Commissioners approve display of resolution denouncing lynchings

McLennan County Commissioner Lester Gibson takes a resolution adopted by the Commissioners Court denouncing past lynchings out to the rotunda for display Tuesday.

A one-page resolution condemning past lynchings in McLennan County is now on display in the courthouse rotunda, ending one commissioner’s nine-year crusade to publicly exhibit the document.

Commissioner Lester Gibson placed the resolution in the rotunda Tuesday after the McLennan County Commissioners Court approved the display in a 3-1 vote.

Commissioner Joe Mashek cast the dissenting vote. County Judge Jim Lewis was absent from the meeting.

Mashek, who also voted against displaying the resolution after the court first passed it in 2006, declined comment on his vote.

The resolution is stationed next to a mural that depicts a noose in a “hanging tree” between two buildings that represent the courthouse and Waco City Hall.

Friends and relatives of Ruth Smith, the artist who painted the mural in 1969, contended that she had no ill intent in painting the noose and likely included it as a historical reference. But Gibson said the image is an offensive and painful reminder of the lynching of black residents in the county.

“The question I’ve asked myself over and over again is, ‘Why have that mural there in the first place that depicts a hanging noose, when we know that it is a symbol of the lynching of African-Americans and minorities?’ ” Gibson said Tuesday.

“So by displaying our resolution condemning lynching, I think it will be better for the community and bring us together, in regard to race relations.”

Gibson first urged the court to pass the anti-lynching resolution in 2002, but the court rejected it.

The court later passed a resolution in May 2006 amid public discussions condemning the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington at Waco City Hall, an incident dubbed the “Waco Horror.”

But when Gibson pushed to have the resolution displayed in the courthouse, the court repeatedly rejected the measure.

The two-month debate culminated when Mashek and then-commissioners Ray Meadows and Wendall Crunk walked out on a commissioners court meeting in protest when Gibson again raised the issue, leaving the meeting without a legal quorum to conduct business.

Gibson then posted the resolution in the rotunda, though it later was removed by the sheriff’s office.

Jo Welter, board member for the Community Race Relations Coalition, applauded the court for placing the resolution next to the mural and commended Gibson for continuing to press the issue.

The coalition formed a lynching task force in 2006 to denounce the “Waco Horror” and passed a resolution apologizing for Washington’s lynching. The commissioners court and Waco City Council wrote and passed modified versions of the resolution.

“When a body writes its own resolution, why shouldn’t it be displayed?” Welter said. “It makes a very important statement on behalf of the community to address something like this that happened and show off a resolution that says, ‘Never again.’ ”

Washington, 17, was sentenced to hanging for the rape and murder of Lucy Fryer, a white woman from Robinson, in a speedy trial that lasted about an hour.

On May 15, 1916, a mob of 15,000 residents snatched Washington from the courthouse, beat, stabbed and mutilated him, then hanged him from a chain in front of City Hall. His burned body was decapitated, then dragged to Robinson.

The incident gained national attention after pictures photographer Fred Gildersleeve took of the lynching were circulated.

“This court should have apologized for that, because it was initiated here in this courthouse,” Gibson said.

Gibson said he decided to push the issue again because he thought commissioners Kelly Snell and Ben Perry, elected in 2008 and 2010, respectively, would be more supportive than previous court members.

“I think we have a court now that understands that (displaying the resolution) was the right thing to do,” Gibson said.

Perry said while he does not condone the crimes Washington was convicted of, he agrees that the lynching was unacceptable.

He thinks having the resolution on display will give people a chance to learn more about the county’s history and growth since that period.

“No one would stand for that in this day and time, and that’s a chapter in our history that we need to confront, deal with, and move on,” Perry said. “We are in a time right now where we’ve got to pull together, regardless of our race, to make sure we move forward as a country and as a people.”


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