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America’s legacy of lynching isn’t all history. Many say it’s still happening today

Beulah Donald, center, wipes tears from her eyes as she enters funeral services for her 19-year-old son Michael in Mobile, Alabama, March 28, 1981. Michael was found beaten and strangled to death, his body hanged from a tree on March 21. Three suspects have been arrested in connection with the brutal killing. (AP Photo/Mark Foley)
Beulah Donald, center, wipes tears from her eyes as she enters funeral services for her 19-year-old son Michael in Mobile, Alabama, March 28, 1981. Michael was found beaten and strangled to death, his body hanged from a tree on March 21. Three suspects have been arrested in connection with the brutal killing. (AP Photo/Mark Foley) (Associated Press)

(CNN) – When Heather Coggins saw George Floyd cry out, "Mama!" as a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck, she thought of her uncle.

Timothy Coggins was stabbed and dragged to his death in a racially fueled killing that wasn't solved for 35 years. His body was found maimed in a field in Sunny Side, Georgia, in 1983.

Before that day, the chipper 23-year-old was known as a mama's boy. He wouldn't leave the house without telling his mother, Viola, he loved her and giving her a kiss. He'd get another peck when he got home.

"I'm sure he cried out, 'Mama!' when he was in that field," Heather Coggins said. "It hit home. Immediately, when I saw it, I thought, 'This is a modern-day lynching like Tim.'"

Lynching is a charged, nebulous word. It evokes terrifying specters of the nation's past, but talk to those most connected to the crimes and those who study America's lynching legacy, and they'll say many African Americans don't consider it history.

Because it's happening now.

To understand it is to illuminate the anger in American cities, as demonstrators flood the streets -- as they did for Rodney King, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray -- demanding the practice of killing black people come to its rightful close.

The word, lynching, means different things to different people. Some say it involves rope. Others, a mob or torture. Some feel it must invoke community fear. Everyone concurs it's extrajudicial. When police do the killing, it muddies the issue. And people of various ethnicities have been targeted, but not like blacks in the South.

Where some say overusing the word risks diminishing its power, Atanya Hayes, a descendant of one of the victims in the 1946 Moore's Ford lynchings, in which four sharecroppers were beaten and slain in Georgia, said the point of employing the word is its power.

"Lynching is one of those words that hits a nerve with anyone who hears it. It causes people to feel what we feel when this happens to one of our people," Hayes said.

Historians and headlines label certain lynchings -- say, Moore's Ford or the 1981 Ku Klux Klan slaying of 19-year-old Michael Donald in Alabama -- as the last. Not true, several sources tell CNN. They bristle at the idea that today's violence marks a return to old times.

"We're not seeing something new," Emory University philosophy professor George Yancy said. "There is no return because we never left. ... I don't think we're going back to a dark chapter. All the chapters in the book have always been devastating for black people."

Ahmaud Arbery was lynched when he was gunned down while jogging three months ago in Glynn County, Georgia, Yancy and others say. Back in 2011, James Craig Anderson was, too, when he was dragged to his death in Mississippi, just 13 years after James Byrd of Texas met his fate in the same fashion.

These lynchings aren't the depraved, grandiose exhibitions of the late 1800s and early 1900s, when black men were skinned or castrated and pregnant women were burned alive before throngs who took pictures and collected body parts as souvenirs.

Yet the killings continue. In 2020. More than a half century after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Lynching or not, it has to stop, they say. Here are their thoughts:

The niece

In addition to losing her Uncle Tim in 1983, Heather Coggins lost another uncle, Eugene Coggins, who died in police custody in 2001, she said. Their deaths remind her of Arbery's and Floyd's.

"Our family has endured both of these cases. I see Ahmaud Arbery as a modern-day lynching," she said. "I can go hunt this human down because I have white privilege ... I can kill this black man, the country doesn't care about him, his life isn't worth as much as mine and we can get away with it. That's what we saw in our case."

