The American Spectator's embarrassingly ignorant attack on Sherrod

Jeffrey Lord begins his July 26 American Spectator article with this provocative assertion:

Shirley Sherrod's story in her now famous speech about the lynching of a relative is not true. The veracity and credibility of the onetime Agriculture Department bureaucrat at the center of the explosive controversy between the NAACP and conservative media activist Andrew Breitbart is now directly under challenge. By nine Justices of the United States Supreme Court. All of them dead.

Actually, not so much (except for the part about the Supreme Court justices in question being dead -- Lord did get that right).

Lord is writing about a reference in Sherrod's now-famous speech to a county sheriff in segregation-era Georgia by the name of Claude Screws. To summarize the case: Screws and two other law enforcement officials arrested a black man named Bobby Hall at his home on a warrant over a theft charge; he was handcuffed and taken to the courthouse. According to the Supreme Court ruling that this case ultimately resulted in, when Hall got out of the car at the courthouse, Screws and his companions began beating him with fists and blackjacks, and continued beating for as much as a half-hour after Hall had been knocked to the ground. Hall was then dragged feet first through the courthouse yard into the jail. He was later taken to a hospital, where he died. Screws and his companions claimed that Hall had reached for a gun and had used insulting language against them, but there was also evidence that Screws had a grudge against Hall and threatened to “get” him. Screws and his companions were convicted of depriving Hall of his civil rights; that conviction was appealed to the Supreme Court, which in 1945 essentially overturned Screws' conviction on a technicality over jury instructions.

“Claude Screws lynched a black man,” Sherrod said in her speech. This is false, Lord asserts. Why? Because Screws and his companions didn't use a rope, and the court ruling didn't use the word “lynching.”

No, really:

In other words, the Supreme Court of the United States, with the basic facts of the case agreed to by all nine Justices in Screws vs. the U.S. Government, says not one word about Bobby Hall being lynched. Why? Because it never happened.


Anyone who has lived in the American South (as my family once did) and is familiar with American history knows well the dread behind stories of lynch mobs and the Klan. What difference is there between a savage murder by fist and blackjack -- and by dangling rope? Obviously, in the practical sense, none. But in the heyday -- a very long time -- of the Klan, there were frequent (and failed) attempts to pass federal anti-lynching laws. None to pass federal “anti-black jack” or “anti-fisticuffs” laws. Lynching had a peculiar, one is tempted to say grotesque, solitary status as part of the romantic image of the Klan, of the crazed racist. The image stirred by the image of the noosed rope in the hands of a racist lynch mob was, to say the least, frighteningly chilling. Did Ms. Sherrod deliberately concoct this story in search of a piece of that ugly romance to add “glamour” to a family story that is gut-wrenchingly horrendous already?


Having now insisted that the slightest deviation from the truth can only be deliberate falsehood that ruins credibility rather than a mistake, Sherrod's defenders are staring at the cold, hard text of a 65-year old Supreme Court case in which nine Supreme Court Justices, eight of them FDR appointees, have unanimously agreed to the facts in the Bobby Hall murder. Facts that make Sherrod appear, to put it mildly, prone to exaggeration if not worse.

Needless to say, Lord's argument is not just wrong, it is stupidly so. Why? Because Lord assumes that the only possible way to lynch someone is with a rope.

The American Prospect's Adam Serwer highlighted the text of one proposed anti-lynching bill introduced in 1922 that defined lynching as “an assemblage composed of three or more persons acting in concert for the purpose of depriving any person of his life without authority of law as a punishment for or to prevent the commission of some actual or supposed public offense.” Matthew Yglesias points out several dictionary definitions of lynching that do not exclude means other than hanging.

So Screws and his companions did indeed lynch Bobby Hall. But because they didn't use a rope, Lord wants you to believe that Hall wasn't “lynched.”

As for the Supreme Court not referencing lynching, that's because it wasn't what Screws and his companions were charged with. We could find no evidence that there were any anti-lynching statutes on the books in Georgia at the time of the Screws case, but even if there were, they likely were not strictly enforced, especially if a sheriff was involved. Lynching was not outlawed on a federal level until 1968, after decades of obstruction by senators in southern states. (The Senate issued an apology for this obstruction in 2005.)

Lord could have saved himself a boatload of embarrassment by simply spending a few minutes working Google on the subject of lynching.

UPDATE: Even Lord's fellow Spectator writers are running away from this claim. Nevertheless, Lord's article is still being promoted at the top of the Spectator website: