A Mississippi lawmaker apologized for a disgusting lynching comment. It’s not enough. Not even close.
Published 10:24 am Wednesday, May 24, 2017
The firestorm of criticism surrounding State Rep. Karl Oliver’s Facebook rant in which he said Louisiana lawmakers supporting the removal of Confederate monuments “should be lynched” is unlikely to stop anytime soon, and for good reason.
Oliver (R-Winona) has since apologized for using the word, but not before the post cast a harsh national spotlight on Mississippi once again and reinforced understanding of why our state is always at the bottom of every good list. While Gov. Phil Bryant and other lawmakers openly condemned Oliver’s post and urged him to apologize, many stopped short of calling on Oliver to resign, which is preposterous and yet entirely unsurprising.
Oliver, a funeral home director and former county coroner, has made death his life’s work. He’s likely used several ways to describe dying throughout his career. And yet, he said those supporting the removal of Confederate monuments deserve to be lynched. Not killed. Not murdered. Lynched. It wasn’t said in a private conversation or as a sick joke among friends. A lawmaker in the state of Mississippi whose district’s population is 35 percent African-American took the time to write a public Facebook post saying human beings should be lynched for doing something he doesn’t like.
The casual use of the word falls along the same dangerous lines as the argument to revere the Confederacy as something noble, courageous and deserving of eternal sympathy. Truth be told, the common image of black men hanging from trees, horrific in its own right, downplays the severity of lynching as a method of maintaining social, economic and political supremacy in the South.
Black men and women, suffocated by a system of inescapable impoverishment and Jim Crow segregation, were at the mercy of a society that didn’t want them there, ruled by people with the power to end their lives with nothing more than an accusation. Lynch mobs turned murder into a spectator sport rooted in the idea of “protecting the Southern way of life.” Children weren’t spared—not even the unborn, according to onlookers who reported watching them writhe in the stomachs of their dead mothers.
Here’s where Oliver’s comment becomes even more sickening. More African-Americans were lynched in Mississippi than in any other state between 1882 and 1968, including the brutal murder of 14-year-old Emmitt Till in Money, Mississippi, a town that lies within Oliver’s district. (The documented number of white people lynched in the state during that time—42—was among the lowest in the South.)
When the U.S. Senate formally apologized in 2005 for its repeated refusal to enact a federal anti-lynching law in the first half of the 20th century, Thad Cochran and Trent Lott were among eight senators who didn’t co-sponsor or indicate support for the resolution. Cochran said at the time he wasn’t in “the business of apologizing for acts that previous Senates took,” while Lott asked, “Are we going to apologize for not doing the right thing on Social Security?” Clearly, Oliver is not an outlier in a state with a reputation for defending flags and monuments as representative of heritage and history while conveniently omitting the brutality of white supremacy.
His apology, issued earlier this week, said he regretted using the word to express his “passion for preserving all historical monuments.” His words are a monument of their own, falsely memorializing a history that exists in his mind and the minds of many who believe reminders of the Confederacy should be kept in places of reverence. And just like the monuments removed in New Orleans, Oliver’s Facebook post speaking out against erasing history was appropriately (and ironically) deleted.
If our state leaders are genuinely devoted to elevating Mississippi beyond inadequacy, they can start by making sure Oliver and others like him owe more than a forced apology when making disgusting remarks in defense of a nation that fought to preserve slavery. It’s time for Mississippi lawmakers to grow a collective backbone, stop pandering and call on Oliver to resign for the sake of his district and the state as a whole.
Because if history has taught us anything, it’s this: The last thing Mississippi needs is another white racist calling the shots.
Alex McDaniel is editor in chief of The Oxford Eagle and Oxford Magazine.