The Last Lynching: Ted Koppel documentary on Discovery tonight

Discovery Channel premieres a documentary tonight with Ted Koppel about three Americans whose lives were profoundly affected by white supremacist terrorism. The most recent incident: a 1981 lynching in Mobile, Alabama in which a 19-year-old black man was killed by two members of the Ku Klux Klan. Here's the thing that really amazes me, looking at the details on this program tonight: Barack Obama, the first black presidential candidate nominated by a major American political party, is almost exactly the same age as that young man killed in that "last lynching." They were born some months apart. The point being: our nation's bad old days weren't all that long ago -- if we can even say they're past tense at all. Trailer above, and snip from the program description:

This year, however, each [victim of racial violence profiled in this program] was directly involved in naming Senator Barack Obama as the Democratic Party’s nominee for president. "Barack Obama's nomination doesn't mean the end of racism any more than Sarah Palin's nomination signals the end of sexism or gender bias in America. But what giant steps forward! The Last Lynching offers a look at how far we've come on the racial front, and how recent some of the worst days of racial violence really were," explained Koppel.

Koppel and his team of producers take viewers into the lives of these three: Congressman Robert Filner who, as an 18-year-old Freedom Rider, was thrown into Mississippi’s Parchman Prison; Florida schoolteacher Lizzie Jenkins who recalls tales of her grandfather watching the lynching of five African Americans in 1916; and Congressman Artur Davis who as a law student worked to hold the Ku Klux Klan accountable for "The Last Lynching," which took place in Mobile, Ala., in 1981.

The program airs today, Monday, Oct. 13, at 10 p.m. ET/PT. Program preview (Discovery). Here's the Wikipedia entry on that 1981 murder. Here's the NYT review of the Discovery documentary: In the Bad Old Days, Not So Very Long Ago. The NPR program Tell Me More has an audio piece up about the documentary here.


  1. Anytime Xeni !!!

    ( and can I just say that this is the first time the fabulous Miss X has noticed me!!! a small interwebby like thrill just ran up my spine!!)

  2. “white supremacist terrorism”
    “The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons.”

    Now, I haven’t seen this documentary– it may well be about the KKK killing those men in an attempt to force the government to change some law of policy. But usually they are just redneck dicks that don’t like black people.

    1. Darren, here’s why I think we ought to be using that phrase more often. The lynchings weren’t random individual expressions of racial hate, they were often — and Koppel’s documentary goes into this — specific attempts by an organized group to intimidate black folks who were seen as “getting above their place,” being too active in local politics, or in some way threatening the white-dominated political, social, economic power structure. It’s no stretch to describe this as a political tactic. This was terrorism. And you think the Klan wasn’t involved in politics? Look it up.

  3. “our nation’s bad old days weren’t all that long ago –”

    It has only been recently that I realized how big a part racism will play in this election.

    My (ex) coworkers told me they can’t vote for Obama because he is a muslim. I thought they were kidding me at first. They are serious.

    Or at least that is their excuse.

    It would be bigoted and un-christian to hate and fear Obama because of his race. They will hate him because of his religion.

    This is a revival of Lee Atwater’s “Southern Strategy”. Lee, a complex guy, was a political mentor and close friend of Republican strategist Karl Rove.

    It is a part of a decades old strategy to use division and fear to win republican support.

  4. “getting above their place,” = “uppity”

    The meme that has been on the rise recently is Obama’s “unbridled ambition”

    “unbridled ambition” is code for “uppity”

  5. ummm…I’m pretty sure Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have run for president. I know that I that I voted for Sharpton four years ago at the democratic party primary (Dean had already dropped out, and I did not like Kerry, so…).

    1. Gandalf, sloppy wording on my part, I’ve corrected. As the Discovery site also states, this election is “the first in which any political party has nominated an African American as its candidate.”

  6. For some reason, it feels unspeakeably refreshing and enlightening to hear the word ‘terrorism’ in a domestic context again.

    For several years, the media and politicians have almost exclusively been using the word in reference to foreign groups and threats. But we too often forget that there is plenty of stupid ideologies and ‘evil’, homegrown, in our own back yards.

  7. I’m really glad you posted that video, Mohave. It should become viral so the star can be known to all.
    I seriously doubt the same man would still be loose if he was handing toys out strange children in a non-political event.

  8. Excuse me but I don’t think a 1981 lynching would have been the last one – or maybe Koppel wishes to limit the definition of “lynching” to the means of death by hanging.

