May 25, 2024

Hankering for History

Hanker: To have a strong, often restless desire, in this case for–you guessed it–history!

The Eyewitness Report by Clark Foreman

3 min read
Clark Foreman, 1944 (Right)
Clark Foreman, 1944 (Right)

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.

3 thoughts on “The Eyewitness Report by Clark Foreman

  1. In Georgia there were 381 lynching incidents between 1882 and 1930, with a total of 458 victims, of whom 435, or 95%, were black. Thus, during this period on average one black person was lynched in Georgia every 40 days. The only Southern state with more lynchings during this period was Mississippi, with 538 victims (of whom 509, or 95%, were black).

    If lynchings were not infrequent in Georgia, they were rare in Clarke county. The burning of John Lee Eberhart in 1921 is the only recorded lynching in Athens since lynching statistics began, and it is unlikely there have been any unrecorded lynchings here since 1882. The Eberhart case is therefore not only the last lynching in Athens; it may have been the only lynching in Athens.

    This murder is terrible, and only partly because of the pain suffered by the victim, but mostly because of the 3000+ people who participated. In my opinion, the guilt is not split among all 3000 but magnified times 3000!

    All three thousand people had to live for years knowing what they did. Knowing they deserved punishment. And if they were Christians, knowing that their own ineluctable punishment would one day surely come as they stood naked and ashamed before almighty God.

    John Lee Eberhardt had a right to the fury of the wrongfully accused. His friends and family had a right to feel that fury, that outrage, and all of them, the victim, the friends, and the family had a right to justice, justice that didn’t seem to come in this world. All these things I accept.

    What I don’t accept is blame. I neither accept any blame for this crime in Athens nor do I feel the tiniest shred of guilt. At the age of 46 years old, I was born after segregation, and after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. If the purpose of retelling this shameful moment of history is only about teaching history then fine. I accept that. But it seems as though all through public schooling and later college all this history teaching was terribly one-sided. And I just have to ask…why do you suppose that is? Can’t we all just move along?

  2. John Eberhart’s lynching reminded me of the lynching of Ell Persons that took place in Memphis, TN. Similar story of a black man supposedly attacking a young white woman and he was burned at the stake as well in front of a crowd of around 5,000. His lynching was advertised in the local newspaper.

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