Fleer Lecture Examines Racial Violence, Lynching

Dr. Angela D. Sims Shines Light On Cultural Divide

April 11, 2018

By MAGGIE GEBHARDT / mgebhardt@centralmethodist.edu

Dr. Angela Sims

It’s no secret that divisions between mankind exist. While many have put forth considerable effort to close gaps and unite people no matter their faith or ethnicity, correcting the damage of past mistakes proves to be a weary process.

As society evolves, pieces of history still sting the hearts of those who carry memories of injustices and cruelty. But according to Dr. Angela D. Sims, Ph.D., helping people heal is just as crucial today as it always has been.

Sims delivered “Then and Now: Black Bodies, Violence, and Racialized Rhetoric” during Central Methodist University’s Gilbert and Ruth Fleer Lecture Series on Tuesday, April 10 at CMU’s main campus in Fayette. A large crowd made up of students, faculty, staff, and the public listened intently as she covered topics including faith, race, and violence – specifically, lynching.

Lynching is defined as killing someone, especially by hanging, for an alleged offense without a legal trial. These killings are typically described as being carried out by a mob, or group of individuals, seeking what they perceive as “justice.”

“When it comes to lynching and a culture of lynching, we must ask ourselves how our response to various expressions of resistance is informed by a culture of terror from which to various degrees only a select few may be exempt,” Sims said.

Because there is no simple way to discuss lynching, Sims told the crowd she wanted to play an audio of a personal narrative – an excerpt from Katherine Louise Clark Fletcher, which told the story of a lynching that occurred in St. Joseph, Mo. when Fletcher was a young girl.

Without a trial, or even questioning, two African American boys were arrested after being accused of attacking a young girl. The girl was late to get home from a movie, and said she was attacked by the two boys in an alley – her explanation for being late. This particular alley, however, was outside of her normal route, so to many, the young girl’s story didn’t quite add up.

“It was generally accepted by the black community that she was just making up a story because she was late getting home,” Fletcher said in her account.

But that didn’t matter. The boys were arrested and news of the alleged attack quickly spread. According to Fletcher, after a series of events, law enforcement turned the boys over to a mob, who chained one of the accused to the back of a car, drug him through the streets of the black community, and hung him by a tree on the courthouse lawn before setting him on fire.

“It affected me in a horrible way,” she said. “I hated every white face I saw. Oh, I was so full of anger and hate.”

After playing Fletcher’s audio for the crowed, Sims said “at its best, history is always an incomplete record,” and that countless stories such as this exist all over the country – too many remaining untold.

According to Sims, without telling such stories, and without creating an understanding of injustices that have plagued so many African Americans over the years, racism and violence will continue on, fueled by an ignorance that could be altered by communication and story-telling.

Maybe then, one by one, people would begin to feel differently. Maybe then, wrongs could be made right, and painful memories could begin to fade away.

“Examples pointed to evidence of police brutality and white nationalism serve as reminders that then and now black lives are seen by many as insignificant,” Sims said.

So, what now? What can individuals who hope for change do to make a difference? According to Sims, answers lie in untold stories, both in every-day conversation and in education, and in truly listening to personal accounts with an open mind.

Possibly then, over time, healing can take place, and hate can lessen one individual at a time.

Sims, one of the nation’s leading researchers on the ethical complications of lynching, is the vice president of institutional advancement at St. Paul School of Theology in Overland Park, Kan.  A native of Louisiana, she grew up in the San Francisco Bay area.

An ordained Baptist clergywoman who takes seriously the prophetic imperative “to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God,” Sims is an active member and contributor to several academic guilds and faith-based community organizations.

Gilbert and Ruth Fleer, Bentonville, Ark., are the founders of CMU’s Fleer Lecture Series. Both are CMU alumni, and Gilbert was assistant professor of religion at Central from 1959 to 1965.

The 2018 lecture was co-sponsored by CMU’s English, Foreign Languages, Philosophy and Religion division, and by the CMU Advancement and Alumni Relations department.