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Interviews With Winfred Rembert, Joseph Jordan, Akinyele Umoja

Aired May 11, 2002 - 08:31   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Well, if you've been with us this morning, we're here at the Martin Luther King National Historic Site. "Without Sanctuary" is the name of this exhibit. It's lynching photography in America.

Now, last hour we talked with Winfred Rembert, and we want to bring him back because we didn't get to finish his story. Winfred has a very powerful testimony to give to us. He was taking us back to 1965 here in Georgia, where he was about to be lynched.

Winfred, I thank you for sticking around and continuing to tell your story with us. Take us from the part, sir, where you had been caught for this crime. You were put in jail. Now you have been taken out of jail into a police car. Take us from there, Winfred. Tell us what was about to happen.

WINFRED REMBERT, LYNCHING SURVIVOR: Well, I went for a ride, it seemed like about 20, 25 minutes. And the next thing I know they was opening the trunk and a lot of angry faces staring down at me and it seemed to me in that background, as I started past them, I saw, I wasn't for sure, but I thought I saw a noose. And I was scrambling, trying to see if it really was a noose.

And so when they stood me up, I -- actually a noose, not just one, two, three, four. And the next thing you know I was up off the ground by my feet. And I think -- and the next thing I know the person that I got locked into jail -- that I locked in the jail, he was approaching me a hog billed knife and he wanted himself a trophy. And as he grabbed my private parts and he stuck the blade in me.

And when he did that, before he could pull someone else came up and grabbed his hands and asked him not to do that. And so I feel that if the gentleman didn't want the trophy, I feel like I would have really got lynched because the idea was to lynch, to castrate me and then to lynch me.

So if he hadn't wanted the trophy...

PHILLIPS: Now, Winfred...


PHILLIPS: Who stepped in and saved you from this? I remember reading that all you could see were wing-tipped shoes. REMBERT: That's exactly right. I have no idea who this gentleman was and I'm pretty sure he wasn't a law official, because all of the law officials was standing right there watching what was going on. So I took him to be some powerful person from the area. I have no idea. But all I -- I'd be hanging upside down. I could never seen his face. All I saw was his shoes and his pants legs. He had on a brown suit and a pair of brown wing-tipped shoes.

PHILLIPS: God, Winfred. So when you see this exhibit, when you see these pictures, why is this so important for people of all backgrounds, all color, to come here and see these pictures?

REMBERT: Well, I think it's so important in not just one way. I think that exhibit covers a lot of ground when it comes to life in America, especially in the South. When I looked at it, that was a solemn moment for me and I'm just wondering how many people did lose their lives back in those days that's undocumented for no nonsense reason.

It seemed to me that everyone that got hung, it was for some old stupid reason. So I'm just wondering how many families had to go through that. But I'm hoping that a lot of people will come and see that exhibit, especially young people, because a lot of times I feel like a lot of people don't know the price that was paid for us to be free in this country and I just hope a lot of people will go in and study that exhibit and leave there wondering what they can do to make this a better world.

PHILLIPS: Well said, Winfred.

Now, I know you've used art as a way to express your pain and also your strength.


PHILLIPS: What can you share with us? What can you share with us?

REMBERT: Well, I'd also like to say just for a quick second that after that attempted lynching was thrown in prison for 27 years and I did seven. But I did learn to do this art work while I was in prison and the pictures that I do is about my life growing up in Georgia. I have with me today three pictures and one of them depicts the near castration and one of them depicts a cotton field scene and the other depicts a chain gang scene. And those three things were big in my life.

PHILLIPS: Let's take a look at those pictures. We're going to bring those up. I'm going to have you talk a little bit more about them.


PHILLIPS: When did -- you started painting these in jail.

REMBERT: No. PHILLIPS: How was this -- no? It was outside?

REMBERT: Yes, I started...

PHILLIPS: Afterwards?

REMBERT: ... four years ago.

PHILLIPS: OK, four years ago. I apologize. I'm having a bit of a trouble with the signal hearing you. Tell me how this has been therapy for you as we look at the pictures, Winfred.

REMBERT: Well, I almost died a year ago from doing these pictures. My doctor told me it just opened up something in my brain that I just, I mean, it's really hard to explain but it really had a real effect on me. But I do, I must, I feel like I must tell this story through these pictures regardless of whatever it costs me. There's so much inside of me that's just itching to get out and I have to do it. And if it do cause me my life, I must get these pictures done, because they tell a story and I want people to know about what really happened in those days.

There's a lot of things happened in those days that people need to know what goes on in a lynching and what's said during the lynching, the questions that be asked to you. People need to know all of those things, and that's what I do with this art work.

PHILLIPS: Well, Winfred Rembert, you can see it in your art work, you can see it in the pictures here and we can understand it through your testimony. We appreciate you coming on and talking about your strengths, sir. Thank you very much.