Bill Moore Sr. and brother-in-law Frankie Gebhardt killed Timothy Coggins for socializing with Gebhardt's "old lady," a white woman, according to testimony in Gebhardt's trial.

In 2018, Gebhardt was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years. Moore pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and concealing a death, and got 20.

Though justice arrived, the Coggins family spent 35 years wondering what happened to Timothy, said Heather Coggins, who was six years old at the time. The local paper barely covered it in 1983.

Fear and mistrust dictated many of her life decisions. She learned to "maneuver as uneventfully as possible," she said, avoiding police and white communities.

When she first met a CNN reporter about her uncle's case in 2017, she waited to enter a cafe because a circling truck drew her suspicions. She went inside after she was satisfied it posed no threat.

"Why wouldn't we fear the media or the law enforcement in terms of nobody is protecting us? Nobody wants to hear our story," she said.

The philosopher

Yancy is comfortable with the term, lynching, for hate-driven killings, he said. He doesn't appreciate being told otherwise.

"Whose reality is this? It's the reality of black people in America," he said. "The freedom of naming our reality is a form of empowerment. Who gets to define our reality? We do."

The country is founded on white supremacy, beginning with native American genocide and black enslavement, he said. Lynchings weren't popular during slavery. Slaves were property. You didn't destroy property, the professor said.

Once slavery was abolished, whites sought to control a liberated workforce. Lynchings discouraged social mobility, served as surveillance and instilled fear, forcing blacks to "internalize the ever-present possibility that this could happen for minor infractions," he said.

"Lynching functioned as a form of control and as a form of intimidation," he said.

Most of the victims were accused, often wrongly, of major crimes such as rape or murder, leaning on tropes that blacks were hypersexual and vicious.

Criminalizing black men and deeming them subhuman, more akin to beasts in the field than white men, served to justify the brutality they were dealt, Yancy said. Even Friedrich Nietzsche, widely admired on American campuses, wrote blacks had superior tolerances for pain.

Today, the "white gaze" regards African Americans similarly, Yancy said. He likens it to Procrustes, the bandit of Greek mythology who compelled travelers to lie in his iron bed. If they were too short, he'd rack and stretch them. Too tall, he'd lop off their limbs.

"The white gaze is Procrustean," Yancy said. "It makes the black body conform to its expectations."

Arbery must've been a thief. Trayvon Martin was up to no good. Michael Brown struck terror. Tamir Rice looked much older than 12. Toy guns and cell phones, "seen through the white gaze," become weapons, he said.

"The black body is oversaturated with violence. The wallet phantasmatically becomes a gun," said Yancy, who doesn't jog in white neighborhoods or walk with his cell phone out.

Like many killings, Floyd's fits the mold of a lynching, he said. A white man, acting on fear, impulsively and extrajudicially exacted gratuitous violence on a man he deemed a criminal, he said.

"Why did George Floyd deserve to have a knee on his neck for that amount of time?" Yancy asked. "You don't have to do anything to be found guilty. It's just enough that you're black. ... Lynching as a form of anti-black violence continues, but all of the multiple ways in which the lynching takes place have shifted."

The disrupter

Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, represented the mother of Michael Donald against the United Klans of America, members of which beat and hanged her teen son in 1981.

The $7 million verdict in the civil case was credited with bankrupting the Klan, transforming it from an organized nationwide outfit into a coalition of loose cells.

Some have dubbed Donald's the last lynching in America. While Donald's killing was "the last (lynching) where they threw a rope around someone's neck and hung him from a tree," Dees said, he's torn on whether the term can be applied to the killings America's seen of late.

In Arbery's case, "that's certainly a vicious, racist killing. There's no question about it," he said, and Floyd's death and Breonna Taylor's death in Louisville, Kentucky, are examples of police excessive force.

"All these are extrajudicial actions cops took and had no basis in doing it," Dees said.

