Jussie Smollett and the Lynching of Ell Persons


update – who the hell knows at this point

It’s been hard to escape the news lately about the “attack” on Empire actor Jussie Smollett. (Total side bar but Empire is nothing but the evolution of the movie Hustle & Flow). Smollett told authorities he was attacked early January 29 by two men yelling slurs, one putting a rope around his neck, and being doused with some sort of liquid or chemical.

Two brothers were arrested and man the story just blew up, especially in the far left-politcal-actor-twitter-influencer world. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker both went straight to the “modern day lynching” metaphor. Cut and dry. MAGA hats. Racists, White ‘Murica, tragedy, the works. Except…..well, it might not be true.

Now to be fair, the facts are still not out there. In time we might find out he staged it. He would not be the first person to stage a crime. And we might find that the brothers were more involved than the authorities believe. Point is, it takes TIME to sort through, well, almost anything. And time, brother, is counter to all we hold so dear. Rapid hot takes, judgement, acting as if we have some insight, some empathy that will help us, oh say, get elected. We simply vomit randomness mixed with moralizing.

The mob cranks up, until it’s time to put the torches down again.

And honestly that is enough about Smollett. What concerns me rather is the term “lynching”. Multiple politicians and celebs have called the attack a “modern day lynching”. It’s not. Even if the two brothers did exactly what was claimed, it’s still not a lynching.


Ell Persons.

Between 1880 and 1960 nearly 5000 African-Americans were murdered by actual lynching. Persons was one of them.

Mr. Persons was an African-American woodcutter living on the outskirts of Memphis, TN in 1917.  Tragically, a young, WHITE, schoolgirl named Antoinette Rappel was found murdered, more precisely raped and decapitated, about a mile from Persons’ home. That crime was horrible enough, but what followed was truly horrifying, for a variety of reasons.

Persons was arrested and brought in for questioning. Over the span of 24 hours he was essentially tortured into a confession, although there was zero evidence linking him to this crime. Word got around about the arrest, and a lynch mob was formed. A REAL LYNCH MOB.

Not wanting to see him escape justice in a courtroom, authorities moved him to Nashville but within days a judge ordered him back to Memphis for trial. The state governor was asked to provide men to protect him but he declined. You can guess how it went, but let me itemize it for you.

He was returned by train, and before reaching Memphis the train was stopped by the mob and Persons taken. A formal lynching was announced for the following day. The spot chosen was by a bridge over a small river called the Wolf River, near where Rappel was killed. Newspaper announcements previewed the lynching as if it was a sporting event. 5000 people showed up. Kids were let out of school to attend. Read that again. Refreshments were sold, in fact they ran out of soda. Postcards were made to commemorate the event. The media came, along with THE POLICE. Rappel’s mother gave a speech to the crowd wishing Persons 10 ten times more agony than her daughter. You get the idea.

Persons was brought forward, chained to a log and doused with gasoline. Then he was set on fire. People yanked at his clothes for souvenirs. They cheered, they howled. They delighted in the murder of a man. Then he was chopped to bits, his head taken down Beale Street in downtown Memphis and thrown out of a car at a group of African Americans.

The local paper said the lynching was orderly.

Nobody was ever tried for either crime. And there were serious doubts about Persons’ guilt, meaning, to be blunt, he DIDN’T DO IT.

But that didn’t matter. A white girl was raped and killed and by god someone was going to pay. So the mob did what we still do today – ignored facts, demanded action, justice, RIGHT NOW. And a man paid in the most horrifying way possible – burned and mutilated while people cheered.

That is a lynching. And that is why people like Booker and Harris should probably be more measured in their words, and the expediency of their comments. What happened to Smollett is bizarre and possibly born from hate. If he was attacked in the manner he described I hope someone goes to jail. If he made it up he should be held to account.

But we would be better served if the Talking Class dialed the righteous rush to judgement back a bit. Maybe a few less talking heads on the screen.  A few less tweets. It often makes a situation worse.

Ell Persons would thank you.