In a new online campaign ad, Democrat Charles Booker, a Black man running for U.S. Senate in Kentucky, makes the horrible decision to wear a noose as he accuses the incumbent, Rand Paul, a white Republican, of blocking a bill to make lynching a federal hate crime. In addition to the awfulness of wearing a noose, Booker’s ad is misleading: Paul voted against the legislation in 2020, but he co-sponsored and voted for the version of the bill signed into law by President Joe Biden in March.
Using a noose as a political prop in a campaign ad is disrespectful and appalling. Wearing one shows little respect for those Black Americans who were hanged, burned, carved up or shot.
Those of us who know the history of African American men, women and children being lynched and being photographed as they were being lynched will never forget those images or get out of our heads the descriptions of what these American citizens suffered at their hands of their white countrymates. Even today, the images of lynched Black Americans can sear the mind and chill the soul.
That’s why using a noose as a political prop in a campaign ad is disrespectful and appalling. Wearing one, as Booker does, shows little respect for those Black Americans who were hanged, burned, carved up or shot by sadistic white men in this country, and that disrespect doesn’t go away because, according to him, he’s a descendent of those who were lynched.
Dressed in a suit and tie, Booker looks directly at the camera and says of lynching, “It was used to kill my ancestors.”
Thousands upon thousands of African Americans can say the same, and yet, you didn’t see them donning nooses to lobby for the bill that passed the Senate and was signed into law by President Joe Biden. The Equal Justice Institute in a recent report documented more than 4,000 racial terror lynchings in 12 Southern states from 1877 to 1950. And those are just the ones that were documented and just the ones that were in the South. African Americans were lynched in the North and the West as well.
Consider the Feb. 27, 1901, Chicago Record report about the lynching of George Ward in Terre Haute, Indiana. “When the crowd near the fire tired of renewing it after two hours, it was seen that the victim’s feet were not burned,” the newspaper reported. “Someone called an offer of a dollar for one of the toes and a boy quickly took out his knife and cut off a toe. The offer was followed by others, and the horrible traffic was continued, youths holding up toes and asking for bids.”
And here’s how The Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican reported the death of Sam Hose in Newman, Georgia, in April 1899:
“Before the torch was applied to the pyre, the negro was deprived of his ears, fingers and genital parts of his body. He pleaded pitifully for his life while the mutilation was going on, but stood the ordeal of fire with surprising fortitude. Before the body was cool, it was cut to pieces, the bones were crushed into small bits, and even the tree upon which the wretch met his fate was torn up and disposed of as ‘souvenirs.’ The negro’s heart was cut into several pieces, as was also his liver. Those unable to obtain ghastly relics direct paid their more fortunate possessors extravagant sums for them.”
While lynching is part of many African Americans’ story (and the unacknowledged story of many more white Americans whose grandfathers or great-grandfathers committed such crimes, stood by or maybe even cheered such torture) it is still exploitative to use a symbol of lynching for mere political gain.
Who did Booker make this ad for? Did he expect it to appeal to white Kentuckians who have repeatedly sent Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul to the U.S. Senate?
Who did Booker make this ad for? Did he expect it to appeal to white Kentuckians who have repeatedly sent Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul to the U.S. Senate? Or did he expect that showing a noose, an instrument of terror used to end so many African American lives, would inspire Black Kentuckians to show up in record numbers to vote for him? Did he expect a symbol of hate to become an instrument of victory for him? Or is this just an attention-grabbing scheme for a candidate trailing in the polls?
Booker, in a comment to The Grio, seems to know that his ad was a risk.
“I know this video will be jarring for some. I understand the sensitivity of this issue, and realize the visual will expose some wounds that have not healed up in our society,” Booker said. “My hope is that the love and sincerity in my heart will push through that initial shock, and give viewers the chance to not just see my humanity as the first Black Kentuckian to be a major party nominee for the U.S. Senate, but to also understand just how important this campaign is in our broader mission to realize healing, justice and democracy.“
Again, while Paul voted against the legislation in 2020, he did support the version that’s now law. “I fought to pass a strong anti-lynching bill,” he said in a statement to The Associated Press. “To this day, I continue to work hand in hand with community leaders on issues like violence and its effect on Louisville’s youth and their education and look forward to keeping up those efforts when I’m re-elected this November.”
Booker is right that Paul should have originally supported the bill making lynching a federal crime, but Booker shouldn’t have put a noose around his neck to try to make that point. This new law is the worst kind of political fluff anyway: It’s easy to oppose lynching when no one is being lynched. A bill worth applauding would address things such as police abuse, voter suppression, redlining, educational inequality or predatory lending. Nobody should be expecting a pat on the back for criminalizing something that rarely, if ever, happens anymore.
Booker isn’t the first Black man to evoke the history of lynching for his advantage. Celebrities and public officials have too often described themselves as lynching victims, as Justice Clarence Thomas, a Black man, did at his 1991 confirmation hearing for the Supreme Court when he said Anita Hill’s allegations that he had sexually harassed her made him the victim of a “high-tech lynching.” Conservative commentator Ann Coulter parroted that language in 2012 when she branded the sexual harassment allegations against then-GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain, also a Black man, a “high-tech lynching.”
When O.J. Simpson was convicted in a 2007 Las Vegas hotel room heist, a friend described that conviction as a lynching. Camille Cosby likened her husband to Emmett Till, perhaps the most famous lynching victim of them all, and R. Kelly said people demanding a boycott of his music were lynching him. Each time a celebrity makes that comparison, they are publicly shamed. It’s reprehensible to use lynching metaphors in any context.
Booker is right that Paul should have originally supported the bill making lynching a federal crime, but he shouldn’t have put a noose around his neck to try to make that point.
This is not ancient history. These were people who were in my grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s generations who were killed by the parents and grandparents of the so-called Greatest Generation, maybe even killed by members of that generation itself.
There are African Americans alive right now who can talk about brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, mothers, fathers, friends and acquaintances who were lynched, and their pain is yet raw.
Don’t the African American victims of white terrorism deserve respect? Their murders were never punished. Can we at least not try to squeeze some votes out of their suffering?
Our ancestors deserve more respect than that.