An Invitation to the Lynching of American Democracy

For many, the image of a lynch mob seems more like a period piece, set in the late 19th or perhaps the early 20th century. Yet, this year, the United States and indeed the world, was witness to a horror that was once used to terrorize the few, and was now being used to target our Democracy.

On the morning of February 13, 2021, those who followed the Second Impeachment Trial of Donald J Trump, awoke and readied themselves for what was scheduled to be the final day of an extraordinary and haunting trial. However, new evidence from Republican Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington State had surfaced and had put into doubt whether the trial would end that day. The breaking news shined a spotlight on the actions of the former President as the mob breached the Capitol. Her statement confirmed that President Trump knew about the breach, the threat to Members of Congress and the Vice President, but did nothing to stop it.

The insurrectionists had been summoned by President Trump to come to Washington D.C for the ‘Save America March’ on the sixth of January. The date coincided with the day set aside under Title 3 of the United States Code § 15 for the Joint Session of Congress to count the certificate of votes from each state and certify the election victory of the President and Vice President of the United States.

Supporters of the impeachment and conviction believed the House managers had prosecuted a perfect and brilliant case. The new evidence and the possibility of adding witnesses was welcomed with anxious anticipation. ‘Will they or won’t they call witnesses?’ was the question of the morning. Most thought they should. When the House managers called the vote to hear witnesses — and won — accountability seemed almost possible.

After a couple hours delay, the House managers reappeared in the Senate chamber and announced that Representative Beutler’s statement would be read into the record as evidence without objection from the Defense. Representative Beutler’s statement confirmed, as fact, the occurrence of a heated conversation between then-President Donald Trump and House Minority Leader, Kevin McCarthy as the insurrectionists stormed the Capitol.

One could almost hear the audible gasp on social media as Representative Jamie Raskin stood at the podium and began to read the statement. Many expected he would still announce plans to call witnesses, but that expectation and hope quickly dissipated.

With the realization that witnesses were not going to be called, those who were convinced of Donald Trump’s guilt went through a range of emotions. First confusion, then shock, anger, and finally, acceptance. It was indisputable that the House managers had prosecuted a brilliant case. They had brought forth compelling evidence that proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Donald Trump had summoned, incited, and then unleashed a lynch mob onto the nation’s Capitol in an effort to stop the electoral certification required for a peaceful transfer of power. But this was not a criminal trial, so proving their case beyond a reasonable doubt was not pertinent.

Donald Trump incited an insurrection. The mob that stormed the nation’s Capitol looking to lynch Members of Congress and the Vice President resulted in the death of seven people.

Very few were ever under the illusion that sycophantic and political opportunists in Congress would ever turn against Donald Trump, no matter their Constitutional obligation to their Oath of Office. Donald Trump had amassed a cult following that was willing to kill and die for him. Republican lawmakers lived, and continue to live in fear of Donald Trump unleashing his supporters on them.

Black people especially had a different response to the House managers’ decision not to call witnesses. Theirs was a visceral reaction that was difficult to articulate.

Elie Mystal, Justice Correspondent for The Nation and frequent MSNBC Contributor responded perfectly. “The point of the witnesses was not to change Republican minds,” he said. There was never any doubt that Donald Trump was guilty. The point of witnesses was to show the ugliness of the Republican’s acquittal and expose the face of White Supremacy.

There’s historical precedent for this. To understand the reaction we must examine the entire story from the lead up to the election, the sabotage of the Post Office, the attack on Black Lives Matter protesters, and the attempt to toss out votes from predominantly Black cities.

We start on August 28, 1955, when a fourteen-year-old boy named Emmett Till was lynched and his body thrown into the Tallahatchie. Three days later, his badly mutilated body was found floating in the river. At his funeral his mother, Mamie Till-Bradley, insisted that the casket remain open. “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby,” she said. The pictures of Till’s disfigured body gained national attention.

The body of Emmett Till shown before an open casket funeral.

Two White men, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam, were arrested for kidnapping Emmett Till. Despite admitting that they’d taken the young boy, an all-White jury returned a verdict of “Not Guilty.” That verdict left many people feeling helpless, while galvanizing many others.

Just over two months after the funeral of Emmett Till, a young woman left work, boarded a bus, and sat down. After the section reserved for White passengers filled up, the bus driver moved the ‘Colored’ sign behind her and three other Black passengers. They were told to get up and move further to the back, behind the sign he’d just moved to accommodate the White passengers. The woman did not get up. Instead, she slid over next to the window. This of course did not satisfy the bus driver and he told her to get up and move to the back. Again, she refused. Her name was Rosa Parks.

