Sunday, February 03, 2019

Thirty-four years ago: was Timothy Lee lynched?

The emergence of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam's blackface/Klansman 1984 yearbook photo has evoked historical commentary such as this:

The context is also important here. While some might be tempted to argue blackface wasn’t so taboo back in the early 1980s, this was an era in which Klan was still active and still violent near where Northam grew up in southern Virginia, as Jerald Lentini noted.

In 1979, Klansmen and members of the American Nazi Party killed five members of the Communist Workers Party in Greensboro, N.C. In 1980 in Chattanooga, Tenn., Klansmen wounded four black women with shotgun pellets and another with broken glass after shooting up a predominantly black neighborhood. The so-called “last lynching in America” was perpetrated by the Klan in 1981 in Mobile, Ala.

This last brought me up short. The date is probably accurate if the meaning of "lynching" is confined to racial terrorism perpetrated openly by whites who trusted they enjoyed the support of their community. But a few Northern Californians remember that on November 2, 1985, the body of Timothy Charles Lee was discovered hanging from a fig tree near the Concord BART station. Twenty-three year old Lee was both Black and gay. Twelve hours before his body was found, two men wearing white robes had attacked two black men in the parking lot of a nearby bar.

Concord police and the county coroner declared Lee a suicide who had somehow hung himself. Some neighbors reported hearing screams.

Ms. Hannum said she thought it was some sort of hazing. ″If I would have realized as terrible a thing was going on, I would have rushed out there, or called police,″ said Ms. Hannum. ″It didn’t leap to my mind that someone’s actually being murdered - and now I’m living with that.″

The NAACP called for an FBI investigation; the civil rights organization never received a satisfactory answer about how the young man came to be hanging from a tree.

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