During one week in October 1878 seven Black men, three from one family, were murdered by a well-organized group of about two hundred white men in Posey County, Indiana. At that time Posey County had 20,000 residents only 200 of which were Negroes. The odds were 100 to 1 and white people held every position of power including the newspaper owners and editors, the Circuit Court Judge and the Prosecuting Attorney.
Making the crimes disappear was easy. As John Leffel, the owner and editor of The Western Star newspaper, wrote on the front page, “Now let the appropriately dark pall of oblivion cover the entire transaction”. Leffel had been an eye witness to five of the murders and even interviewed the victims before four of them were lynched on the courthouse campus and another was “slaughtered like a hog” and his body parts thrown into the jailhouse privy.
With the active assistance of Posey County’s legal and law enforcement community and the acquiescence and quiet approval of the entire white community Leffel’s directive was carried out and no one was ever brought to justice. In fact, some who were aware of and involved in the murders and coverup even went on to higher political offices.
This sordid chapter of our county’s history was brought sharply to my mind again last week when I received a letter from Deidre Eltzroth of Indianapolis. I do not know and have not met Ms. Eltzroth but, according to her letter, she is the daughter-in-law of a close friend of mine, Jerry Kuykendall. Jerry and I have been friends for forty years and as a teacher at Mt. Vernon Junior High he coached our son, Jim, in track. Jerry is a generous public servant who gives countless hours through the Red Cross and numerous other activities. Deidre wrote that she had read my book, JUDGE LYNCH!, which is about the murders. She opined I might be interested in a memorial to the victims.
Deidre enclosed a brochure on the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. The memorial at EJI is dedicated to the more than 4,000 Negro lynching victims who were murdered in America between 1877 and 1950. Some of Posey County’s victims are named on a bronze coffin. EJI is asking each of the localities where people were lynched to dedicate a memorial to the victims. Peg and I toured the EJI in Montgomery this past summer. It is a sobering reminder of our treatment of “freed” slaves and other African Americans after the Civil War.
By coincidence, just recently three of the leaders of the Posey County Bar Association inquired about honoring my 38 years of service as judge. I was humbled and gratified by their thoughtfulness and suggested what would be most desired by me would be a memorial on the campus of the Posey County Courthouse to those long-forgotten souls who were murdered without due legal process then cast into the dustbin of history by the establishment and the legal system.
So, thank you, Deidre, for your timely and thoughtful letter. I hope we can now all work toward righting a great wrong. For more information about the Equal Justice Initiative go to www.museumandmemorial.eji.org.
In Hidden Hills, California the average price of a home was over one million dollars before the fires. I imagine the current price is now lower. Those of us who do not live in million-dollar homes, and that’s most of us, may momentarily succumb to the meaner angels of our nature when we hear of the misfortunes of “those people”. For most this is a transitory weakness that is overcome rather quickly when we hear of all the death and destruction wrought by fires or hurricanes or tornados or war.
Kanye West and Kim Kardashian live in Hidden Hills and are wealthy enough to hire a force of private firefighters to protect their home. My first thoughts on the matter were not charitable. First of all, I have little concept of who West and Kardashian are or what they do or why they are famous or how they got rich. My guess is they would not care what I think, and I do not blame them. What they obviously do care about is their home and, to my surprise, those of their neighbors also.
Apparently, there are many people living beyond their means in Hidden Hills just as there are everywhere else. Most cannot hire private firefighters to save their houses. But, because West and Kardashian live at the end of a cul-de-sac that leads to other homes, by protecting their home they are also helping to protect their neighbors. Should Peg and I ever win the lottery and live in a place like Hidden Hills I am sure we would be eternally grateful if we had a neighbor wealthy and generous enough to help protect our home. When I put things in this perspective and ratchet the circumstances back to where the rest of us live, I think of the day to day help and concern of friends and neighbors and the daily heroics of law enforcement, emergency personnel, firefighters and just plain folks who give every day. For example, Peg and I have wonderful neighbors who, while not quite as wealthy as Kanye and Kim, would, I am confident, sacrifice at an amount in ratio and proportion to them, to help protect us and our property!
So, Kanye and Kim, whoever you are, thanks for giving for others. Are you helping yourselves, of course. However, it is not a sin to benefit from helping others. It is just that such a happenstance is rare. To see a good deed result in pleasure, not pain, brings a good feeling.
As with much of our philosophy we can thank the ancient Greeks for the concept of the Phoenix, something (or someone) who rises from the ashes of defeat to be even better than before. Or as we all remember our parents attempting to convince us, we learn more from defeat than victory. This provides scant solace at the time of a loss or an embarrassment but most of us eventually see the validity of wisdom born of hardship and the shallowness of temporary acclaim.
It is likely you are already aware that Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) and Teddy Roosevelt (1858-1919) among many others have already written about these concepts and certainly more presciently than I. Kipling in his poem If advised his son and the rest of us:
“If you can dream and not make dreams your master,
If you can think and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and
Treat those two imposters just the same, ….
Then you will be a man my son.”
Teddy Roosevelt in his thesis, The Man in the Arena, wrote of greatness born of failure:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Naturally, winners of elections are justly elated and losers are hurt and depressed. I have lost an election and have won some. What I discovered was my loss and my victories had less to do with me than with the vicissitudes of a fickle electorate. Most voters had no idea who I was and both the victories and the loss were mostly happenstance.