As she sat in her seat contemplating if she should move, she thought about the murder of that 14-year-old boy. She thought of Emmett Till and couldn’t go back. She held her ground and stayed in her seat. The bus driver called the police and she was arrested.

The day after Ms. Parks’ arrest, activists met in the basement of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. They began the planning for a one-day boycott of Montgomery buses. This was the beginning of what would become the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott. The activists formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to organize and lead the movement. MIA chose as their leader, the new 25 year old pastor of the church. His name was Martin Luther King Jr.

About 50 miles away from Montgomery, in a town near Troy, Alabama, sat a 15-year-old young man. He saw the images of the mutilated body of Emmett Till, and they ignited his desire for racial justice. His activism led him to a meeting with Rosa Parks at the tender age of 17. At 18, he met with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and became one of the original Freedom Riders at the age of 21. He went on to become the youngest speaker at the March on Washington at the age of 23, walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday at the age of 25, and stood alongside Martin Luther King Jr. with President Lyndon B Johnson that same year, when the President signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. His name was John Lewis. The rest, as they say, is history.

Taking a stand against White supremacy comes with a price. Rosa Parks and her husband, Raymond, lost their jobs after the boycott. They eventually had to leave Alabama to find work. They settled in Detroit. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. dedicated his life to the Civil Rights Movement. He was jailed 29 times, beaten, and ultimately shot and killed on the evening of April 4, 1968 while he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 39-years-old. John Lewis was jailed at least 45 times. He was beaten so badly on Bloody Sunday he thought he was going to die. He bore the scars from that day for the rest of his life.

The lynching of Emmett Till was the spark that lit the fires of activism and resistance that became known as the Civil Rights Movement.

Lynching is defined as a form of violence in which a mob, under the pretext of administering justice without a trial, executes the presumed offender. It often involves inflicting torture and corporal mutilation. From 1882–1968, there were 4,743 lynchings in the United States. Of those lynched, 3,446 were Black. It must be noted that these numbers represent only the lynchings that were recorded. Many White people were also lynched, mostly for helping Black people.

In American history, lynchings were used as a method of social and racial control. Most of the lynchings took place in the South and were used to terrorize its Black citizens into submission and inferior racial caste position. White men used the threat of lynching to keep ‘niggers in their place.’

A typical lynching would involve criminal accusations, often dubious, against a Black American, and the assembly of a “lynch mob” intent on subverting the normal judicial process. It was not uncommon for the lynch mob to have the cooperation of the sheriff or local law enforcement. It was also not uncommon for the lynch mob to remove Black men or women from jail cells before lynching them.

Knowing this history and surviving intergenerational trauma caused by systemic racism is what triggered such a strong reaction from people within the Black community.

On January 6, 2021, at the behest of President Trump, a mob of his supporters laid siege to the U.S Capitol Building. They had charged Members of Congress with treason and branded them traitors for “stealing the election.” They went so far as to erect gallows outside the Capitol. The insurrectionists carried with them various versions of the American flag. Many of them also carried the Confederate battle flag and the Betsy Ross flag that has been co-opted by White supremacists. Once they’d reached the Capitol, they hung the largest flag, the flag of Donald Trump, across the balcony as if to declare ‘this is the government of Donald Trump.’

With the cheers of a thousand insurrectionists at their backs, several of the rioters reached a ledge, ripped an American flag off of a flagpole, and replaced it with a Trump flag. This was Donald Trump’s country.

History books are filled with similar images and stories in countries where democracies fell and were replaced with authoritarianism. Our Democracy and Democratic Republic were under siege.

Donald Trump was impeached in 2019 for trying to influence the upcoming election. He was impeached in 2021 for inciting the riot. At the root of both impeachments was the attempt to illegally stay in power.

He was acquitted in the first impeachment trial on February 5, 2020. Just a short two months later in April, he began attacking the United States Postal Service. The following month, the USPS Board of Governors, all selected by Donald Trump and confirmed by the Senate, announced the controversial pick of Louis DeJoy for Postmaster General and CEO. Louis Dejoy had no prior Post Office experience and was known to have been a top Republican donor. By June, Dejoy had implemented operational changes that resulted in the decline of on-time delivery of first-class mail. In the key swing states of Ohio and Pennsylvania, on-time delivery rates of first-class mail fell by more than 60%.

Vote-by-mail as a method of voting has been extremely popular with Republican voters. That changed in 2020. Donald Trump encouraged his supporters to vote in-person, saying it was patriotic and the only acceptable legal method of voting. He then proceeded to relentlessly attack mail-in ballots.

