My grandmother never spoke much about growing up in the South.
She would only say she left because “I didn’t like the laws.” Yes, she was a Black Southern woman all the way. In her manners, in her accent, and in her disposition.
But her conversations about her childhood in Fort Valley, Ga., were scant.
Speaking with my aunt gave me more of a clue – the racism she witnessed and tried to shield her children from – drove her to accept the invitation of a cousin to come north to Detroit.
But at a wedding recently, when the subject got around to family history, my brother hinted that she left her home as a young woman because of the rampant lynchings happening to Black men all around her.
It was at that moment that I realized what she meant when she lamented the Southern legal system of her day. It meant that a person who looked like her could die for any reason at the end of a rope, even castrated, with the blessings of the local law enforcement agency.
And there wouldn’t be a thing anyone could do.
We’re still talking about lynchings today. But this time rope and trees have nothing to do with it. Now it’s brought to us through the nervous truths dangled in front of our faces by social media and a culture that reacts with immediacy by recording American life in its rawest, ugliest fashion.
But can we really say the lynchings that happen now are any different than in my grandmother’s day? Many Black men would tread lightly back then because they knew that if they ran afoul of any White person in authority (which was virtually all of them), there was a lethal penalty.
Similarly, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, really only committed the offense of being Black in the wrong place at the wrong time. And it was enough to get them lynched by standard issue Glock .9mm wielded by police who will say their intention was to establish authority over a situation.
Between 1877 and 1950, 3,959 African Americans were murdered in lynchings, primarily in the South, according to a study released last year by the non-profit Equal Justice Initiative. But another study done by the U.K. Guardian shows that of 1,134 people in the U.S. who were killed by police in 2015 alone, 306 of them were Black. That’s a high figure considering that African Americans only represent just over 13 percent of the U.S. population.
Believe me, I’m no conspiracy theorist, man, but it’s hard not to look at such a high rate of people killed at the hands of police and not think of them as lynchings.
Today we quite correctly look at what groups like the Ku Klux Klan and others did as terrorism. They spent their time doing to Black communities what ISIS does to small villages in the Middle East. So how long will it take before these killings get to the point where brothers in the street are calling cops the pol-ISIS?
This isn’t to say that a cop is automatically a terrorist. These situations make honest cops angry, too. Just look at the Facebook video left by Nakia Jones, a suburban Cleveland police officer whose emotional testimony summarizes the angst surrounding these killings.
But far too many of us know what it is to be terrorized by the police. The women who were victimized by Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw are so very much like the women raped through the South a century ago who only had Rosa Parks as their defender against a system that worked against them instead of for them.
Black men and women were terrorized in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921 by a mob seeking vengeance because of a rumor that a Black boy raped a White girl – but was really a bombing of a vibrant Black community given a nod by local law enforcement.
Learn your history, bro.
Comparatively, it’s no accident that Black men walk around Brooklyn with T-Shirts with faux Warner Bros. logos that read: “If you see the police, Warn-a-Brother.”
That’s because nobody in Bed-Stuy, Flatbush, East New York or Brownsville wants to be the next Akai Gurley, Ramarley Graham or Amadou Diallo.
Nobody in Chicago wants to be the next LaQuan McDonald.
Nobody in Cleveland wants to be the next Tamir Rice.
Nobody in Houston wants to be the next Sandra Bland.
Nobody in any community wants to be the next victim of a lynching.
My grandparents left a South that let people get away with lynching. The Facebook and Instagram of their day was the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier and others which illustrated the violent racism that was stitched like lettering into the fabric of their environments.
But despite social media advancing news about communities in fear of police faster than print media ever could, there is no North to run to. There’s no place in America where we can escape the modern day lynchings.
Although I believe that my grandparents were part of the toughest, most resilient and industrious generation ever to live in this country, because there’s no place for us to move, we face a different reality. And it begs an important question:
What will our answer be to the lynchings we face? How will we respond to living in fear of the agencies to which we pay taxes to protect us from danger, but that are dangerous to us in too many cases?
What will your grandchildren say was your Great Migration?
Madison J. Gray is Managing Editor of EBONY.com and JETMag.com. Follow him on Twitter @madisonjgray.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story reported that 1,134 Blacks were killed by police in 2015, according to a study. However that is the total number. The actual number for Blacks is 306.