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How an Anti-Lynching Banner From the 1920s and ‘30s Is Being Updated to Protest Modern-Day Violence

One artist took inspiration from the NAACP’s iconic flag

"A Man Was Lynched By Police Yesterday" Dread Scott, 2015 (Dread Scott. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.)
smithsonian.com

Between 1920 and 1938, whenever reports came in that an African-American person was killed by a mob, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) would fly a flag outside of its Manhattan headquarters that read: “A Black Man Was Lynched Yesterday.” Now, in light of the highly publicized police killings last week of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, a new version of that iconic flag is once again flying above New York City’s streets—only this time it reads: “A Black Man Was Lynched By Police Yesterday.”

The new version of the flag is the work of artist Dread Scott, whose performance pieces and art installations frequently confront the history of racism, slavery and prejudice in the United States. Scott first created the flag in 2015, in response to the death of Walter Scott, who was killed by a police officer in South Carolina. In the past week, the flag has flown outside of the Jack Shainman Gallery and above Manhattan’s Union Square during a Black Lives Matter protest focused on Sterling and Castile’s deaths, Corinne Segal reports for the PBS NewsHour.

“I really felt that the NAACP’s banner needed to be updated,” Scott tells Segal. “It’s an indictment of this whole system."

For years, the NAACP used the original flag as a stark symbol for its anti-lynching campaign, forcing passersby in front of its office to confront the reality of racial violence. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, thousands of African-Americans were killed in lynchings in the decades between the Civil War and World War II. Though the NAACP was forced to remove the flag in 1938 under threat of losing their lease, Scott believes that the flag has great relevance today, and captures the need to bring attention to the disproportionate number of African-Americans who have been killed by police officers, Hrag Vartanian reports for Hyperallergic.

As Scott wrote in a statement sent to Smithsonian.com:

It is threat that hangs over all Black people, that we can be killed by the police for no reason whatsoever — for a traffic stop, for selling CDs, for selling cigarettes. Shot to death, choked to death, [tasered] to death, driven to death. Standing still, fleeing. Shot in the chest, shot in the back. Hands up, hands down.  Point blank range or at a distance. And the police never face justice for their crimes.

In light of the news of Sterling and Castile’s deaths, and the mass protests that followed across the country, Scott added the flag installation to “For Freedoms,” the current exhibition at the Jack Shainman Gallery. The show, which also features work by artists including Carrie Mae Weems, Mickalene Thomas and Nari Ward, focuses on artworks intended to spark difficult conversations around the 2016 presidential elections. In light of the protests sparked around the country last week, Scott felt the flag needed to be added to the show, Rain Embuscado reports for artnet News.

“I think there is a particular moment now, where a whole lot of people, including prominent galleries, are willing to do things that three or four years ago they would not have done,” Scott tells Segal. “And people are in the streets in a way they would not have been three years ago. That’s very inspiring.”

“A Black Man Was Lynched By Police Yesterday” is currently on display outside of the Jack Shainman Gallery at 513 West 20th Street in Manhattan. “For Freedoms” runs through July 29.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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