By July 2020, the US Postal Service had sent letters to 46 states and D.C., warning them that the USPS could not guarantee all ballots cast by mail for the November election would arrive in time to be counted.

The slow down of on-time delivery of first-class mail became a major concern for the upcoming election due to the likelihood of increased use of mail-in ballots because of the coronavirus pandemic. During this time, President Trump had admitted he was blocking key funding for the postal service to make it harder to vote by mail.

Civil Rights organizations sued to stop Postmaster General Dejoy from continuing to make changes that stalled on-time delivery service. They won. In September, a federal judge ordered Dejoy to halt implementing changes he found were politically motivated. In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Stanley Bastian wrote that the changes were clearly aimed at “voter disenfranchisement”, given the increased role USPS would play in the 2020 presidential election. “It is easy to conclude that the recent Postal Services’ changes are an intentional effort on the part of the current administration to disrupt and challenge the legitimacy of upcoming local, state, and federal elections.”

Pennsylvania State law requires that ballots be received by county elections officials by 8 p.m. on an Election Day; postmarks don’t count. As a result of the letter received from the USPS warning that mail delays could impact the delivery of mail-in ballots, Pennsylvania election officials asked its state’s Supreme Court for permission to count ballots delivered three days after Election Day. That permission was granted. The Trump Reelection Campaign sued.

That lawsuit made its way to the U.S Supreme Court. In a 4–4 decision, the U.S Supreme Court upheld the lower court ruling that required county election officials to receive and count mailed-in ballots that arrive up until November 6, even if they don’t have a clear postmark, as long as there is no proof it was mailed after the polls closed.

Fueled by the coronavirus pandemic, 13 states changed their rules to allow voters who feared contracting or spreading COVID-19 to cast mail-in ballots. Many states also expanded the criteria for who could request a mail-in ballot. The Trump campaign sued three of those states. They also filed another suit in Pennsylvania for its use of mail-in ballot drop boxes.

By August, Donald Trump began to lay the groundwork for an election loss to Joe Biden with the accusation that the Democrats would try to steal the election by mail-in voting. He repeatedly declared, without evidence, that the only way he’d lose the election was if the election was ‘rigged’ or ‘stolen’. At no point, in the months leading up to the general election in 2016 or 2020, did Donald Trump ever agree to a peaceful transfer of power. He made the claim of a rigged and stolen election in 2016 and again in 2020

There was a lot of activity leading up to the November general election that aimed to accomplish one thing — disenfranchise voters who were primarily Democratic and predominantly people of color.

On November 4th, the day after Election Day, nine states had yet to be called. In the days between November 3rd and the election being called for Joe Biden, then-President Trump claimed a premature victory and accused Democrats of trying to steal the election by continuing to count mail-in ballots. He claimed that only in-person votes and ‘certain’ mail-in ballots should be counted. ‘Stop the Count,’ became the rallying cry. Trump declared all remaining ballots were illegal, since the election was over and should not be counted.

That’s not how our elections work. Election Day is actually an election season that begins with early voting that starts in September and continues through Election Day — the first Tuesday of November. Every state has its own election laws concerned with counting ballots, especially provisional or mail-in ballots received after Election Day. Some states also allow time for voters to ‘cure’ their ballots, such as providing evidence of signature matches, within an allotted time frame after Election Day.

Both the Donald Trump Reelection Campaign and the Joe Biden Campaign knew that the pathway to the White House could come down to the state of Pennsylvania. On Saturday, November 7, 2020 the Associated Press called the state of Pennsylvania for Joe Biden. This gave him 284 electoral votes and thus made him President-elect.

Joe Biden won the state of Pennsylvania by a margin of 80,555 votes. After the state allowed the counting of ballots delivered three days after Election Day, only 10,000 ballots were received after November 3rd. This would not have been enough to change the outcome of the electoral votes in Pennsylvania.

The Trump Campaign filed at least 42 legal challenges after Election Day. They lost all of them.

The irony of Trump’s charge that the election was stolen is that he actively and openly tried to steal the election by sabotaging the Post Office. This fact has been completely ignored by his supporters who still believe the election was stolen from him.

After losing the battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and the red state of Georgia, Donald Trump and his allies targeted ballots in the cities of those states with large Black populations. He took aim at Detroit, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Atlanta for recounts or invalidation in his attempt to overturn the election.

On January 2, 2021, Donald Trump placed a call to the Georgia Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, and pressured him to find 11,780 votes from Fulton County, which includes the predominantly Black city of Atlanta. He’d chastised the Secretary of State for sending his people into the heavily-White Cobb County.

“But we didn’t want Cobb County. We wanted Fulton County. And you wouldn’t give it to us,” he said.

