Published on November 14th, 2018 | by Randy Weeks0
The View from the Balcony: “Strange Fruit” The Last Lynching Victim in Lafayette County Remembered
On Saturday, October 27 I attended a memorial service at Oxford’s Second Baptist Church for Elwood Higginbottom who was lynched in 1935, the last documented lynching in Lafayette County.
Mr. Higginbottom was African-American. (You might think that could have gone unsaid, but according to the NAACP’s website, between 1882 and 1968 27.3 percent of those who were lynched were Caucasian.)
A historical marker containing a brief history of this heinous event now stands at the corner of Molly Barr and North Lamar (Three-way), as near the actual site of the lynching as can be determined.
I arrived at the service early enough to find a seat near the back. (I prefer an easy exit should I want or need one.) The sanctuary was filled with people of various races, colors, and creeds. There was waving, laughing, chatter, and back-patting a’ plenty. The juxtaposition of joviality at a service for a victim of racist vigilantism was disturbing to me. Can you say “cognitive dissonance”?
I looked over the sea of heads that were reminiscent of Joseph’s coat of many colors. I wondered, are we—meaning we Caucasians—being tolerated by the African-Americans here?
More importantly, are we being tolerated by Elwood Higginbottom’s family: his son, who was only four years old when white folks murdered his father? His grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nephews, nieces, and cousins? Are they laying blame on us, and, if they are, is it not justified?
The message in the mirth was probably that of “look how far we’ve come,” and we have come a long way—haven’t we? My spirit was heavy. I couldn’t celebrate. After all, it was just that morning that eleven Jewish worshippers had been mowed down in the Tree of Life Synagogue, simply because they were Jewish.
Call me cynical. Call me skeptical.
Perhaps I’ve seen too many well-intentioned displays of conversion and unification that produced wonderful feel-good moments that didn’t last. (I know I’m filtering this through my own experiences and beliefs. How could I not?)
The prelude finally began and quiet surfaced, as it should have. Thank G_d!
Photographers walked up and down the aisles with the disconcerting score of shutters snapping. I was greatly annoyed.
(That’s not about the photographers themselves. Some of my best friends are photographers. I know important events like that need to be documented. I just have trouble remaining in a reverential state of mind with the presence of such conspicuous distractions.)
My inner solitude was further invaded by thoughts of church burnings and the weeping of victims of injustice, such things being a pox on the liberty we so love to espouse. White guilt? White contrition? White confession and repentance? Perhaps.
I wondered, “What if the families of the mob of unrighteous avengers were here—as guests invited by the Higginbottom family?” I watched that scene play out in my head, an overly-romanticized and sentimentalized kumbaya moment that soon morphed into a more realistic display of forgiveness and reconciliation.
There was music—such tremendous music. There were testimonies, bold statements of remembrance, thanksgiving, and hope. There was a mighty call to forgiveness and reconciliation. So much good. Yet I remained burdened.
I want to believe that the memorial service was much more than a baby step, though. I want to believe that there was genuine unification in not just the service itself, but in the unrelenting labor of so many who brought this highly significant event to pass.
The memorial service mattered. It was an intentional action toward healing and light, and we need all of that we can get these days. I may be cynical and skeptical at times, but I still believe that light will overcome darkness every time any of us shines our light of love on the hate and injustices of our world, calling it out for what it is and working to eradicate it. Will you do that? If you will, then sing along with me…
“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”