Because I’m From Georgia, I Remember Murder (for Troy Davis)

A while back, I posted a “Decent People Action Alert” about Troy Davis, the African American man who was convicted back in 1991 for killing a White police officer, Mark MacPhail. The foundation of this case was shaky from the start.

I meant to post again a couple of weeks ago about Mr. Davis and urge folks to take action about his case–and you can still do that by clicking here and please, please take action. But I told myself I was really too busy to post.

That isn’t the truth. The truth is, I stayed silent because I just didn’t want to think about Troy Davis; I knew it would bring me down real low. But I’m already there: I woke up this morning to the news in The New York Times that Troy Davis had been rejected clemency by the Georgia Board of Pardons, which means he will be executed tomorrow, barring a legal miracle.

I don’t mean to be defeatist, but it’s hard not to be because I’m from Georgia and I know the ways of that state. Along with my summer memories of crispy fried chicken, shamefully delicious peaches, beautiful landscapes, and traditional spirituals sung in clapboard churches, I remember the stories about the murders of Black folks told by the members of my African American Georgia family.

I hate to put this so bluntly and (perhaps) rudely, but White folks have been killing Black people for blood sport in Georgia for a very long time.

Take the lynching of Mary Turner in Valdosta, Georgia in 1918. Miss Mary was eight months pregnant when a mob seized and lynched her husband, Haynes. When Miss Mary threatened to call the Law, the mob turned on her. They hung her and cut the eight-month-old fetus from her womb. The baby cried out, and then, the mob took turns stomping the baby to death. There is now a full-length book about this event, Mary Turner and the Memory of Lynching by Julie Buckner Armstrong.

Or, let’s take the story told in Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America by Laura Wexler, the story of the murder of two Black couples by a group of White men in Walton County, Georgia in 1946. It was discovered that one of the men was (possibly) having an affair with a young, White woman and the White outrage over this led to the killing. Though the FBI got involved, no one responsible was ever named or convicted. Incidentally, my mother was thirteen-years-old when this killing happened, and she vividly remembers the news of it.

And then, there are the stories that never made it into the History books, like that of one of my mother’s neighbors, a school janitor. He would stay late after school, ostensibly to clean, and a White lady schoolteacher would stay late, too, ostensibly to prepare her lessons. But everybody in the Black community knew the truth, that they were going together, and I guess one of them informed, because one day, a White man found the couple making love. So the lady schoolteacher accused my mother’s neighbor of rape, and eventually, he ended up in the electric chair.

This is Georgia. This is what we Black Georgians remember in the blood. And there are literally hundreds of these stories from back in the day. But now, in Georgia, they just murder Black men using the legal system; they don’t need to lynch in secret anymore.

When I heard about Troy Davis, I didn’t have a lot of hope that he would escape execution, and neither did my mother. After all, he’s Black, he was convicted of killing a White police officer, and he’s in a pro-death penalty state that has a long history of executing Black men, both legally and extra-legally. However, I signed a petition against the execution. But now, it seems that Mr. Davis is going to be murdered under the guise of “execution.”  I suspected it was going to happen; still, it hurts me just the same.

In The New York Times article today, Anneliese MacPhail, Mark MacPhail’s mother was quoted as saying, “I’m not for blood. I’m for justice. We have been through hell, my family.”

I feel badly for Mrs. MacPhail and I mean that sincerely. I can only imagine her pain. I’m not a mother, but I do know what it’s like to lose a family member, and I’ve lost friends to violence. I don’t want to seem unsympathetic, because every mother’s child is important to her; yet, when I focus on that word “justice,” something inside me shifts to irony .

Executing Troy Davis is about Mrs. MacPhail’s  wanting the person who killed her child to suffer. I understand that desire. And that’s why I believe in life incarceration for murderers, because I’m not one of these folks who think a Bible held in a killer’s hand and a quick “I’m sorry” is going to wipe away a crime and the need for a criminal to make amends. No matter how racist the American justice system is against Black men, I wholly support criminals “doing time.”

Mark MacPhail won’t be coming back, but his mother’s grief will return, even if a mother’s son won’t. And that’s why she wants justice–but her grief will be back whether Troy Davis is innocent or guilty of killing Mark MacPhail, and whether he is executed tomorrow at 7pm.

So really, is executing this man about justice?  Supposedly, justice was done when Troy Davis was found guilty of murder—if indeed, he was the actual culprit. (And frankly, there is a lot of doubt about that). What justice will be had by killing him, especially since there’s so much doubt lingering in this case?

And what if I decided I wanted Mrs. MacPhail’s kind of justice for what was done to Mary Turner, Haynes Turner, and Unnamed Turner Baby?

What if I wanted that kind of justice for those four young people lynched in the canebrake that day?

What if I wanted that kind of justice for my mother’s neighbor, electrocuted for falling in love with the wrong White lady?

Who dies because of them–who dies because of all those hundreds murdered in our Black past?

If we are all honest about the death penalty, it’s not about justice—it’s about retribution, a blood cost. An “eye for an eye.” But if the White citizens of Georgia are honest, there are plenty of us Black folks out here who could start tallying up our own blood cost—in the names of our own murdered dead—if we were so inclined. Fortunately, we are not. At least, not the sane Black folks among us.

When some of us African Americans ask for reparations for slavery, and reparations for the racial terror our ancestors endured in the aftermath of slavery in the South—the forced labor of Black men in the southern states, the lynchings, the rapes—make no mistake, it’s not money we really want. It’s remembrance. It’s justice for our dead.

We don’t want some Disney-Goes-to-Hollywood portrayal of our ancestors’ pain like we saw in The Help movie. But at the same time, if we Black folks start really remembering all that horror done to our kin in the past, it might drive us crazy. And we might seek our own retribution, but we know that’s not the way. That’s why we talk about reparations instead.

I think about Mrs. MacPhail. She’s been in pain for a long time, over twenty years. Her child is dead, and the man she believes—knows in her heart—killed him is still alive and walking around, even if he’s walking in prison. That’s not right to her. She wants her own justice.

Believe me, I know exactly how she feels. I want my own justice, too, for the hundreds of my Georgia Black folks who didn’t get their day in court, the way Mark MacPhail did. Who were murdered and dishonored. Sometimes, their blood cries out so loudly to me, it screams a song in the middle of the night. I’m not exaggerating here for the sake of my argument. I’m telling you the stone-cold truth.

So I just do the only thing I can: I think about a Black man who is probably going to die tomorrow, even though I hope he won’t. Then, I pray to a good God who has an infinite memory and who knows what really happened. After that, I forgive my own trespassers. Then, I write a blog post and hope it touches one person’s heart–just one. Then, I try to forgive again.