Donald Trump lost all but one election lawsuit. He also failed to intimidate or sway friendly Republican election officials in key battleground states. As the date Congress was scheduled to meet to certify states’ electoral certificates neared, Trump ran out of options to overturn his election loss. That left only one remaining possibility, the ‘Nightmare Scenario.’

As directed by the Constitution, Congress receives the certificate of votes from each state, and in joint session, counts them. If no candidate receives 270 electoral votes due to disputed ballots, the House is directed to elect the President. The Senate is directed to elect the Vice President. If the 2020 election was to be decided by the House, the outcome would have likely reelected Donald Trump.

Why? If the presidential race ends up in the House, the outcome depends on which party controls the state’s delegation — NOT the House of Representatives. This was a compromise the Framers made with small states worried their voice would be silenced by large states in the event of an electoral tie. As it stood in 2020, Republicans were in the majority with control of 26 state delegations. It was the ‘Nightmare Scenario’ for everyone except Donald Trump.

This was clearly on Trump’s mind. On January 5, he released a statement on his campaign website that read,

“Our Vice President has several options under the U.S. Constitution. He can decertify the results or send them back to the states for change and certification. He can also decertify the illegal and corrupt results and send them to the House of Representatives for the one vote for one state tabulation.”

The Vice President didn’t have the authority to do either of those things. Per the Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution, the president of the Senate presides over the session. His role, mostly ceremonial, is to simply count the certificate of votes sent by each state. Vice President Pence informed President Trump that he believed he did not have the authority to block certification of the President-elect.

However, the next day, on January 6 at 8:17 a.m, Donald Trump tweeted another accusation of vote fraud and urged Vice President Pence to have “extreme courage” and do the right thing.

At 12:00 p.m, Donald Trump began his speech at The Ellipse.

His speech in front of thousands of adoring supporters could have easily been made by any wannabe dictator. “Make no mistake, this election was stolen from you, from me and from the country,” Donald Trump told his supporters. Throughout the speech he continued to make the false claim that all Mike Pence had to do was, “…send it back to the states.”

Trump also told them how he would keep people from voting if he were to remain President. “We will restore the vital civic tradition of in-person voting on Election Day,” he said. This statement, while it hasn’t gotten much attention, is chilling. This was a promise of voter suppression. Since the November 2020 election, thirty-three states have introduced, pre-filed, or carried over 165 bills to restrict voting access. The fight for the right of Black Americans to vote is as old as the Constitution.

It is underappreciated how much the accusation of a stolen election is linked to the Black vote. Following the end of the Civil War in 1865, the Reconstruction Republicans pushed to secure the civil rights of newly freed Blacks. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution — known as the Civil War Amendments, were proposed.

  • The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime.
  • The Fourteenth Amendment overturned the Dred Scott Decision and gave citizenship and basic rights to the newly freedmen.
  • The Fifteenth Amendment prohibited federal and state governments from denying a citizen the right to vote based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

The Fifteenth Amendment was ratified on February 3, 1870. On March 31, 1870, in the city of Perth Amboy New Jersey, Thomas Mundy Peterson became the first Black man in the country to cast his vote. Years later, Peterson described how one White man, upon seeing him vote, ripped up his own ballot and declared that the franchise was worthless if a Black man was allowed to vote.

In the ensuing decades following the ratification of the 15th Amendment, various discriminatory and intimidation tactics — including lynching, were used to prevent Blacks from exercising their right to vote.

In 1956, J. W. Milam, one of the men who lynched Emmett Till said,

Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I’m no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers — in their place — I know how to work ’em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government.

On schedule, the Joint Session of Congress started at 1:00 p.m. At the same time, Vice President Pence released a three page letter making it clear that he would follow the Constitution, and the Constitution does not give him ‘unilateral authority’ to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not.

At 1:10 p.m., Donald Trump ended his speech and encouraged his supporters to march to the Capitol. “We’re going to try and give them [Republicans] the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country,” he said.

Vice President Pence began the process of counting the certificate of votes from each state. He read the state names in alphabetical order. There were no objections to the first two states of Alabama and Alaska. Then, at 1:12 p.m., Mike Pence asked if there were any objections to the counting of the certification of votes for the state of Arizona. At that point, Arizona Representative, Republican Paul Gosar stood to object to the counting of the certificate of votes for his state. When Mike Pence asked if the objection was in writing and signed by a Senator, as required by the constitution, Gosar announced, “Yes it is.” As the signer, Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas stood up and both men received a standing ovation from their Republican colleagues. Vice President Pence then dismissed Members of Congress, and the joint session separated into House and Senate chambers to debate the objection.

