Wise Words from Jarvis Williams About SAE and the Lynching Tree

Jarvis Williams
Jarvis Williams

Fifty years ago, a multi-racial group of brave Civil Rights activists marched through Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama for equal voting rights for African-Americans. As many know, the march was met with much violence and opposition from white supremacists. Despite the opposition, the Selma to Montgomery marches were successful. Selma was one of the many historic events that led to voting rights for African-Americans.


One of the most inspiring things to me about the Selma marches is that a multi-racial group of young college and university students participated. These young people left the comfort of their university and college campuses and stood toe-to-toe with death and racist Jim Crow laws as they journeyed hand-in-hand with other freedom marchers through Selma toward Montgomery. The heroic actions of those university and college students stand radically at odds with the recent confirmed reports about an Oklahoma University white fraternity.

Multiple viral YouTube videos show members of the Oklahoma University fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) chanting racist remarks about African-Americans. The videos show a young white male proudly smiling as he leads several members in this chant: “You can hang them from a tree but they’ll never sign with me; there will never be a nigger in SAE.” As this young man and several others joked and repeatedly sang these lyrics, they invoked several offensive racist images from this country’s troubled racist past. The young men used the kind of racist rhetoric that continues to affect this country’s tumultuous present on the race issue. Below, I mention these two images and I point to the hope in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Lynching Tree

First, the young man and his fraternity brothers cheerfully referenced the practice of lynching. Some commentators have estimated that nearly 5,000 blacks were lynched (hanged from a tree) at the hands of white supremacists before the days of the Civil Rights Movement. In his book titled The Cross and the Lynching Tree, black liberation theologian James H. Cone describes in detail the horrors of lynching in this country. Although I disagree with virtually every theological conclusion that Cone makes about the death of Jesus, his thesis regarding the connection African-Americans made between Jesus’ horrific death on a cross and the death of many African-Americans on the lynching tree is quite compelling. Cone’s vivid description and detailed documentation of the function of the lynching tree in white supremacist America should make both whites and blacks pause before invoking the horrific image of the lynching tree in one’s rhetoric.

Some credit Charles Lynch and William Lynch as the creators of the word “lynch.” Others say “lynch” comes from the phrase “Lynch Law,” which referred to punishment without trial. Lynching was not limited to the South, but it was a powerful symbol of white supremacy in the South. It was, in fact, an entertaining spectacle for many whites. There is evidence of white citizens commemorating black lynchings on postcards. Lynchings were painful reminders to blacks in this country of their legalized inferiority to whites in a society in which laws affirmed, supported, and justified violent actions against blacks to keep them in their so-called “place” in a racist and white supremacist culture. After a lynching victim was hanged and died, the white racists would then burn the body with gasoline and light it on fire in a public spectacle. The body would then hang on the tree for days until it deteriorated. This horrific act inspired African-American songstress, Billie Holiday, to write her famous anthem against lynching titled “Strange Fruit,” in which she sang:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

These lyrics articulated the painful reality of what African-Americans faced every day in a racist country dominated by white supremacy; namely, the reality that they could likely lose their lives by means of the lynching tree because they were black and viewed as inferior human beings.

Ironically, on May 25, 1911, a black woman named Ms. Laura Nelson and her son were lynched by white supremacists in Okemah, Oklahoma. The fact that the state of Oklahoma has a stained history of lynching blacks simply because they were black makes the racist remarks of the SAE fraternity at Oklahoma University even more sickening.

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Jarvis Williams