    What about James Byrd who was decapitated in Jasper, Texas in 1998 by means of dragging him behind a pick up truck for 2 miles by three white men with associations to the KKK and Aryan Brotherhood – not ‘good’ enough to be considered a ‘lynching’. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that doesn’t represent the most recent lynching either.

    Lynch- (from Capt. William Lynch, head of a self-constituted judicial tribunal first organized in 1780 in Virginia); of a mob or group of people: condemn and put (a person to death (esp. by hanging) for an alleged offenee without a legal trial.

  9. Hate crimes are still happening, it’s just the lynching that has gone out of style. Vigilante justice was hardly limited to racial minorities though.

  10. “Darren, here’s why I think we ought to be using that phrase more often”
    A well thought out response, but I’d have to disagree. The word choice seems quite contrived. “Terrorism” as a word is already overused, usually as a way to sentimentally attach to the horror and violence of 9/11 (or any of the other 11’s). Katamari-like, this bolus of meaning becomes overweight and the center of mass is occluded and distracted.
    I don’t think racist lynchings need to glom onto the horror of modern terrorism to help us understand the violence and tragedy within. I think they stand pretty well on their own.

  11. It’s strikes me as more than a little dangerous to be introducing, or rather, pumping, this meme into the electoral mindset this close to the election.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not attacking the documentary, or the ideals represented by revisiting racism in our culture. Although, I do think it disturbing that, as far as the “last lynching” goes, the James Byrd story doesn’t qualify. 1981 vs 1998? Seems far more relevant to a contemporary dialogue. Not to mention monumentally horrifying.

    No, my fear is that this is a calculated effort to tap into white guilt just prior to an election period already potent with racial undercurrents, either for commercial interests or as a misguided boost for a campaign that doesn’t need the help.

    Obama’s doing well in this campaign. As a man.

    As a black man, there are unquestionably racial, pardon the pun, colorings to his campaign. I fear what sort of emotions are lurking in the wings should we allow an enhancement of racial considerations in this last month of the campaign, and consider the timing of such documentaries to be a bit irresponsible.

    Again, I’m not dismissing the importance of this dialogue. Just the timing. In this last month, we should be considering a short hiatus on any increased media coverage exploring racial violence. Show the thing in December. Or better yet, in February. Just, for god’s sake, let’s not start pushing for the white guilt vote. It threatens the triumph of the man winning the election on his merits, and potentially raises the spectre of violent reaction to the possibility of his losing the election.

    Bear in mind, I’m not attempting to explicitly tie the thing to Obama’s campaign. My only implication is the _possibility_ that some misguided but disconnected programming choices have been targeted at an opportunity to capitalize on our current gestalt, and at the extreme range of speculation, that such choices are perceived by those behind said choices to benefit a campaign they support as constituents. Check your flames at the door, at least on this point.

    My brief caveat: Perhaps the show will address these concerns and serve to chill us out for the election. In that case, I’ll happily retract my words here.

    And yeah, it’s a leap. Hope I’m just a paranoid armchair sociologist.

    Just this guy.

  12. When I was a girl, we’d visit my Mawmaw (my paternal grandmother) in southern Louisiana, and she’d tell us to remember not to go camping in certain woods, as the Klan still met and they beat the shit out of people who found them. This was in the eighties, not that it’s all that different now. There’s an old white guy on the Spike Lee documentary, When the Levees Fell, disk one, who was foaming at the mouth about ‘those nig****, those animals.’ Circa Louisiana, 2005.

    So, yeah, it’s still around. And the tenser the economy gets, the more sexism and racial violence we’re likely to see. People tend to take it out on the first minority or perceived weak person handy when they feel helpless. Look at that McCain rally footage. Those are frightened people who are choosing to identify Obama’s race and pretend ideological background with evil. It is important to continue to bring up that there’s a problem, especially since McCain and company have been dog whistling away in political ads designed to appeal to frightened white (mostly male) voters.

  13. I kept thinking about Troy Davis as I watched.

    Hoping that today, finally, Troy Davis would be allowed to have his evidence of innocence heard (black man convicted of murdering a white cop in GA; no physical evidence, no motive, testimony of 9 eyewitnesses led to conviction; 7 of 9 have recanted their testimony).

    Today the Supreme Court declined to rule, basically, on whether it’s unconstitutional to execute an innocent person.

    Welcome to lynching via lethal injection. A death penalty that is racist is a hate crime.

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