Here is the photograph. Take a good look at Jesse Washington’s stiffened body tied to the tree. He had been sentenced to death for the murder of a white woman. No witnesses saw the crime; he allegedly confessed but the truth of the allegations would never be tested. The grand jury took just four minutes to return a guilty verdict, but there was no appeal, no review, no prison time. Instead, a courtroom mob dragged him outside, pinned him to the ground, and cut off his testicles. A bonfire was quickly built and lit. For two hours, Jesse Washington — alive — was raised and lowered over the flames. Again and again and again. City officials and police stood by, approvingly. According to some estimates, the crowd grew to as many as 15,000. There were taunts, cheers and laughter. Reporters described hearing “shouts of delight.”
When the flames died away, Washington’s body was torn apart and the pieces were sold as souvenirs. The party was over.
Many years later, as a young man, I visited Waco’s Baylor University, often referred to as the Texas Baptist Vatican. I had been offered a teaching position there. I sat for a while in the school’s Armstrong Browning Library, one of the most beautiful in America, containing not only the works of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the acclaimed Victorian poets, but also stained glass windows, marble columns, and elegant ceilings that bring to mind the gorgeous interior of Michelangelo’s Laurentian library in Florence.