Coatesville, John Jay Chapman, 1912
We are met to commemorate the anniversary of one of
the most dreadful crimes in history – not for the purpose
of condemning it, but to repent our share in it. We do
not start any agitation with regard to that particular
crime. I understand that an attempt to prosecute the
chief criminals has been made, and has entirely failed;
because the whole community, and in a sense our
whole people, are really involved in the guilt. The failure
of the prosecution in this case, in all such cases, is
only a proof of the magnitude of the guilt, and of the
awful fact that everyone shares in it.
I will tell you why I am here; I will tell you what
happened to me. When I read in the newspapers of
August 14, a year ago, about the burning alive of a
human being, and of how a few desperate,
fiend-minded men had been permitted to torture a man
chained to an iron bedstead, burning alive, thrust back
by pitchforks when he struggled out of it, while around
about stood hundreds of well-dressed American
citizens, both from the vicinity and from afar, coming on
foot and in wagons, assembling on telephone call, as if
by magic, silent, whether from terror or indifference,
fascinated and impotent, hundreds of persons watching
this awful sight and making no attempt to stay the
wickedness, and no one man among them all who was
inspired to risk his life in an attempt to stop it, no one
man in the name of Christ, of humanity, of government!
As I read the newspaper accounts of the scene enacted
here in Coatesville a year ago, I seemed to get a
glimpse into the unconscious soul of this country. I saw
a seldom revealed picture of the American heart and of
the American nature. I seemed to be looking into the
heart of a criminal – a cold thing, an awful thing.
I said to myself, “I shall forget this, we shall all forget it;
but it will be there. What I have seen is not an illusion. It
is the truth. I have seen death in the heart of this
people.” For to look at the agony of a fellow-being and
remain aloof means death in the heart of the onlooker.
Religious fanaticism has sometimes lifted men to the
frenzy of such cruelty, political passion has sometimes
done it, personal hatred might do it, the excitement of
the amphitheater in the degenerate days of Roman
luxury could do it. But here an audience chosen by
chance in America has stood spellbound through an
improvised auto-da-fé, irregular, illegal, having no
religious significance, not sanctioned by custom, having
no immediate provocation, the audience standing by
merely in cold dislike.
I saw during one moment something beyond all
argument in the depth of its significance. You might
call it a paralysis of the nerves about the heart in a
people habitually and unconsciously given over to
selfish aims, an ignorant people who knew not what a
spectacle they were providing, or what part they were
playing in a judgment-play which history was exhibiting
on that day.
No theories about the race problem, no statistics,
legislation, or mere educational endeavor, can quite
meet the lack which that day revealed in the American
people. For what we saw was death. The people stood
like blighted things, like ghosts about Acheron, waiting
for someone or something to determine their destiny
Whatever life is, that thing must be replenished in us.
The opposite of hate is love, the opposite of cold is
heat; what we need is the love of God and reverence
for human nature. For one moment I knew that I had
seen our true need; and I was afraid that I should
forget it and that I should go about framing arguments
and agitations and starting schemes of education, when
the need was deeper than education. And I became
filled with one idea, that I must not forget what I had
seen, and that I must do something to remember it.
And I am here today chiefly that I may remember that
vision. It seems fitting to come to this town where the
crime occurred and hold a prayer-meeting, so that our
hearts may be turned to God through whom mercy may
flow into us.
This whole matter has been an historic episode; but it
is a part, not only of our national history, but of the
personal history of each one of us. With the great
disease (slavery) came the climax (the war), and after
the climax gradually began the cure, and in the process
of cure comes now the knowledge of what the evil was.
I say that our need is new life, and that books and
resolutions will not save us, but only such disposition in
our hearts and souls as will enable the new life, love,
force, hope, virtue, which surround us always, to enter
Chapman, John Jay. "Coatesville Address." First Anniversary of the Lynching and Murder of Zachariah Walker. Coatesville, Pennsylvania. Users.wfu.edu. Web. 25 Apr. 2016.
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