Civil Wrongs: How a grisly lynching still haunts Memphis a century later
By Laura Faith Kebede, Special to the Daily Memphian
Published: October 13, 2022 4:00 AM CT
Read article online: https://dailymemphian.com/section/metro/article/31425/memphis-ell-person...
They chained him to a log and set him on fire.
As thousands of Memphians watched — men, women and children, even vendors selling sandwiches — Ell Persons was burned alive.
“That mob was so serious,’’ witness Alex Williams would recall years later of the May 22, 1917, lynching of Persons, a Black laborer who was tortured into confessing to the rape and murder of a young white girl.
“They would have killed anybody that would have made an attempt to interfere,” Williams said.
Like most acts of racial terror of the time, Persons’ murder involved something much more complicated than retribution. Historians agree it was meant to send a message: Any political or economic gains by the Black community — any movement toward equality — would not be tolerated.
“It’s a warning,” said Darius Young, a history professor at Florida A&M University who studies politics and racial violence. “During that period, your wealth and your success is a violation of racial etiquette of the South. So, no matter how much you think you have, this too can happen to you.”
Persons’ death made headlines across the nation in 1917 and even spurred a 10,000-strong silent march in New York. Yet, his story has rarely been told. Little is known about his life.
More than a century later, the legacy of Persons’ lynching is evident in the ongoing struggle for equity in criminal justice, in the fight to prevent false confessions and unjust punishment, and in the larger racial reckoning that gnaws at the soul of America.