Commentary

Ninety years ago, a horrific lynching shook Maryland. What’s changed? | Michael Coard

Matthew Williams, a Black man, was tortured and mutilated. No one ever was arrested or charged in his death

Rope “souvenir” from 1931 lynching of Matthew Williams in Salisbury, Md.(National Museum of African American History and Culture/The Philadelphia Tribune).

By Michael Coard

An eyewitness wrote a letter to New York’s Crusader News Agency (CNA) shortly after the unimaginably horrific lynching of 23-year-old Matthew Williams on Dec. 4, 1931, in Salisbury, Maryland.

The editor immediately published that letter, which detailed that a white mob “… dragged him to the court house square and hanged him, then they cut him down, tied the rope to the back of an auto, and dragged him to the Negro section of the town.

They then got about 40 or 50 gallons of gasoline, but before they threw this gas over him, ‘they cut off his fingers’ and toes, threw them on the porches and in the yards of the colored people’s homes, shouting these remarks, that they (the colored people) could make ‘[n-word] sandwiches’ out of them ….”

The author of that letter, as published by CNA, added, “I cannot even write to you, or explain to you, how horrible the whole thing was.”

Remember that every day — and especially on Dec. 4, 2021, which is exactly 90 years after that “whole thing.”

A racist senator (U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.) from the racist Republican party is still blocking passage of the Emmet Till Anti-Lynching bill, which is designed to simply and finally specify lynching as a hate crime.

Specifically, that “whole thing” was the hellish lynching of Williams whose body was tortured, shot and hanged and whose corpse was incinerated, desecrated, and mutilated. All of this was done by a white mob simply because of what transpired immediately after Williams, an employee, had the audacity to, as the eyewitness pointed out, “request to Daniel J. Elliott, owner of the Salisbury Crate and Basket Factory, for a slight increase in his wages of 15 cents an hour.”

Here’s the background. The (white) police version incredibly alleged that Williams got into an argument with Elliott regarding a pay dispute, pulled a gun, shot Elliott dead, and then attempted suicide with that same gun after which Elliott’s adult son James arrived at the scene, grabbed the gun, and wounded Williams.

But a much different story is told by Salisbury resident Joseph L. Sutton. In a meticulously detailed biography of Sutton, who was born a mere 20 years after the 1865 passage of the 13th Amendment, Shepard Krech III- author of “Praise the Bridge That Carries You Over: The Life of Joseph L. Sutton”- wrote that Sutton had recounted the following:

“I heard a white man from down there was telling it …. He said, … [Williams] didn’t shoot that man … didn’t nobody shoot him but his son … [who] put it on this colored fellow. … We know he didn’t shoot him ….”

James, the son of Daniel Elliot, had a reputation for being a spoiled and demanding man. On the other hand, as noted by professor and civil rights attorney Sherrilyn Ifill in her book, “On the Courthouse Law,” Williams “was a serious young man … [who] did not drink. He attended several churches, most often the John Wesley Methodist Church ….”

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After sustaining the gunshot wound at the work site, Williams was transported to a local hospital and assigned to the “Negro Ward” in a straitjacket and had bandages placed on his head and over his eyes so he couldn’t see.

While in the hospital supposedly under police guard, after having been falsely charged with murder, Williams could hear a mob of hundreds of bloodthirsty whites yelling and screaming while surrounding the building. About a half dozen men from that mob broke in, threw Williams out of the hospital window to the massive mob that dragged him behind a truck to the courthouse lawn, tortured him, shot him, and hanged him. After that, they incinerated, desecrated, and mutilated his corpse.

Not one person among the hundreds was ever jailed, convicted, charged, or even arrested. Not one.

This outlandishly horrific lynching was no aberration in America. As documented by the U.S. Census Bureau, “‘At least’ 4,742 people… were reported lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1968.” That’s not a typo. That’s 1968! And that’s quite recent.

It’s actually worse than that. Congress wasn’t as precise as it should have been. The last lynching wasn’t 53 years ago in 1968. The last three lynchings (that we know of) were on June 7, 1998, when 49-year-old James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas was dragged to death behind a car until decapitated, Feb. 23, 2020, when 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery in Satilla Shores, Ga. was hunted down and shot to death, and May 25, 2020 when 46-year-old George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn. was strangled to death for nearly 10 minutes.

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That’s 2020. That’s last year. That’s right now. Blacks still are being lynched right now.

And a racist senator (U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.) from the racist Republican party is still blocking passage of the Emmet Till Anti-Lynching bill, which is designed to simply and finally specify lynching as a hate crime. That’s all. But that Republican still says no- just as racist congresspersons said no to the 1918 Dyer Anti-Lynching bill and the 2018 Justice for Victims of Lynching bill.

By the way, as I wrote last week, there are pro-vigilante “lynching-adjacent” laws in 49 of America’s 50 states in one form or another. They’re called “citizen’s arrest” laws. Almost every single state in the U.S. (except West Virginia) has laid the groundwork for legalized racist lynchings via those citizen’s arrest laws.

On the 90th anniversary of that despicably sadistic Dec. 4, 1931, lynching, say his name: Matthew Williams.

And remember: “Never forget. Always avenge.”

Opinion contributor Michael Coard, an attorney and radio host, is a columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this piece first appeared

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