There’s a huge oak tree in the middle of a quiet rural intersection just a mile or so outside of downtown Columbus, Texas. Its branches reach over the roads on all sides. At its base, a state historical marker notes the centennial founding of Colorado County.
There’s no indication that in November 1935, a year before the marker was placed there, two African American teenagers were taken to the tree by a mob and lynched. In a New York Times article, “Texas Prosecutor Condones Lynching,” the elected official says it was “the expression of the will of the people.” A faded photograph, a ghostly negative taken that night, shows two bodies suspended from what is still known as the Hanging Tree. Benny Mitchell was 16. Ernest Collins was 15.
At a recent congressional hearing in the wake of the killings of eight people including six Asian American women in Atlanta, U.S. Rep. Chip Roy of Texas made news, invoking what he called Texas justice. After citing a wide range of other victims —such as victims of drug cartels and of rioting and looting in the streets — he said there are “old sayings in Texas, about find all the rope in Texas and get a tall oak tree.”
In the classic old Westerns, hangings were part of frontier justice, much like the retribution for murderers in Larry McMurtry’s novel “Lonesome Dove.” Today, though, you’d have to be not paying attention to be unaware of the rope as part of the persecution of Mexican Americans and African Americans in Texas.
The website Lynching in Texas has documented 755 lynchings in the state, at least the ones they could find written about. Their numbers include actions taken by the Texas Rangers and other recognized law enforcement personnel, acting outside of any court-ordered punishments. The numbers also reflect the violence perpetrated against Mexican Americans in South Texas and along the border, particularly as that population had their land and property taken from them. It was not uncommon at public lynchings for vendors to circulate with refreshments and photographs of past hangings, sold as picture postcards.
None of this history is hidden. Numerous books detail these crimes. These include “The Injustice Never Leaves You” by Monica Muñoz Martinez, “Forgotten Dead” by William Carrigan and Clive Webb, and “Cult of Glory: The Bold and Brutal History of the Texas Rangers” by Doug Swanson.
It’s also evident in recent popular culture. Tom Hanks finds a Black man hanging from a tree in the first scene of “News of the World,” set in Reconstruction Texas. The television series “The Son” depicts the growing genocide on our border in the early 20th century, something also the subject of a recent documentary film about the 1918 Porvenir Massacre, when all the males in a small West Texas town were taken from their homes one night and executed by a group of Texas Rangers, U.S. soldiers and local rangers.
This really isn’t news in Texas. It’s just a 90-mile drive southeast from the San Antonio portion of Roy’s district to Goliad, Texas. There, on the county courthouse lawn, is a marker acknowledging one of the largest sites of rope justice, a hanging tree where many of the 75 Mexican victims of The Cart War in 1857, who drove product-laden carts from the Texas coast at low rates, were hanged by rival white freighters.
After widespread reaction about his remarks, Roy decided to double down, saying “we need more justice and less thought police,” later saying, “It’s a metaphor. People need to chill out.”
It’s hard to know what he was thinking, whether he knew the implications of his reference, whether this was just an attempt to get a media reaction, or what was in his heart. But his seeming ignorance of this sorry history in Texas, and what “get a rope” represents, does not mean that we also have to remain ignorant.
Paul Stekler is documentary filmmaker and a professor of public affairs and radio-television-film at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in USA Today.