Andrew Skerritt: Poet stages tribute to black man lynched 80 years ago

He wanted it to be a private pilgrimage. It turned into a public tribute. Maybe it will become a movement.

L. Lamar Wilson ran 15 miles on Sunday afternoon, retracing the route taken by the white men who abducted and lynched Claude Neal 80 years ago in Marianna, Fla. Then about 40 people joined him for a brief ceremony on the front lawn of the Jackson County Courthouse.

Wilson, an award winning poet and Marianna native, wanted to honor Neal, whose blood still cries out for justice, whose name still haunts the black residents of that Panhandle town old enough to remember or conscious enough to know. The event was also a testament to the power of words and the enduring power of the truth.

Wilson was 15 years old when he first discovered the book, “Anatomy of a Lynching: The Killing of Claude Neal,” by James R. McGovern in his hometown library. The story, culled from exhaustive research, told of the Oct. 26. 1934 lynching of Claude Neal, a black man accused of raping and killing a white girl, Lola Cannidy.

This is a familiar American story from beginning to end. Neal was arrested but before his trial he was abducted from his jail cell, strangled and lynched. The brutality of his tormentors cheated the mob the spectacle of his hanging on the oak tree on the lawn of the Jackson County courthouse. By the time they strung him up, Neal was long dead.

He was one of more than 3,000 black men killed by Southern lynch mobs in the years between the Civil War and World War II.

The tale of Claude Neal was largely forgotten outside Marianna until McGovern’s 1992 book. After Wilson found it in the library, he never got over it. He’ll never forget the look on his grandmother’s face when he told her about what he had learned. For her, the Claude Neal lynching belonged to a past she preferred to forget.

“She didn’t want to me to grow up with that kind of fear and anger,” Wilson said Monday, less than 24 hours after his historic run. “She was hurt that my innocence had been lost in that way.”

Where there is a loss of innocence, there is also a whole lot of guilt. The soil in Marianna remains stained by innocent blood. This is also the place where the Ku Klux Klan reportedly assassinated more than 150 white Republicans after the Civil War. The Dozier School for Boys is located in Marianna. Archeologists are trying to piece together the fate of dozens of young men who died at that house of horrors.

Although he is all too familiar with the brutal racial history of his hometown, Wilson didn’t run to protest. He had long marked this date on his calendar. He flew from his home in Charlotte, N.C., just to run to connect with Neal. For him, it was akin to a sacred trust. After the run, he and some well-wishers gathered near the old oak tree from which Claude Neal’s body once hung.

There was something special, even spiritual, about the moment. When he asked if anyone wanted to say anything, people started asking questions. How do we get a plaque to acknowledge this happened?

There are more unanswered questions. When does the state offer Claude Neal’s descendants an apology? How many more Claude Neals must get lynched before the first one gets justice? When will America learn to value the lives of young black men?

Andrew J. Skerritt is author of Ashamed to Die: Silence, Denial and the AIDS Epidemic in the South. He lives in Tallahassee. Follow him on Twitter @andrewjskerritt. Column courtesy of ContextFlorida.

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