(One officer has been charged with murder, and three others with aiding and abetting, in Floyd's death. The FBI is investigating Taylor's and Arbery's deaths. Lawyers for the men accused of killing Arbery say the video of his killing doesn't tell the whole story.)

People can make cases they're lynchings -- and they bear similar hallmarks -- but it "wouldn't fit the true definition," he said. He prefers a more traditional definition, involving mobs taking the law into their own hands or targeting someone based on race.

He concedes defining the word can get fuzzy. Some might not consider the 1988 murder of Mulugeta Seraw in Portland, Oregon, a lynching, but white supremacists picked the Ethiopian student at random and beat him to death with a baseball bat.

It's "about as (terrible) a lynching as you'd ever want to see," he said.

In 1990, Dees and the SPLC went after the White Aryan Resistance, of which Seraw's killers were members, and won a $12.5 million civil verdict.

"We put them out of business," Dees said.

The mother and son

So, lynch mobs may be considered relics, but Dameon Shepard feels sure he encountered one last month in Pender County, North Carolina.

"The whole lynching thing, it's not as brutal now as it was back in the day, but I don't think it's something that's gone away. It's still here," he said.

The 18-year-old answered his door May 3 to about 15 people, including a uniformed deputy from the next county over. Three men, including the officer, were armed. They were looking for an African American teen they mistakenly thought was with a missing white girl.

Dameon told them they had the wrong house. They wouldn't believe him, and the officer wedged his foot in the door, he said. The commotion woke his mother.

"They were convinced that they had the right person, and basically that we were lying," Monica Shepard recalled.

After a frightening spell, she convinced them they were in the wrong place, and neighbors called police. No one was hurt, but it reminded her of what she's read about the 1923 Rosewood massacre in Florida, where white men hunted down blacks to avenge a supposed assault on a white woman.

The group was "basically a lynch mob," she said, but the term's not entirely accurate. Lynchings are hangings, she said. Dameon, though, prefers lynch mob.

"That's a pretty accurate name for the group," he said. "It wasn't that far from having a whip back in the old days. They had intentions. They were looking for an African American for a crime against a white female.

"If I was that person at the door, I don't know what they would've done to him, to me."

Fortunately, Dameon and his mother had had "the talk" -- the black boys' rite where parents explain they will be treated differently for their skin -- and he knew not to escalate the situation, he said.

"Being a black man in America, you can't do and say things that others get away with, and I've instilled that in him since he was 8 years old," his mother said. She's never had the conversation with her two daughters.

Monica Shepard is still on edge. Despite an outpouring of support from her mostly white neighbors and graduation cards arriving from strangers all over the country, she still worries. She's been hugging Dameon and asking his whereabouts more frequently, she said.

"I don't want to make him feel nervous and anxious, but I do find myself checking on him more."

The sociologist

Stewart Tolnay has spent significant effort quantifying America's lynchings. He and his fellow academics have identified thousands. Still, the University of Washington sociology professor knows all his noble efforts won't yield a real tally.

"Ultimately, we will never know the full and exact extent of lynching in the United States, as many lynchings are undoubtedly lost entirely to the historical record," said Tolnay, whose books include "A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930."

While he considers Arbery's death a lynching, he's more restrained when it comes to other recent cases. He believes Floyd and Taylor would be alive if they were white, he said, but he cautions against calling all racial homicides lynchings.

"To the extent the term has a cache that's important to us, it loses its meaning," he said.

Words matter, especially when it comes to this hurtful history, he said.

"It does give greater impact and meaning to a modern-day incident to call it a lynching," he said.

Lynchings were a form of social control, designed to foster racial divisions and discourage blacks from aspiring, he said, and there are myriad studies looking at links between lynchings and crime today.

The growing body of research examines whether areas that embraced lynchings decades ago have more white-on-black homicides, more corporal punishment in school, less hate crime legislation (or zeal to enforce it) and more death penalty cases, he said. University of New Mexico researchers are exploring "potential pathways that lynching violence in the past might connect with contemporary police violence."

