Bill Moyers’ America—Ugh!

At Salon Magazine, Bill Moyers has an essay penned in direct response to criticism of Barack Obama for his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast.

People have assailed Obama for his scolding tone, bad timing , poor history, and moral equivocation.

And here is Bill Moyers expanding President Obama’s point, an opinion piece entitled: “When America behaved like ISIS: Jesse Washington and the Bible Belt’s dark history of public lynchings.”

It is a tissue of misrepresentations, recounted in Moyers’ typical insufferable pseudo-solemnity.

Moyers recalls a gruesome lynching that took place in Waco, Texas in 1916.  First, we have a photo of Klansmen in regalia, then an account of the savage torture and murder of this young black man.  A photo of his charred body tied to a tree trunk follows. Moyers notes the cheering crowds, 15,000 people, and the distribution of relics and souvenirs after the barbaric ritual ended.

Moyers offers the case as an example of America’s violent racial past, then asserts the existence of “barbarians” within our own gates not so long ago.  He cites lynching figures and notes his own childhood in Texas, and he remembers people talking about the Washington lynching “as if it were only yesterday.”  He notes that this “was not medieval Europe.  Not the Inquisition.  Not a heretic burned at the stake by some ecclesiastical authority in the Old World.”  The killers, too, weren’t crazy religionists.  They were “respectable congregants from local churches.”

The whole piece is dishonest from beginning to end.

First, Moyers omits an important fact: Washington was tried and convicted of murdering his employer’s wife.  The mob grabbed him after the verdict was read.

Second, the Klan had nothing to do with it.  In fact, the Klan didn’t even exist a mere six months earlier.  (It was founded outside Atlanta in late-November 1915.)

Third, the title says, “When America behaved like ISIS,” but once the event was broadcast to the nation, it was roundly denounced virtually everywhere.  Americans were appalled and horrified, and they said so.

Fourth, he refers to the “4,743 recorded lynchings in the US,” adding that one-quarter were white, “many of whom had been killed for sympathizing with black folks.”  He doesn’t specify how many, because if he did it would be an unimpressively small number.  In fact, most white lynchings were committed in the West, the victims usually horse-thieves.

The only reason this kind of scolding twaddle passes for authentic history in our country is because historical knowledge in the United States is so poor.  We get Bill Moyers posturing and puffing because U.S. history in high school has become so often a parade of victims and U.S. history in college has been dropped as a general education requirement.

The result is a crowd of progressive voices, including our President, that broadcasts a version of the American past that comes right out of a tenth-grade social studies course taught by a resentful leftist.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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2 thoughts on “Bill Moyers’ America—Ugh!

  1. I’m not sure where this came from:

    “First, Moyers omits an important fact: Washington was tried and convicted of murdering his employer’s wife. The mob grabbed him after the verdict was read.”

    In his article he clearly said:

    “He had been sentenced to death for the murder of a white woman.”

    But you actually seem to be the one omitting important facts, because he added:

    “No witnesses saw the crime; he allegedly confessed but the truth of the allegations would never be tested. The grand jury took just four minutes to return a guilty verdict, but there was no appeal, no review, no prison time.”

    If you’re going to accuse someone of dishonesty, you carry a heavy burden of accurately explaining what they actually said. And does it really matter if most Americans were horrified by what happened (something that also needs to be sourced)? Is the implication that there isn’t a “moral equivalence” with Isis, because most Muslims aren’t similarly horrified by what Isis does? How do we know that? There are a slew of assumptions here that aren’t supported by any kind of evidence, as well as misrepresentation of what Moyers actually said. Maybe it’s possible to criticize his view, but so far it’s looking like he might have an unanswerable point, or at least one that hasn’t been effectively answered here.

    1. The point isn’t that Moyers omitted the trial. It is that the woman was his employer’s wife, not just “a white woman.” Also, Moyers says, “he allegedly confessed but the allegations would never be tested,” but doesn’t note that Washington confessed soon after being arrested and was moved to another town for his safety. He was brought back to Waco many days later for the trial, in which he acknowledged his guilt once again.

      That doesn’t sound like ISIS, and your point that many Muslims dislike what ISIS does in their country hardly is equivalent to the national denunciation of the lynching loudly and openly all across the US.

      Next, you avoid the lie of the Klan photograph.

      Next, you don’t mention Moyers’ dishonest statement about whites lynched for sympathizing with blacks. Truth is that whites were lynched more often than blacks were up to the 1880s, usually for horse thievery out west.

      Finally, Moyers doesn’t say that Waco acted like ISIS. He blames all of America. It isn’t good enough for him to denounce one town in the south at the height of Jim Crow. He has to indict the whole country, no matter the fact that the vast majority of the country abhorred racist violence.

      If you have any other doubts about my knowledge of lynching, see my book Negrophobia: A Race Riot in Atlanta, 1906.

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