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"He was lynched because he didn't matter"

"He was lynched because he didn't matter"

Social Justice

It was a big news day in Tampa on January 31, 1934. The Tampa Tribune gave a banner headline on Page 1 to the story of how a judge overturned the Agricultural Act.

The judging of state fair exhibits received above-the-fold space, complete with a photo. And on the left side of the front page, there was this much-smaller headline: Gang kills negro after taking him from officer.

Police had arrested Robert Johnson, a Black man they suspected assaulted a White woman. After realizing he wasn't the guy, though, they kept him in jail anyway, charged with stealing chickens and turkeys. Deputy Constable Hardy Graves took Johnson in a police car after midnight, theoretically to transfer him to the county jail.

Instead, they took Johnson to his execution.

Graves claimed three cars stopped him on the way to the jail, beat him, took his weapon, and kidnapped Johnson.

What actually happened is that Graves turned Johnson over to his brother Thomas, who was armed with several other men. They took Johnson to a secluded spot along the Hillsborough River, where they shot him five times, including four to his head, and left his body in a pine thicket.

A grand jury investigated and declined to indict Graves, even though it noted that his face bore no marks from the alleged beating.

More than 88 years after that horrific crime, Johnson's story and many others of that era are receiving their just attention.

It won't bring Johnson or any others back, but as Magrey deVega, Senior Pastor at Tampa's Hyde Park United Methodist Church, noted, "The win is to tell this story. The win is to say something we don't like to hear."

Lynchings weren't unusual

In that era, a murder of a Black person by any means was considered a lynching. Johnson was one of five lynching victims in Hillsborough County: Galloway (1892), John Crooms (1893), Lewis Jackson (1903), and Samuel Arline (1912). Galloway's first name is unknown.

There are similar stories throughout the South that people should know and never forget. Those stories are preserved in Montgomery, Ala., at The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.

One of the museum's missions is the Soil Collection Project, part of the Equal Justice Initiative.

Wherever lynchings happened, volunteers would gather at the location of the murder and collect soil that goes into a large jar. That jar is labeled with the victim's name and displayed with the other jars at the museum.

Johnson's jar will join about 800 others at the museum.

Reverends Justin LaRosa and Vicki Walker of Hyde Park joined deVega, along with other Tampa leaders, including City Council member Luis Viera in that endeavor.

"Councilman Viera was the point of the spear," Rev. LaRosa said. "We began to talk about what it would look like if we honestly studied our past."

That can be a painful and eye-opening conversation, considering recent events.

"Soil is done for a reason. We live off the soil. The Bible talks a lot about soil and land. We inherit

the soil," Viera said. "Gathering the soil was a solemn occasion. We talked about what the project meant to us.

"We went over the story of Robert Johnson and what it meant to us. And then we talked to God and about what this means as a time of reflection. You see yourself as a member of the human community."

Robert Johnson and the others were members of that community, even though their lives were shortened by hatred, bigotry, and ignorance.

"He was lynched because he didn't matter. In 1934, those people thought they could get away with it, and they did," Viera said.

Today some people still believe they can get away with murder.

There was Ahmad Arbery, murdered in Georgia while out on a neighborhood jog. George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis after police officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd's throat for 8 minutes and 46 seconds during an arrest.

There are too many others.

Fortunately, Chauvin and those who murdered Aubery were convicted of murder and given lengthy prison sentences, including life without parole for the father-son duo in Aubrey's killing. But how many others got away with similar crimes that we don't know about?

And has that occurred so often that people today don't stop to connect the dots between the past and present?

"I think going to the lynching museum should be required for every person in this country to better understand our history," Rev. Walker said.

"This is not Black history; it is our history.  The museum is powerful and moves the story from our minds to our hearts, and you are viscerally impacted in ways beyond the intellect." 

On the Riverwalk

To ensure that Johnson's story continues to be told, volunteers will place a plaque explaining what happened to him on the Tampa Riverwalk. The site is to be determined: Either at the site of the murder or in a more prominent place where additional walkers can read about the crime.

They hope to have it erected by July.

Meanwhile, the battle for equal justice is ongoing. Florida lawmakers enacted legislation that could make it harder for minorities to vote. Critics say Florida's recently passed "Don't Say Gay" bill marginalizes the LGBTQ+ community. Florida also has seen waves of antisemitism, including a Nazi display on an Orlando interstate overpass.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed for legislation that provided stiffer penalties for rioters in the wake of protests following the George Floyd murder. Critics say that bill, which is under a legal challenge, is designed to stifle Black's First Amendment right to free speech.

"We didn't think we were past racism; far from it," Viera said. "But what we've seen in Florida is very disturbing."

The work of raising awareness continues, though. President Joe Biden recently signed The Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act, a measure lawmakers wrestled with for about 100 years. There were more than 200 failed attempts to get that legislation through Congress.

The bill is named for the Black teenager whose 1955 murder in Mississippi helped spark the civil rights movement.

"Lynching was pure terror to enforce the lie that not everyone ... belongs in America, not everyone is created equal," the President said as he signed the bill.

"Their crimes? Trying to vote. Trying to go to school. Trying to own a business or preach the gospel. False accusations of murder, arson, and robbery. Simply being Black."

Bigots murdered Robert Johnson because he was Black.

The people involved in that crime believed no one would care or remember.

They were wrong.

Joe Henderson is News Content Editor for

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