Donald Mathews is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This interview is based on his new book At the Altar of Lynching: Burning Sam Hose in the American South (Cambridge University Press, 2017).
JF: What led you to write At the Altar of Lynching?
DM: In preparing to write a sequel to Religion in the Old South, I realized that lynching and religious participation in institutions, collective action, and media were increasing at the same time. I discovered an article by a former minister’s wife, Corra Harris, defending the lynching of a laborer called Sam Hose in 1899. At about the same time I was asked to write an essay on why I [born in Idaho] wrote about religion in the South. The short answer was, I realized: “Because my grandfather was lynched for defending a black family from being lynched.” He wasn’t exactly “lynched,” to be sure, because he survived a beating that damaged his brain, soul, and wealth. My father, however, remembered the event as a “lynching” and his family lived with the psychological fallout from my grandfather’s encounter with American populism and violence. Christians had seized him at prayer and destroyed his life. I thought I should think about Harris’s defense of violence within the context of her religious life and that of people like her.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of At the Altar of Lynching?
DM: Religion enveloped the burning of Tom Wilkes: participants lived it, they shouted it, they enacted it in a grotesque carnival of violence and celebration. Tom Wilkes was not Christ, but his burning as Sam Hose was supposed to resolve matters far beyond and above homicide and rape: black equality, black autonomy, black defiance: His burning was thus a sacrifice to the savage god of White Supremacy.
JF: Why do we need to read At the Altar of Lynching?
DM: “Need” is subjective and I find it difficult to tell anyone what they need. I do invite them
* To understand the historical background of violence against African Americans;
* To understand the religious character of segregation as Lillian Smith understood it;
* To understand how the culture of White Supremacy criminalized black people, used sex and gender to create lies about American society and blacks, and how popular white religion was caught up in those lies;
* To think about how people of African descent condemned the lies told about them, how they were so alienated from the white-controlled “criminal justice system” built on those lies that they could see the execution even of those who were actually guilty of capital crimes as “crucifixions”;
* To understand why W E B Du Bois and concerned white clerics thought of lynching as “crucifixion”;
* To understand how the human compulsion to make signal acts as meaningful as possible even when they are illegal reveals the human capacity for making religious even the most heinous acts imaginable.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
DM: In college I was always interested in American history; I can’t explain the why of that. In seminary, I was transfixed by the implications of two things Helmut Richard Niebuhr said in class: 1) The first question to be asked when addressing ethical issues, he noted, was “What is/was happening?” 2) When we think of the meaning of the Cross and crucifixion, he once said, we have to sift that meaning through the “Gas ovens. . .” That second comment is one of the most penetrating observations I have ever heard. The first one was prelude. I have to add, I suppose as confession, that I fully understand the homiletic style of my writing. Gene Genovese in a passing conversation once asked me partially in jest, partially in criticism, “Are you ever going to stop preaching?” I answered as I laughed, “No. I guess not.” He replied, “I didn’t think so.” And we went off to a seminar at the National Humanities Center.
JF: What is your next project?
DM: I hope to think about how the memory of violence against a loved one or family member affects those who struggle with its effects. There is a growing number of important books or articles on the memory of lynching, and I need to read as many as I can and come to terms with them. I suspect this is an article, but it could be a small book. I had thought to follow up on an article I wrote about the suicide of a Methodist minister in 1910 as a way to get inside the traumas of “modernity” and I may still do that.
JF: Thanks, Donald!