REMBERT: Thanks for having me.

PHILLIPS: All right, coming up after this break, we're going to talk to the curator of this exhibit and show you a few more of these pictures and talk about the meaning behind them. We'll be right back.


PHILLIPS: Once again we're at the Martin Luther King National Historic Site here in Atlanta, Georgia. We want to warn you, too, that what we're talking about is a bit disturbing. A lot of the photos are very disturbing. "Without Sanctuary: Lynching In America," photographs that we want to share with you and talk about.

And we have two people now to discuss the history behind these photos and also that era.

Joining us via satellite, Joseph Jordan. He's out of Miami. He's the curator of this exhibit, and Akinyele Umoja from Georgia State University, an expert, as we well know, on black history. Thank you both for being here.



JORDAN: And how you doing Jeff?

UMOJA: Joseph, how's it going, A.K? Good to see you.


PHILLIPS: A.K., that's much easier. I'm going to call you A.K. All right. Joseph, let's begin with you. This was tough to get to Atlanta. There was a lot of controversy. Let's talk about just what impact it's made and why it's so important for this to be here.

JORDAN: Well, I think it's controversy in one sense. During the time that we were talking about bringing the exhibit, I was actually administrator at the Auburn Avenue Research Library On African- American Culture and History right there in Atlanta. And as a workup to this, we did have a number of community forums. And the community forums that were held at Auburn Avenue were extremely encouraging and positive. People felt that it would be difficult, but they didn't feel that there was any cause not to bring the photographs out and not to do the exhibit.

In fact, in three community forums no one ever said to us, and that was in excess of 500 people, no one ever said to us that we should not do the exhibit. But they felt that we should do it with dignity and with some respect for the victims.

PHILLIPS: Akinyele, what do you think of the exhibit? You had a chance to tour it this morning.

UMOJA: Well, I think it's something that definitely has to be seen. You know, there's a lot of discussion about racial harmony, about reconciliation, of course, the discussion going on now about reparations. And there hasn't been a full discussion on what the experience of black people has been in this country.

Now, these photographs depict a period of time after slavery and many people think well, slavery was over, everything was resolved. But we can see after slavery the continuous of racial violence and white supremacy in this country. And so there's a tremendous amount of denial today in America about what is the exact experience of black people been in this country, of other people, also, because, you know, there are not only black victims here depicted in these pictures.

And so we have to look in terms of understanding where we're at today the experience and what people are going through.

PHILLIPS: Yes, what amazes me, some of these recordings are from 1968.

UMOJA: Exactly.

PHILLIPS: That's not that long ago.

UMOJA: Exactly.

PHILLIPS: That's pretty mind blowing.

UMOJA: And if you think, there was a lynching just a couple of years ago in Texas, in Jasper, Texas. The one...

PHILLIPS: Right, we covered that.

UMOJA: Exactly. So it's, the difference in most of these pictures is you see during the period after slavery up until the 1920s, really, until the 1930s, '40s and '50s, it was a public spectacle in many communities. It was the thing that was public. Since that time, you've had lynchings that have become secretive, as the one in Jasper, Texas. So you didn't have hundreds of people coming out and having a picnic, as you see depicted in these pictures, where it would be a public celebration with the complicity at that time of the local media, because they chose not to really cover it, as well as local and state governments, who chose not to enforce the situation during that particular time.

PHILLIPS: As you can imagine, we received a number of e-mails. Joseph, I'm going to have you take the first one, if you don't mind. This one comes from Kevin in Capitol Heights, Maryland. "I can feel the weight of history in those pictures and a deep pain mixed with hurt and anger. Who were those murdered mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers? Who were those victims? Can anyone identify them or their murderers? Have any visitors to the exhibit recognized relatives?"

JORDAN: Well, in some cases people have felt that they recognized or were familiar with individuals and in those cases we've encouraged them to bring that information to us so we can continue to do the background research necessary to corroborate what they feel. But in my estimation, we will, over the life of the exhibit, until December 31, we will have a number of those instances and we intend to follow-up.

The gentleman who designed the exhibit, Doug Quinn, who actually is director of the North Carolina Humanities Council, mentioned to me that one of the ongoing aspects of the exhibits and one of the good pieces about the exhibit is that we will be able to glean additional information from persons that come through.

PHILLIPS: This e-mail comes from Dennis in Miami, Florida. Akinyele, I'll have you address this. "I understand the need to grapple with the atrocities of the past when they deal with our immediate generation. But reliving past abuses for the sake of culturing value is sick and deprives this generation, which had nothing to do with them, of a positive outlook. Why do we Americans so often waste our valuable time and energy on the past instead of focusing on a more positive future?"

UMOJA: You know the old saying those who ignore the history are doomed to repeat it. And we seen time and time again in the history of human beings around the world, as in Nazi Germany and other places...

