Earl Ofari Hutchinson
The instant both Malcolm Harsch and Robert Fuller’s bodies were found hanging from trees in Victorville and Palmdale, California, many Blacks did not hesitate in calling their deaths, “a lynching.” There was not a shred of proof that either man met with foul play. Investigators unsurprisingly concluded that their deaths were suicides. Though the FBI and the California Attorney General, and local investigators vowed to continue to probe the causes off their deaths, there was little reason to think that the official verdict on how the men died would change; namely death at their own hands.
However, many African Americans, let alone the families of Fuller and Harsch, would never accept their official verdict of how they died, and with good reason. Fuller and Harsch died in two areas of Southern California that have been repeated targets of past probes by the FBI, Justice Department, and various local law enforcement agencies, not to mention countless complaints from Black residents in the area, of racially motivated hate crimes.
Several studies have found that the Antelope Valley where Fuller died had the highest overall rate of hate crimes for several years. The sheriff’s departments in both areas were tasked with the two hanging investigations. They have been the frequent targets of piles of complaints of misconduct, abuse, and excessive force by Blacks. Their badly tainted reputation made any finding they came up with about the cause of their deaths immediately suspect. Their quick ruling of suicide by both men seemed to fit the pattern of wanting to quickly close the books on deaths that that can only inflame racial doubts and suspicions.
But the far greater reason why many Blacks no matter how much evidence officials put forth to brand their deaths suicides will never believe it is the brutal and ugly history of lynching. According to official NAACP figures, between 1890 and 1960, 5,200 blacks were burned, shot, or mutilated by lynch mobs. The horrid death toll is almost certainly higher, since in many cases sheriffs and local officials didn’t deem the murders significant enough to report. This is not just past ancient history. In the past two decades there have been other cases where young Black males have been found in various parts of the country dangling from trees. In every case, their deaths have been ruled suicides. And in every case the same doubts and disbelief were raised about the cause of death and charges were made that they were lynch victims.
That’s not all. For more than a century of this gruesome business, despite repeated efforts by the NAACP and other civil rights organizations, local, state, and federal officials refused to lift a legislative finger to stop the killings.
Every president from Theodore Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy refused to draft or vigorously support a federal law to end lynching. Nearly every attorney general refused to push for indictments against public officials or law enforcement officers complicit in lynch murders. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover successfully manipulated Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Kennedy to steer the FBI away from direct investigation of lynching’s. The Department of Justice seldom forced Hoover to conduct such investigations.
Presidents, attorneys general, and federal officials wailed that their hands were tied, because it was the job of the states to prosecute the lynch murderers. But the states refused. Fewer than 1 percent of the murderers were ever tried in state courts. Rather than risk alienating politically powerful Southern state officials and jeopardizing votes and legislative support, the feds rationalized their hands-off policy toward lynching with a narrow and rigid interpretation of the federalist doctrine of separation of state and national power.
This was a face-saving political cop-out. In many cases a bevy of Southern sheriffs, mayors, and municipal and state officials openly aided and abetted the lynch mobs.
By contrast, the White House and Congress did not bat an eye in passing and enforcing legislation that widened the jurisdiction and broadened the power of the FBI and the Justice Department to prosecute crimes such as bank robbery, kidnapping, illegal weapons violations and carjacking. Congress and the White House made few claims that these laws violated states’ rights or infringed on the Constitution.
The often-legal blind eye states and the federal government have taken toward lynching is not part of America’s long, but by gone shameful past that has no relevance to the present. The official record still stands that despite the proclaimed national revulsion about America’s hideous lynch history, there is still no federal law on the books that makes lynching a federal hate crime. The Federal anti-lynching bill passed by the House remains tied up in the Senate with no clear time frame for eventual passage. Again, America has no official anti-lynching law on the federal books more than one hundred years after the first lynching’s were recorded.
So, does anyone then wonder why many Blacks will never ever believe that Fuller and Harsch killed themselves?
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of Why Black Lives Do Matter (Middle Passage Press) He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network