Lord God, during this Lenten season, teach us to come before you in humility, lamenting the signs that your kingdom has not yet come in its fullness. Help us to acknowledge our finitude and failings, and guide us into a journey of remembering rightly, repenting honestly, and responding faithfully. We long for the coming of your mosaic kingdom in Jesus Christ, our Lord, and invite your Holy Spirit to lead us now.
THIS DAY IN HISTORY: MARCH 9, 1892
Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, & Henry Steward lynched in Memphis
*Trigger warning: Today’s post contains graphic descriptions of violence
The People’s Grocery was a Black owned cooperative grocery store located just outside of Memphis, Tennessee in a neighborhood called the “Curve.” The Grocery was owned by eleven prominent blacks, including Thomas Moss. Following a series of disturbances near the store, Moss and two of his workers, Will Stewart and Calvin McDowell, were brought into police custody. On Wednesday March 9, 1892, Thomas Moss, Will Stewart, and Calvin McDowell, were all taken from police custody and lynched by a white mob.
At about 2:30 a.m., seventy-five men in black masks surrounded the Shelby County Jail and nine entered into the facility. These men dragged Moss, Stewart, and McDowell from their cells and brought them to a railroad yard a mile outside of the city. The details of the lynching that followed were described in such graphic detail by white newspapers, many believe reporters had to have been first hand observers, and were therefore called in advance to testify about the lynchings.
The papers said that at the railroad yard, McDowell “struggled mightily” and at one point managed to grab a shotgun from one of his abductors. After the mob wrested it from him they shot at his hands and fingers “inch by inch.” They shot four holes into McDowell’s face, each large enough for a fist to enter. His left eye was shot out and the “ball hung over his cheek in shreds.” His jaw was torn out by buckshot. Where “his right eye had been there was a big hole which his brains oozed out.” The Appeal-Avalanche added his injuries were in accord with his “vicious and unyielding nature.”
The papers said that Stewart was stoic in the midst of the violence inflicted upon him, writing that he was “obdurate and unyielding to the last.” He was also shot twice in the neck and once in the left eye.
Moss was also shot in the neck, and according to the papers, his dying words were, “Tell my people to go West, there is no justice for them here.”
These murders prompted grief and unrest within the city’s black populus, and this created a lot of anxiety within the city’s Caucasian population. Soon after the lynchings, a rumor began that black residents planned to meet at the People’s Grocery and take revenge against whites. In light of this rumor, Judge DuBose deployed the sheriff to lead a hundred officers into the city armed with swords and guns. These officers were instructed to “shoot down on sight any Negro who appears to be making trouble.” These judicial instructions embolden gangs of armed Caucasian civilians to accompany officers to the Curve and began shooting indiscriminately into groups of blacks they encountered. The Caucasian mob then proceeded to loot the People’s Grocery. The grocery was so badly pillaged that it was ultimately sold for one-eighth its cost to William Barrett.
The lynchings were a front page story in the New York Times on March 10 and they strongly juxtaposed the image of the “New South” that Memphis was trying so hard to promote. The lynching sparked national outrage and inspired Ida B. Wells‘ illustrious career as an anti-lynching activist. Wells, who was also a noted journalist, penned an editorial, inspired by her friend Thomas Moss’ dying words, where she encouraged blacks to flee to the West. She wrote that blacks should “leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.” This event sparked an emigration movement that eventually saw 6,000 blacks leave Memphis for the Western Territories
Wells went on to become one of nation’s leading investigative journalist. She traveled nationwide researching and documenting lynchings and their “causes.” She served as the leading voice in a national anti-lynching campaign.
Through the efforts of activist and investigative reports like Wells, we know that during a fifty year period of time ranging from 1890 to 1940, approximately 5,500 African Americans were documented as lynch victims.
Lynching reached its peak in 1892, shortly after Reconstruction ended; but, we shouldn’t take that to mean that lynchings became rare after 1892. In fact, in Phillips County Arkansas, 237 people were lynched in 1919 alone during the Elaine race riot.[iii] Due to realities such as this, the lynching era became known as the “Nadir Period,”[iv] the lowest period of U.S. race relations. While African Americans were not the exclusive victims of lynchings, they were undoubtedly the primary prey of this form of vigilante “justice.”
Scripture Response: Isaiah 53:7-9
“He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.
9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.”
RESPONSE OF LAMENT AND CONFESSION: Please spend some time in personal response, crying out to God with prayers, poems, songs, or art that expresses your lament and confession. If you feel led, please share these responses with others, using #lentenlament #day9
You may close with the following:
Lord have mercy,
Christ have mercy,
Lord have mercy.
Prayer Response: A Prophet’s Plea to God (David Walker, 1829)
O! Save us, we pray thee, thou God of Heaven and of earth, from the devouring hands of the white Christians!!!
O! Thou Alpha and Omega!
The Beginning and the end,
Enthron’d thou art, in Heaven above,
Surrounded by Angels there.
From whence thou seest the miseries
To which we are subject;
The whites have murder’d us, O God!
And kept us ignorant of thee.
Not satisfied with this, my Lord!
They throw us in the seas:
Be pleas’d, we pray, for Jesus’ sake,
To save us from their grasp.
We believe that, for thy glory’s sake,
Thou wilt deliver us;
But that thou may’st effect these things,
Thy glory must be sought.
– From Conversations with God: Two Prayers by African Americans