Did a Performer at Donald Trump’s Inauguration Wink at Lynching?

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tags: racism, lynching, Trump

Jennifer Freilach is an HNN intern and graduate of California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (2016).

Clip from Samantha Bee's Full Frontal

It is no secret that Donald Trump had trouble finding singers to perform at his inauguration. Even A-list celebrities who supported Trump were forced to weigh the potential public backlash when deciding whether to perform. Despite this Trump was able to secure Toby Keith, 3 Doors Down, and Jackie Evancho — just to name a few. Even though the inauguration is over, many of these artists continue to receive public criticism.

One artist in particular, Toby Keith, was called out by comedian Samantha Bee for allegedly performing a song about lynching. On her show Full Frontal she drew attention to the lyrics found in his song, “Beer For My Horses.” They include these lines: “Take all the rope in Texas / Find a tall oak tree / Round up all them bad boys hang them high in the street / For all the good people to see.” (You can watch the show below. The relevant section is about half-way in.)

Samantha Bee was not the first person to highlight Keith’s lyrics. In 2008 the Huffington Post reported that audiences were “blithely unaware that they were swaying to a racially tinged, explicitly pro-lynching anthem.” Keith was quick to defend his song after the Huffington Post “moron” publicized an inaccurate interpretation of his lyrics. He claimed that the song was about “the old West and horses and sheriffs ... and going and getting the bad guys. It's not a racist thing or about lynching."

In a statement to Entertainment Weekly just days before the performance, Keith stated that he would not “apologize for performing for our country or military” and that he “performed at events for previous presidents [George W.] Bush and [Barack] Obama and over 200 shows in Iraq and Afghanistan for the USO.” Despite Keith’s best attempts to defend his performance, his lyrics continue to draw harsh criticism.

Twitter reactions to Keith’s song choice are mixed. His fans defend the song, echoing Keith’s claims that the song is about bringing criminals to justice in the old West. Numerous tweets conveyed a sense of patriotism while listening to Keith’s music. To others the lyrics appear patently racist. Some users have resorted to profanity to express their disappointment in Keith’s decision to sing the song at a presidential inauguration.

America’s dark history of lynching extends back hundreds of years.  But lynching became most common after the end of Reconstruction during the nadir in race relations. The Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) has reported that more than 4,000 black people were lynched between 1877 and 1950 in the South.  The shameful explosion in lynchings after Reconstruction was associated with the white man’s desire to “put blacks in their place.” Lynchings were a suitable vehicle of social control, explain Stewart Tolnay and E.M. Beck, authors of A Festival of Violence, because they were public: “To be an effective mechanism for social control, lynchings had to be visible, with the killing being publicly known, especially to the target population.” Keith’s lyrics blatantly acknowledge the importance of public attention: “Round up all them bad boys hang them high in the street / For all the good people to see.”

While lynchings may not take place as often as they once did, other forms of racial injustice do. The EJI’s report, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, explores the impact of lynchings that occurred just decades ago. This racial violence “reinforced a narrative of racial difference and a legacy of racial inequality.” Bryan Stevenson, founder and director of the EJI, stated “what happened then has its echoes in today’s headlines.” In recent years there has been an upsurge in the number of racially charged protests. Movements like Black Lives Matter are spreading across social media outlets in order to break down the racial hierarchy that was reinforced by violence.

As protests and movements try to change the future, people are beginning to atone for their past. In January 2017, Timothy Tyson revealed in his latest book, The Blood of Emmett Till, that Carolyn Bryant admitted to lying when she told officials that Emmett Till whistled at her in 1955. Roy Wilkins, then head of the NAACP, condemned the crime as a lynching. 

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