Clark Foreman, born in 1902, was a privileged, southerner from Atlanta, Georgia. Clark Foreman worked under President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration and with several civil rights organizations, such as the Commission on Interracial Cooperation and the Southern Conference for Human Welfare. There is a lot to be said for the work that Clark Foreman did as an advocate for civil rights; however, I want to focus on a story from his early years that impacted his decision to become a civil rights advocate.
The story I want to share comes from Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era. It’s a pretty good read (so far). It talks about the civil rights efforts and growth of unions before the National Civil Rights Movement.
The story that Clark Foreman tells is that of John Lee Eberhardt—a black man accused of raping and murdering a pregnant, white woman. John Lee Eberhardt is taken to the local courthouse, to await trial. A mob, three-thousand strong, breaks down the walls to the courthouse and drags John back to the scene of the crime. The following story is the first-hand account of a lynching that occurs in Athens, Georgia—one of the “oldest and most enlightened communities” of this fine state.
The negro was carried to the place of the murder. He was shown the lady he was supposed to have murdered in the hopes that he would confess. The lady was about 23, fair and beautiful. She had a baby eighteen months old and was expecting another in June. The negro would not confess. He was brought out in the yard and tied to a pine tree, about a hundred yards from the house. The crowd of about three thousand people gathered around the tree in a large circle. A leader made a speech forbidding any shooting on account of the danger of onlookers. Strict order was preserved. Everyone was made to sit down, so that the ones behind them might see with ease the ghastly spectacle that was about to take place. A fire was built about the negro’s feet and lit. Neither gasoline nor kerosene was used, in order that the job might not be done too fast. The family was brought to the center of the ring so that the negro might have one more chance to confess. He pleaded to God to testify his innocence. More wood was thrown on the fire. The negro yelled for mercy.
The fire leaps up and seems to burn him too fast. Some hardened onlooker smolders it so that the negro might suffer longer. He tried to choke himself, his hands tied behind him. Finally with a monster effort he bends over far enough to swallow some flame. He dies amid the jeers of the crowd.
The people…grab souvenirs from the branches of the guilty tree. Even the dead negro is not spared. Fingers and toes are pulled from the scorched corpse to remind the participants of the deed. At this juncture a woman comes forth with a pistol and asks to be allowed to shoot the negro. The request is granted. More wood is piled on, and the funeral pyre flares up and lights the faces on the watchers. The mob disperses each to his home, with an air of conquest and satisfaction rather than horror and condemnation.