity is, might turn aside for a brief while to intercede with Uncle Sam on behalf of an outraged race. Otherwise, far-thinking Negroes might accuse him of being Uncle Sam, in November 1936.”

The New York Age, November 10, 1934

In December of 1934, he criticized the Episcopal Church for appealing to Congress to call for the international revision of the calendar so that Easter would fall on a fixed date, but failing to give vocal support to anti-lynching legislation called the Costigan-Wagner Act.

“In the meantime,” my father wrote, “such matters as the recent Claude Neal lynching and the wrongful imprisonment and wouldbe ‘legal’ ‘lynching’ of the nine Scottsboro boys, a rank disgrace to any country or nation which boasts of any religion whatever, the Protestant Episcopal none the less, seem to be of little or no concern to these religious luminaries . . .”

The New York Age, December 8, 1934

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