PHILLIPS: I've seen that quote, as a matter of fact, at the death camp site. UMOJA: Exactly.

PHILLIPS: Yes, I recognize the quote.

UMOJA: Exactly. And that's what we're talking about, that one thing we have to recognize what human beings have gone through and so we can prevent these occurrences from happening again. But also there's a more direct consequence. You know, my father witnessed a lynching in Alligator, Mississippi back during the 1930s. And I remember when he talked to me about it decades later he cried. He was in tears. I think we have to recognize there was damage that was done, that it is, it does affect present generations today. It does affect those who survived through that and it affects the communities.

You know, people were dispersed as a result of lynchings. Many of you might remember the lynching that occurred in Forsyth County in 1906, 1912, excuse me. And during that particular time, black people were forced out of Forsyth County. That's why black people don't live there in great numbers today.

People were dispossessed of land. People were dispossessed of property, of their homes. So that has a direct effect on those particular families who were dispossessed at that particular time.

So we should not forget. We have to remember and we have to resolve and try to come to some reconciliation on this and come deal with a matter of justice around these particular questions.

PHILLIPS: That's a good point.

Joseph, I mean coming to terms with this painful history hopefully will help everybody, no matter what color, what background, to translate into present day efforts for justice, reconciliation, look at how we all treat other people, of course, on a daily basis. And I know you had a personal history with lynching also.

JORDAN: Well, not necessarily. I did not have a personal history with lynching. I think that it's interesting, however, I want to go back to that gentleman who e-mailed in that note. You know, I don't feel it's anybody's prerogative to say how we come to terms with history, the future or whatever. If for that individual they feel they can go forth and work towards justice, social justice without having to deal with these kinds of things, fine. Well, do that.

But we should not prescribe for everyone else how they understand and how they deal with this issue. How in the world can you work against a particular kind of evil unless you know its nature? How in the world can you talk about getting to reconciliation and beyond reconciliation to atonement without acknowledging those sins of the past?

I think Dr. Umoja there makes a very important point, that in many cases lynching or any other threat of terror against individuals, particularly African-Americans and particularly in the South, also was tied to scaring them off the land. There was a wonderful series done by the Associated Press that looked at this phenomenon. So we're not just talking about let's just lay down all of our past disagreements and move forward. We're talking about people, families, individuals who are living today who have no inheritance because after a lynching or after their families were scared off the land, they now have nothing to sort of grab onto as an inheritance from family members.

So I'm very much one that feels that the most important process that I've seen in the past 20 years around reconciliation was in South Africa. And the truth commission there said very clearly that before we can get to this phase of reconciliation, it's very important for us to know the truth. And realistically this is a very graphic truth, but it is the truth nonetheless.

PHILLIPS: Joseph, forgive me, I realize you didn't have a personal experience with lynching. But you are from this area and so you knew how important it was for these pictures to come here, seeing that so many of these lynchings took place in Georgia. Georgia had the second highest number, is that correct?

JORDAN: Yes, it did, and OK, to be perfectly clear, my home is New York and I was raised in Virginia. However, that does not take away the importance of your point. Atlanta has a very...

PHILLIPS: Forgive me. I got mixed information. I'm sorry, Joseph.

JORDAN: That's OK. It's OK.

PHILLIPS: I'm sorry.

JORDAN: It's OK. I worked in Atlanta for two years, but again, your point...

PHILLIPS: That must have been it.

JORDAN: Certainly. Your point is well taken. Georgia, Florida, Texas, in fact, the entire cotton belt state region is the, are the areas where you find the highest numbers of lynchings, so realistically they have a very important connection to what we're talking about. Atlanta, however, is also, has somewhat of a contradictory presence here because Atlanta is also the site of some of the most important and some of the most consistent resistance against lynching.

You see the work of the NAACP in Atlanta along with the Council On Interracial Cooperation, which was the predecessor to the Southern Regional Council. You see the work of Jesse Daniel Ames and the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching. So it may be that the place, the places that had the most vicious histories are the placers where the most consistent and persistent resistance also rises, as well.

So it's always important to talk about that. And it's always important to say that African-Americans, even at the individual level, even here in Georgia, were very, very strong and very, very much not passive in the face of this. You find people defending their homes, taking up arms to defend their communities and in many cases going further into the legal route to try to pursue those persons who had perpetrated these crimes against them.

PHILLIPS: Joseph Jordan, curator, thank you so much.

Quickly, Akinyele, before we go, is this too graphic for kids or is this very important for all ages to see?

UMOJA: I think it's important for all ages to see. I think with children, even with adults, I think it takes some orientation before and after they see these particular photographs. So I think it's necessary to have education before and education after, and to also try to sort out their feelings and direct those feelings into some positive action.

PHILLIPS: Well, it's been an education for all of us.

Akinyele Umoja, thank you so much.





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