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How Black activists used lynching souvenirs to expose American violence

For her new documentary, Lynching Postcards: Token Of A Great Day, filmmaker Christine Turner examined hundreds of black-and-white photographs that show how organized these events were and included chilling messages that shared the experience with those who weren't there. The postcard above shows the crowd at the lynching of Henry Smith in Paris, Texas, in 1893. Photo by J.L. Mertins/Library of Congress

Photos showing the lynchings of African Americans in the 19th and early 20th century are some of the most troubling records of the racist history of the United States.

But these black-and-white photographs are what filmmaker Christine Turner chose to focus on for her new documentary, Lynching Postcards: 'Token Of A Great Day'.

Turner examined hundreds of these pictures and primarily focused on the ones that people who attended these lynchings sent as postcards to family and friends.

As the film opens, the first postcard people see is an image of a Black man hanging from a tree, but it's zoomed in enough that all that can be seen of him are his dangling feet. The focus then becomes the white men standing behind him, looking directly at the camera, with some smiling.

Turner said she did this to train the audience's eyes to focus on the participants and see their "sense of pride."

"I think that for me, this story is so much about the participants of the lynching, more so than of the people who had been victimized," Turner said. "I think oftentimes we think that lynchings are these spontaneous events, right? That a group of men in the woods decide to suddenly lynch someone. But these were planned events."

These community events weren't just the work of the infamous Ku Klux Klan, but of ordinary people from all social classes, Turner said.

In an interview with All Things Considered, Turner spoke about the how photos from these events became postcards, how the postcards then became tools in anti-lynching campaigns, and the parallels with recent killings of Black men in America.


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