"There seems to be some historical legacy that connects the present to the past," Tolnay said. "To say historical lynchings have no bearing on today overlooks all of that evidence."

The granddaughter

Atanya Hayes was not yet born when a mob dragged her grandfather, Roger Malcom, 24, and three sharecroppers down a wagon trail to the Apalachee River in Walton County, Georgia, beat them and shot them repeatedly.

Yet she still feels pain. She still craves justice. She also sees links between today's violence and the sharecroppers' 1946 deaths known as the Moore's Ford lynchings.

Arbery? Floyd? Taylor? All lynchings, she said. Americans too often grant benefits of the doubt when police kill, the 50-year-old added.

"Things are different about today, but there are so many similarities," she said. "Calling it a lynching elevates it so people can understand why it's so hurtful to us. ... When we use lynching in today's society, that's the wound that's opened."

She fights for justice in the 74-year-old Moore's Ford killings because the laws that prohibited her grandfather's killing also prohibited Arbery's, Floyd's and Taylor's, in her mind.

"At the time they did this, it was illegal. It was illegal then. It's illegal now," she said. "With my grandfather, it was kind of expected. It shouldn't be happening now."

It bothers her that her granddad's killers died with their reputations intact, especially when racism permeated the investigation, she said. Gov. Eugene Talmadge was an avowed racist, and his head of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Samuel Roper, later became an imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

In her latest battle, Hayes wants 16 days of grand jury testimony -- yielding no murder charges -- unsealed, which the US Justice Department is fighting, citing the importance of grand jury secrecy. She resents her government fighting her. To her, it's the same as holding the Nazis accountable for the Holocaust, she said.

"You feel helpless to the extent you feel hopeless," she said. "We might not have shackles that ring and clatter, but we have shackles, and there's nothing you can do about it."

The lawyer

Hayes' hopes rest with New Jersey attorney Joseph Bell, who worked with historian Anthony Pitch to unseal the grand jury transcripts after Pitch discovered them in the National Archives a few years ago.

Pitch, who died last year, wrote a book on Moore's Ford called "The Last Lynching." The title was the publisher's idea, Bell said, and Pitch was troubled by it.

Bell realizes most, if not all, of the Moore's Ford killers are dead, but the case -- which a former SPLC president once called "one of the unfinished chapters of the civil rights movement" -- was too important not to pursue till the end, he said.

The FBI was dispatched to Monroe for its maiden civil rights investigation. President Harry Truman established a committee on civil rights after Southern Democrats blocked his anti-lynching bill. Also, Bell said, George Dorsey, 28, one of the sharecroppers, was a World War II veteran who fought for a country that loathed him.

"This man had the courage to wear the uniform of this country and spent five years on the Pacific and North African fronts," Bell said. "These men put their lives on the line and to come back here and be treated as less than a man, as a servant -- he was a sharecropper -- it's a complete disregard for people."

Walton County locals have told him he's just stirring up trouble, and one black resident warned him, "They'll make history out of you in 30 seconds," he recalled. (In 2007, an elderly white woman in Walton County told a CNN journalist reporting on Moore's Ford to leave those "poor people" alone. She was referring to the killers.)

"The fear and terror continues to stalk the land near where the four bodies were found near the Moore's Ford bridge," Bell said.

He's incredulous the FBI interviewed 2,790 people without a single arrest, though Georgia State Patrol Maj. William Spence famously told media at the time, "The best people in town won't talk."

"This was a complete injustice. This was the assassination of four African Americans and one distinguished World War II veteran, who died like roadkill," he said. "We look to courts to be the bastion of truth and justice. Why was there no one who was prosecuted for these heinous acts?"

He will take his records request to the US Supreme Court in August, when he asks the high court to reconsider a lower federal court's decision not to release them.

“The truth is always important,” he said, “to find out if there was complicity.”