That was as far as they got before the insurrectionists breached the barricades and stormed the Capitol.

During the insurrection, it was astounding and terrifying to watch the mob roam the Capitol seemingly unopposed. Many of us watched, remembering that seven months earlier, the U.S. Park Police and National Guard troops had released tear gas into a crowd of peaceful protestors so that Donald Trump could walk from the White House to the St. John’s Church for a photo op of him holding a Bible. We also hadn’t forgotten how Donald Trump and William Barr sent heavily-armed federal law enforcement officers with no insignia, identifying emblems, or name badges to the streets of Washington D.C and Portland and forcibly detained anti-racism and anti-police brutality demonstrators.

The Capitol Police, although heroic in their effort, were woefully unprepared for what had been unleashed on them. Black Capitol Police Officers were especially vulnerable. The Black officers recounted being subjected to racist abuse for hours as they fought to hold back the mob. One of the officers recalled being called ‘nigger’ so many times, that after surviving the attack he dropped to the floor and cried.

Another officer recalled seeing images of a White colleague taking a selfie with the attackers. “That one hurt me the most because I was on the other side of the Capitol getting my ass kicked,” he said.

We know what would have happened had the insurrectionists been Black, and that realization was hard to shake.

Joy Ann Reid — MSNBC Host of The ReidOut captured that sentiment perfectly as the video of the insurrectionists storming the Capitol aired on live television on January 6.

They own the cops. The cops work for them, and people like me have no damn right to try to elect a president. Because we don’t get to pick the president. They get to pick the president. They own the president. They own the White House. They own this country.”

Lynching in the United States precipitated the disenfranchisement of Black voters.

It was Black voters that helped deliver the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Georgia to the Democrats and the election to Joe Biden. The underlying reason for storming the Capitol to lynch Members of Congress and the Vice President was no different from the one that precipitated the deaths of Medgar Evers and Jimmie Lee Jackson. The Capitol insurrectionists were no different from the lynch mob that executed James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner.

Donald Trump has masterfully exploited racial tensions and animosity. Aggrieved Whites cling to his every word, especially when he speaks about race. Trump attacked diversity training and critical race theory as a radicalized view of American history. He accused groups such as the 1619 Project of vilifying the nation’s Founders. He claimed schools had been infiltrated by Liberal, anti-American thought and required a new “pro-American” curriculum. His Administration promised a more “patriotic education” and released the 1776 Commission. This was his attempt to rewrite American history to excuse slavery, condemn the Civil Rights Movement, and equate progressivism with fascism and communism. The report was a White supremacist propaganda piece meant to be taught in schools in the same way books were distributed in German schools to teach German school-children Nazi ideologies.

Black Americans always knew that Donald Trump’s campaign slogan and promise to Make America Great Again was a euphemism for Make America White Again.

The Second Impeachment Trial of Donald J. Trump is behind us. Seven Senate Republicans broke with their party and found him guilty of the single charge of Incitement of Insurrection. It was the most bipartisan impeachment vote in history. However, the final vote of 57–43 found him “Guilty,” but failed to meet the two-thirds majority requirement for conviction, per the Constitution.

No one doubted that Donald Trump would be acquitted. Some people questioned, “Why bother?” The second impeachment of Donald Trump was the right thing to do. It was necessary to try him for the charge of which he was, according to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, “practically and morally responsible.”

Every single Member of Congress was a victim of Donald Trump’s attempted coup. Had any of them been caught by the mob, especially Democratic members and Congressional members of color, they would likely have been lynched. The House managers proved their case. The call for witnesses was not about moving Republicans to acquit Donald Trump. Recent history has shown that the majority of Republicans are never going to hold Trump accountable for anything.

Republican Senator James Lankford apologized to his Black constituents in Oklahoma for his role in objecting to the certification of the electoral votes in battleground states. He said “did not realize” he was hurting Black voters in those states. Tulsa, Oklahoma was the site of the worst incidents of racial violence in U.S. history. Yet, like Senator Mitch McConnell, he voted “Not Guilty.”

When looking at the names of those who voted to acquit in this impeachment trial, it is difficult not to think of the jurors in Emmett Till’s trial and their failure to bring to justice individuals who were so clearly guilty. Whether as a community or as a nation, when we fail to hold accountable those who would divide us, the mob who came to capture and kill, or the president who incited them, we will continue to hear the echoes of the real reason Emmet Till was murdered. “As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place.” Without accountability, not only ourselves, but our very democracy will live under the continued threat of the lynch mob.

Author and Senior Technical Analyst

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store