On the other hand, for our democracy to endure someone has to be willing to suffer the slings, arrows, and expense of running for office. So, to all those who cared enough and dared enough to seek to serve the rest of us, both winners and others, I say, Thank You!
Peg and I voted early. I am not aware of whose idea early voting was, but it was a good one. Perhaps the period could be expanded and maybe a safe and secure system of voting from home could be devised. My opinion is that the more citizens who cast one legitimate ballot the better. If we can deliver packages by drone, get gourmet meals sent to our homes and pay our taxes over the internet we should be able to hold legitimate elections that meet our current lifestyle and encourages all who are qualified to vote. Of course, such a system would need to ensure only those qualified vote and ensure that there is only one vote per voter. But as we plan to colonize Mars and the Moon we ought to be able to call upon our ingenuity to increase our options here on Earth.
In my view that is what differentiates us from all other species, options. And the important decisions as to who should lead us forward are one critical area where options matter most. We should not only encourage maximum participation in elections, we should make that participation inviting and easy. After all, we know our society demands maximum ease in such things as satellite and cable TV, drive-through fast foods and shopping by index finger, so why should we make voting less accessible?
Some of you will read this article on or before Election Day on November 06, 2018. If you have not voted, please do so. You will feel better when your taxes come due if you feel you have had some input into who sent the statements to you.
I see participation in our democracy much as I view the case settlement system I helped devise in the Circuit Court of Posey County, Indiana. Let’s take a divorce for example. Two spouses who once loved one another and perhaps had children together or operated a business, now need to go new directions. How can the vital issues of child custody and property division best be resolved? Is it better to have the divorcing spouses turn their future over to a complete stranger, a judge, or might they be happier if they work together to resolve things for themselves? This system of keeping the couple’s options open leads to happier children and a much greater chance of a better future for all involved. In other words, such a court case is kind of like an election where the participants, the voters, have the option to impact their own destiny.
We may make a bad choice occasionally, but we can rectify matters at the next election if we stay involved. One thing is for sure, if we do not vote we cannot impact the selection of those people who control our lives. And if we lose control we are in the same position as all other species, that is, we will have no control because we did not exercise our options.
November 6th cannot get here fast enough for those of us accosted by the national media about the acclaimed virtues of their favorite candidates and the attributed evils of those they dislike. But there is another group of citizens who will be even more grateful when the election is over, that is the candidates themselves. Having been a candidate myself I feel their pain. And the winners will have suffered as much as the losers; although victory may somewhat assuage the pain of the campaign. However, the elation from an election night win may soon crash on the reality of actually filling a public office and the nagging dread that another campaign may soon be required.
Political campaigns remind me of Jerry Clowers’ most famous story. You may recall Clowers who was a standup comedian known as the “Mouth of the South”. Clowers was born in Liberty, Mississippi in 1926 and died in Jackson, Mississippi in 1998. He told many humorous stories of southern culture, some of which might fall through the cracks of today’s political correctness. His Coon Hunting routine brings up the feelings many political candidates experience. You may know the story which involves a Mississippi coon hunter who climbs a tree to confront what he thinks is a raccoon and finds himself in a battle with an unamused lynx.
As the hunter is suffering claws and teeth he calls for his fellow coon hunter to shoot up in the tree. His friend yells back he is afraid to fire his gun as he might hit the treed hunter. The hunter in the tree yells back, “Fire anyway, one of us has to have some relief!”
When it comes to political races often candidates are so amazed and chagrined by the experience they get the same feeling. “Just get it over, I’ll worry about who wins later.” On the other hand, those of us on the ground, as it were, can receive the benefits of the effort of those who seek to serve us without any sacrifice on our part.
So, on behalf of those of us on the sidelines allow me to say thank you to the candidates and as another famous candidate said, “We feel your pain”, but it will soon be mercifully over for all of us.
October is a wonderful month, cool, warm, wet, dry, crisp and colorful. I was enjoying this marvelous gift of nature while I traveled home from work last Friday. As I passed Larry Williams’ McKim’s IGA grocery store in Mt. Vernon, Indiana I was reminded of another reason October is special. All along the Main Street edge of the store were signs of candidates for public office.
Large signs, small signs, red signs, blue signs red-white and blue signs. Off color signs, professionally produced signs and some that looked as if they were produced by a committee. They reminded me of that marvelous protest song from the Sixties, “Signs”, that was written by Les Emmerson and performed by the one-hit wonder group named The Five Man Electrical Band.
You may recall the lyrics: “Signs, signs everywhere a sign, blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind; Do this (vote for me), don’t do that (vote ‘wrong’)”. I love the ecumenicism of McKim’s policy on political signs. All shapes, colors and candidates are welcome. No office seeker nor any party is preferred or ostracized. This is democracy as it was intended.
Each election cycle I am cheered by seeing signs appear slowly but increasingly from about Labor Day to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. The profusion of signs gives me the same good feelings Easter eggs and Christmas presents do. They restoreth my faith in our self-government.
Having put up political signs myself and having to take them down after a loss (not fun) or after a victory (no problem), I truly appreciate the spirit of public service that encourages anyone to run for a political office. People who have not done so may cynically believe others seek office for private gain or public acclaim. My experience is that most public offices pay not much more than minimum wage and require maximum ability to absorb unwanted and usually unwarranted criticism.
So, sign wavers and candidates, Thank You!, for being willing to serve in our citizen-controlled government. That’s the only way it will remain so.