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Deep South's response to a lynching apology

The Senate's gesture fits a larger pattern of attempts at reckoning - but to many, it comes too late.

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Near here, at the crook of the Neuse River, they lynched John Richards in February 1916 after the solidly built black man confessed to killing a white cotton farmer with a shovel in order to steal $35. He was caught trying to buy a new pair of overalls at a nearby mental hospital with a $20 bill.

The execution was one of nearly 5,000 mob lynchings across the country, some for serious crimes, others for merely whistling at a white woman.

To be sure, whites were killed, too, and only four states have no documented evidence of the existence of hanging trees. But 80 percent of lynchings occurred in the South and the images - snapshots of the victim, a mob, and a pine box - became emblematic of the haunting nature of the region's prejudices.

As part of a broader reckoning of past racist crimes, the US Senate this week - in front of the only man known to survive a lynching, 91-year-old James Cameron - formally apologized for its failure to enact federal anti-lynching legislation during the heyday of mob law.

To some blacks who live in areas where lynchings took place, the apology for a long-ago practice is an odd gesture that papers over today's racial inequities. For others, though, it's an overdue overture.

"You can't go back and change it and you can't compensate the people who experienced it, so this is certainly the least we can do - and maybe the most," says Monte Akers, a Texas lawyer who wrote "Flames After Midnight" about the burning of three innocent black men in Kirven, Texas, in the 1920s.

The Senate's apology comes amid an unprecedented era of reckoning and atonement for past racial injustices, stopping short of outright reparations for slavery and its aftermath. A few weeks ago, for instance, the FBI exhumed the body of Emmett Till to look for more clues in the 50-year-old murder that galvanized the civil rights movement.

On Monday, a frail Edgar Ray Killen faced the first day of trial for his alleged role in the killing of three civil rights workers outside Philadelphia, Miss., in 1964. In Chicago, an exhibition of lynching images, "Without Sanctuary," is once again sparking introspection on a lost but haunting time.

The legacy of lynchings
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