|Brookhaven in the '40s--the Inez Hotel still stands|
Stanley Bearden, a 24-year-old black father whose wife had died a week earlier, and who owed $6 to a white man.
James Bearden, Stanley Bearden’s 25-year-old brother.
Caby Byrnes, the white man to whom Stanley Bearden owed money.
Claude Byrnes, Caby Byrnes’ brother.
Now follows the newspaper account:
“Two negroes, Stanley and James Bearden, brothers, were taken from the Lincoln county jail early Friday night and lynched.
“The trouble which lead to the lynching commenced late Friday morning when Caby Byrnes insisted on payment of a $6 bill which James Bearden owed him. Mr Byrnes had tackled Bearden for the bill earlier in the day and Bearden had promised to see about it right away. After awhile he returned followed in a few moments by his brother Stanley. In discussing the bill further it is understood that Bearden became extremely imprudent whereupon Mr. Byrnes hit him in the face with his fist.
“In the meantime, [Claude] Byrnes, who happened to be passing near, noticed that his brother was in danger and rushing to the scene hit James Bearden with the flat side of a shovel just after the negro struck Caby Byrnes on the head with a piece of iron, knocking him to the ground. Stanley Bearden then got into the fight and opened fire on Claude Byrnes, one bullet striking him in the shoulder and another in the shoulder and another piercing one leg breaking the bone and entering the other.
“Deputy Sheriff Charles Brister who reached the scene just then, arrested James Bearden without much trouble and took a shot at Stanley Bearden as he made escape through the back of the repair shop in front of which the fight occurred. Archie Smith and Alfred Day, at their work in a barber shop near by, came out during the shooting to assist the Byrnes's in their fight with the negroes with the result that Stanley Bearden fired a shot at both of them, luckily with bad aim.
“After making his escape through the back of the shop a crowd chased him up the railroad several blocks until he turned and ran to his home near the Cotton Oil Mill. During the chase several persons started to head the fleeing negro off but were dissuaded by the sight of the automatic pistol he was flourishing and firing.
“After the crowd arrived at Bearden’s house volley after volley of bullets were exchanged between the officers and the fugitive until the latter weak from wounds was brought from the house, gun still in hand. He was rushed to the county jail where Dr. Frizell, after examination, stated that despite five wounds he was not desperately hurt. [redundant sentence omitted]
“There had been threats of the impending action throughout the afternoon and the sheriff, failing in his efforts to secure a guard of militia, had under him only a handful of deputies who were unable to offer any effective resistance to the large and well armed mob. No shots were fired by the officers defending the jail, only pleas and some physical resistance being offered. Starting at about dusk, and despite the pleading of several of the city's most respected and worthy citizens, among others, Rev. P. D. Hardin, W. D. Davis, Hon. J. A. Naul and Hon. T. Brady, Jr., the mob worked about an hour on the door of the jail, to which the sheriff refused to turn over the keys, and finally came out with two negroes, one of whom they soon discovered was not wanted. They then returned and managed to find the other, James Bearden, who was hiding in the rafters of the jail.
“Both negroes were then taken to the Old Brook Bridge and James, in the sight of his brother, was strung to a small nearby tree and shot to death. Stanley was then taken back to Brookhaven and dragged through the streets of the city and through the negro quarters by a truck which was followed by a possession of other automobiles. Leaving the city the party proceeded several miles north and hung what was left of the mutilated body of Stanley Bearden to another tree.
“Parts of the large crowd of men, women and children who had gathered at the courthouse to see the lynching followed the cars either to Old Brook or to the point north of town, and viewed the indescribably revolting spectacles to be found at those places.“A short while afterward the bodies were taken in charge by Hartman's undertaking establishment and brought back to Brookhaven, preceding which an inquest was held. The corners jury, composed of B. B. Boyt, E. P. Martin, J. C. Martin, George Stanley, R. C. Douglass and Tom Crawford, pronounced James Bearden dead from gunshot wounds inflicted by parties unknown and Stanley Bearden dead from being dragged behind an auto driven by persons unknown.
“James Bearden, whose wife died about a week before his lynching, is survived by one child and Stanley is survived by a wife and two children.”
The more such accounts I read, the more upset I become. Alfred Day was my barber, and I would have known others who either remained silent or participated in the lynchings.
Because such crimes occurred so often and with such flimsy pretexts, involved prolonged and excruciating torture, and were attended by entire families; I suspect that, like the Roman coliseum atrocities, their main focus wasn't the protection of society--as was claimed--but sadistic entertainment. Just as some men take their families to cock-fights, the men of my town took their wives and children to see human beings shot, burned, beaten, suffocated, and dragged behind cars.
Did my townsmen get erections upon hearing the screams of men being tortured to death, and were they aroused by remembering those screams when they were having sex? Did their hearts race with pleasure when they hoisted a man off the ground by his neck and watched him “breath his last amid the most sickening convulsions”? Did couples smile at one another over their morning grits in anticipation of the next time they had an excuse to murder someone, confident in the knowledge that no white man in Mississippi had ever been convicted of killing a “nigger”?
Such were the people among whom I grew up. I had thought they were kind; I had thought they were Christian; I had thought they loved and protected children. Now, what am I to think but that my town was composed of demons and cowards? The white people didn’t speak-up; the black people didn’t speak up; every level of government remained silent, and the newspapers thought it prudent to editorialize about other matters.
Brookhaven’s last lynching occurred in broad daylight in front of the courthouse on August 13, 1955; I was six years old. After being beaten and shot, Lamar Smith (pictured) crawled under a nandina bush where, according to some accounts, he lingered in agony for hours before dying. Sheriff Robert E. Case and dozens of others witnessed the crime and allowed the bloodied murderers to walk away unhindered, but no one tried to help the 63-year-old farmer, war veteran, and voting rights activist who, despite the entreaties of his friends, had tried to deliver the absentee ballots of black people who were afraid to vote in person.
Who was worse, the three men who beat and shot Lamar Smith, or the scores of witnesses who denied seeing it happen? I like to think that I would have intervened, but would I? It's just too damned easy to look at crimes that happened long ago and far away, and come away feeling superior to dead criminals and their dead abettors, but it's my turn now, and what I am doing? Truth be known, the evil of the world has all but taken the life out of me. So many good people have given so much, and for what?
Taken as a whole, our species is too bad for words and too sad for tears, and the only way I can survive is to attempt to rejoice in such good as I am able to find. As the Bible puts it: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is fair, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable; if there be any excellence, if there be anything worthy of praise, think on these things.” Yet, the deeds of the best shine brightest against the actions of the worst because it is against the darkness of evil that good assumes its star-like purity. Surely, even the weakest among us—and I feign no humility by describing myself as such—can but find encouragement in remembering a man like Lamar Smith, and so it is that I offer his example for your own consideration.