By Sam Burnham
I've written often about Judge Augustus Wright. I happened across a letter from one of his sons, also a judge and legislator, Seaborn Wright to the editor of the Rome News-Tribune which was published in that paper on Sunday, January 6, 1901. The letter is his response to two lynchings as well as two other attempts in a nine month period in Floyd County. Reading through the letter from 116 years ago, I saw a message that is still pertinent today. So as we have seen both of our major political factions engaged in chaos, destruction and violence on our streets, I want to share these sagacious words and see how they might speak to us today. (The letter appears below unedited and as it was printed in 1901)
To the Editor of The Tribune: - Whatever may be the truth of Thursday's lynching it is well for the people of Rome in the quiet of this Sabbath morn to ask themselves what good or evil will result from the terrible scenes through which we have passed?
I am unalterably opposed to lynchings. Not because my blood does not boil at the crimes for which they are done but I know that course never corrects or defeats crime, but on the other hand excites and inflames men to the repeated commission of it. If there is one lesson plainly taught by all history, it is this.
For a time the reign of law has been suspended in this city. Are we the better for it? Has any body's respect for the law been increased? Has our confidence in the ability or willingness of officers of the law to protect us been enhanced? Do we feel that the bodies of our women, or the sanctity of our homes, are safe? Are we willing to go on with this experiment we began Thursday - relegate our courts to the rear. turn over the keys of our jails to the mob, and abide the consequences? If we are, all we have to do is remain silent, then then it will be repeated, it will grow, feeding upon the unrestrained passions of men, until the mob shall decide in all cases what authority the courts or power the officers of the law shall have. Yesterday The Anniston Hot Blast said:
"Within the last few days in one county of the state, a man was murdered by a mob for burning a barn; another in another county was murdered by a mob for merely being charged for stealing a bunch of keys, while a third was likewise disposed of in another county for cutting another man with a knife. The law of the land demanded life in neither case, but all the same the mob, assuming to be superior to the law, took vengeance into its own bloody hands."
Is any man fool enough to think he can limit the action of the mob? Today perhaps in righteous indignation it slays the ravisher of women, but understand tomorrow it murders men for sport.
Think of its hellish influence on the minds of the young. The children parading in the streets today with chips from the tree upon which the negro hung in their pockets, with pieces of his horribly mutilated body in their hands!
What does this mean? What devil is it stirring up in their little hearts? Is it teaching them respect for law and order? Does it teach them a holy reverence for chastity?
Rather does it not arouse the latent devil in their souls, and make them the heralds, if not the authors, of a future "reign of terror?"
Within nine months there have been four attempts and lynchings in this county. It is time to call a halt and arouse a public sentiment strong enough to teach all men - mobs and officers alike - that the law is supreme in this county.
I call upon all lovers of law and order to speak out in no uncertain terms and quit talking under breath about these matters. And I especially urge our ministry, God's chosen leaders in all great moral movements, to swing their ponderous influence boldly to the rescue of the law.
Trying to provoke social change or carry out justice via an angry mob can never be anything more than counterproductive. As the judge has communicated above, the mob cannot be regulated. It cannot be controlled. It cannot be trusted. And further, it can offer no resolution short of intimidation or violence. It is regulated only by the passions of its members.
We have a system. It isn't perfect but it also is without equal on this Earth and it's all we have to work with...other than the mob.
And so, from Floyd County in 1901, we have two terrible crimes, for which two men were sentenced, extra-judiciously, to death. Were they guilty of the crime for which they were accused? Maybe. Maybe not. They never had the benefit of a trial by a jury of their peers in which evidence could have been presented.
A free society requires us to fight for our system - the rule of law. It has to be fair for all. But most of all, we must never jump to conclusions, never be ruled by our passions and driven to acting outside the system because we think it is slow or less informed than we are. Without that system, all we have is the chaos of the mob.
We have to insist that cooler heads prevail on both sides.
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Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire