Tonight I’m reading the summary placed online this week by the Equal Justice Initiative of its report Lynching in America:  Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror.Lynching in America

It reports on the ongoing project of tallying up “terror lynchings” (nearing 4,000) which took place in the twelve most active lynching states in America (1877-1950) and the effects this social phenomenon has had on America’s way with African Americans.

What I think of is the specific effect it has had on how African Americans relate to those of us who are not African American.

Sometimes it is expressed by ‘yes, sir’.

In many places and certainly in younger generations it’s a fading practice, perhaps one that has been gone for a few decades.  But in some places and especially with those of a certain age with close roots in the South it has persisted.  It can make a person uneasy, feel uncomfortable.  It doesn’t feel right.  It seems to challenge the notion that all men are created equal.  And at times it has defined relationships in a way that runs contrary to what I believe, what I want them to be.

But the Equal Justice Initiative Lynching In America report makes clear why it is a social practice not so easily discarded.

In 1940, Jesse Thornton was lynched in Luverne, Alabama, for referring to a white police
officer by his name without the title of ‘mister’.

Socio-cultural memory persists in keeping ‘yes, sir’ as part of the African American way to relate to white Americans.  This kind of memory lasts for a long time.


This memory with its many other nuances creates the backdrop for a saying Dr. William Bentley of the National Black Evangelical Association was fond of repeating.  I recall it going something like this –

If you’re white, you’re alright.  Yellow, you’re mellow.  Brown, stick around.

Black?  jump back!

Even when ‘yes, sir’ isn’t spoken, it isn’t necessarily absent.  There are silent ‘yes, sirs’ yet present in interactions, relationships.  Even friendships.

Care in navigating interracial relationships means being careful.  Ready to jump back.  Stay close to the door.  Mistrust, suspicion, guardedness, uncertainty often come with it.

This means that I have a responsibility, as a non-African American person. To acknowledge a long season of wrongs and power structures.  To memorialize it in ways such as Equal Justice Initiative plans to place markers where lynchings took place.  To disavow and disassemble the apparatus built on all of that.

Yes, sir.