The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, Ala. The monuments in the memorial square represent racial terror lynching victims, including Rubin Stacy. Photo by Judson McCranie.
We have all become sadly accustomed to seeing disclaimers ahead of news broadcasts and documentaries that we will shortly be exposed to distressing images. Newspapers and their websites, however, seldom feel the need.
On Sunday my hometown paper, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, made a justified exception to revisit a lynching from our distant, yet not-distant-enough, past.
Beginning last Friday online, and in Sunday’s print edition, the paper ran a front-page photo showing preteen white girls gazing, along with their mothers and other spectators, at the manacled hands of a Black man in overalls who was hanging from a tree. On page 8A of the print edition, and further down in the online version – below the advisory – there was a broader view of crowd gawking at the body of Rubin Stacy. His 1935 murder in Fort Lauderdale became both a grotesque local entertainment and, briefly, a national topic of discussion. In that second photograph, Stacy’s face is clearly visible. Yet even this shocking image did not capture the full brutality of his treatment.
Stacy, a farmhand, approached a home on what was then the outskirts of town to ask for water on a hot July day. Marion Jones, the white woman who answered the door, reportedly panicked and later claimed he attacked her with a penknife. Stacy denied the claim.
Three days later, Stacy was arrested by deputies of Broward County Sheriff Walter Clark. Clark had won the office several years earlier on a campaign claim that he was the first white male child born in the county; he promptly appointed his brother Bob as his chief deputy. Bob Clark was reportedly leading a team of six deputies taking Stacy to jail in Miami when they claimed they were overpowered by an angry mob, which marched Stacy to a wooded site not far from the Jones house.
The Sun-Sentinel quoted a woman who came forward in 1988, saying she witnessed the lynching. In her account, Bob Clark himself hoisted Stacy into the tree. He then demanded that bystanders shoot Stacy to make a large number complicit in the killing. A total of 17 bullets hit the victim, based on the coroner’s report. Stacy’s blood-dripping body was left to hang for eight hours.
After Stacy’s killing, national Black leaders cited his death in their efforts to persuade President Franklin D. Roosevelt to support a federal anti-lynching law. Roosevelt refused, fearing a loss of support for his reelection in the South.
This weekend’s story was not the first time I had heard of the lynching and seen the photos, which many outlets published at the time and in the decades since. (In fact, I’ve written about Stacy’s killing in this space before.) Nor was it the first time I had heard of Walter Clark, who was Broward’s sheriff from 1931 until 1950. A local magazine article a few years ago recounted how Clark and his brother would arrest local African American men for vagrancy and give them a choice: pay an astronomic $35 fine or go to work for local farmers until their labor covered the same amount. The farmers credited the detainees with a fraction of the wages white workers would have earned, thus extending their time in the field. Then the farmers gave Clark his $35.
The pictures and accounts of Stacy’s lynching, though resurfacing from time to time, gradually faded from national and even local prominence. So much so, in fact, that a 1993 master’s thesis in the online archives at local Florida Atlantic University gave short shrift to the lynching and all but whitewashed Walter Clark’s legacy – which also included associations with organized crime figures and involvement in gambling. The latter led to his suspension from office in 1950 on charges of corruption. He was acquitted, but Clark died of leukemia before he could reclaim his position.
William Kramer’s graduate thesis, which was signed by FAU’s history department chair and the deans of its graduate studies program and College of Arts and Humanities, observed that another of Clark’s early hires was a deputy named Virgil Wright. Wright patrolled the African American neighborhoods near the Palm Beach County line.
“Wright had acquired a reputation for being hard on African-Americans,” the graduate student wrote. “He used this reputation to his advantage throughout his career. Clark’s selection of Wright strongly signalled his intention to maintain the racial status quo by keeping African-Americans in a subservient position.”
Nevertheless, Kramer’s thesis, titled “Walter Reid Clark: Legendary Sheriff of Broward County,” describes its subject merely as “colorful and controversial.” The thesis concludes that Clark “remained a friend of county residents throughout his lifetime. As sheriff he provided needed leadership for the county and his many contributions helped Broward County to prosper and grow.”
Kramer did not reach this conclusion ignorant of what happened to Rubin Stacy. He, and by inference his academic advisers, simply dismissed Stacy’s lynching as irrelevant. “Clark faced two challenging law enforcement cases during his first term in office,” Kramer wrote. “Although one of the cases led to the county’s only lynching, he proved to white residents that he was a capable and efficient administrator, and won re-election.”
Side note: While I expect academicians to say that their signature on a thesis is not an endorsement of its conclusions, one has to wonder how an honest historian could assert that a lynching for which the sheriff denied culpability could have “proved” that he was a “capable and efficient administrator.”
An honest story revisiting Stacy’s lynching was timely, disturbing photos and all. Besides affixing a warning ahead of the most graphic image in their recent story, however, the Sun-Sentinel’s journalists took another unusual step. They asked local Black leaders whether they thought the paper should republish the images at all. In most cases, newsrooms closely guard such editorial decisions. But in a newsroom where most of the senior decision-makers are white, and at a time when cultural sensitivities have reached new heights, they made a decision to break with custom.
I think they made the right call. And, in comments published as a sidebar to the main story, local leaders in the county (in which close to 30% of residents are Black) uniformly encouraged publication.
Fort Lauderdale City Commissioner Robert McKinzie summed it up: “Without the photo, there’s no story.”
Just so. Several generations have grown up since World War II exposed to the images of concentration camps victims, Hiroshima and Nagasaki after they were bombed, and the skulls that Pol Pot’s butchers left behind in Cambodian killing fields. That a Black man could be lynched in small, Southern Fort Lauderdale in 1935 is appalling but not shocking to me. That a local graduate student and his advisers could have dismissed it nearly 60 years later is both.
As attorney Johnny McCray told the news outlet: “Why should we ignore or deny or conceal our history? To me it makes no sense. Some may argue it’s being used to inflame some of the issues going on now. But we need to be careful not to repeat what went on. And in order to do that we need to know where we’ve been.” The Sun-Sentinel provided a thoughtful look backwards to that end.