Forest Lawn Cemetery in Omaha, Nebraska, sits on 100 acres near the Missouri River, where the dry, monotonous flat terrain of Nebraska begins to give way to the greener hills of Iowa.
Established in 1885, the cemetery is a resting place for many prominent Nebraskans. But it’s also the burial site, in pauper’s field, of the victim of the most heinous act of terror ever committed in the city.
Will Brown was a Black man accused, in 1919, of the rape of a white woman. He had not yet been tried, but was being lodged on an upper floor in the Douglas County Courthouse in downtown Omaha.
Omaha was then number one in the world for livestock meat production. By 1919, nearly 80% of the city’s laborers, many from Eastern Europe, served this industry.
But Jim Crow laws in the South were driving Black Americans north for employment, and a growing Black population was changing demographics.
Politics, industry, and immigration were backdrops for the mob of between 5,000-10,000 people who descended on the courthouse. They demanded that
Brown be handed over, and a terrified judge agreed. But before that could happen, the throng broke into the building, breaking windows and climbing through them, looking eerily like the mob which broke into our nation’s capitol in January, 2021.
Brown was beaten viciously, shot 100 times, hung from a street lamp, and then, in a photo capturing the ghastly scene, his body was burned. Similar to other pictures of some of the over 4,000 lynchings of Black men and women recorded in U.S. history, a gleeful crowd, including children, watched the burning.
I find some similarities in the way Jesus died and Will Brown’s death. Jesus’s legal lynching was performed by the Romans with the encouragement of the religious authorities legalized torture. And Jesus might have been thrown into a pauper’s grave if not for the visit of Joseph of Arimathaea to Pilate, asking for the body.
We like to think we live in a more civilized world, but of course, we don’t. We see evidence almost daily of hatred towards “the other.” We see the Uighur minority persecuted in China and torture against dissidents committed on a vast scale by the Syrian regime. We see white supremacists grow in the U.S. and crazy conspiracy theories targeting Jewish people. Violent hate crimes are as near as tonight’s headlines.
In Jesuit Father Monty Williams’ book on the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, The Gift of Spiritual Intimacy, he describes the Passion. He talks of Simon of Cyrene being transformed by carrying Jesus’s cross, later becoming a leader in the Christian community. He speaks of the women of Jerusalem bearing witness to Jesus’s suffering because they are themselves familiar with suffering.
Jesus transformed suffering into compassion and calls us to do the same.
“We live in this world,” Father Williams writes, “but we do not have to live by the values of this world. The mystery that calls Jesus beyond death calls us also.”
If you google Will Brown lynching, YouTube, you can find a five-minute film on the murder. If it were an isolated event in a little Midwestern town, it might not be worth your time. Unfortunately, it’s a story that’s bigger than that, belonging to all of us.