RALEIGH – A flaming cross, a hanging noose – few visions could strike more fear in the heart of an African American or other minority. Displaying these symbols of hatred and intimidation, used by the Ku Klux Klan for nearly a century, would become a Class H felony with the passage of Senate Bill 1988, a move that supporters believe would send a message that ethnic intimidation will not be tolerated in North Carolina.
Sen. Doug Berger (D-Franklin), the bill’s primary sponsor, said several incidents in his district, which also includes Granville, Vance and Warren counties, have convinced him that current laws regarding burning crosses and other forms of threats are not enough.
“We have a misdemeanor ethnic intimidation law, and also one that is a Class I felony that says you can’t burn a cross in someone’s yard,” Berger said. “But this would take the use of a cross or noose for the purpose of ethnic intimidation and make it a Class H felony, which would give a judge the power to put a perpetrator in prison.”
Amina Turner, executive director of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) of North Carolina, said that strengthening the law will also send a signal to law enforcement agencies that they can’t overlook the use of these symbols to intimidate.
“By upping the ante, it will require local law enforcement to take this seriously,” said Turner.
Berger cited a number of incidents – from an African-American couple being chased in their car to a local minority candidate whose campaign signs were defaced with a KKK style message; and even the display of a noose on a college campus in Franklin County – that prompted him to push for a more stringent law. He said his bill is modeled largely after a similar statute in Virginia.
Senate Bill 1988, which has strong bipartisan support, would make it unlawful “to burn a cross or hang a noose for the intent of intimidating another person because of race, color, religion, nationality or country of origin” and would earmark $20,000 to “study the impact of recent cross burnings and noose hangings across the state to make recommendations for modification to the criminal laws of the state,” with the Legislative Research Commission to report findings to the 2009 legislative session.
Among those incidents to be studied would likely be a May 2005 ordeal in Durham in which three large burning crosses were erected; one outside a church, another at a construction site and a third at a city center intersection.
According to the online magazine Slate, the practice of burning crosses dates back to Medieval Europe when Scottish clans set fire to hillside crosses as a sign of defiance toward their enemies or to rally troops. A 1905 novel, “The Clansman,” included a cross-burning scene to highlight the KKK’s supposed connection to the Scottish clans and “The Birth of a Nation,” the movie based on the book, inspired the Klan to start burning crosses around 1915.
Though no longer a common practice, the magazine said nearly 1,700 cross burnings have been reported since the late 1980s.
“There is no greater symbol of compassion than the Cross. How sad when men pervert it into a symbol of racial hatred,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, which encourages support of Senate Bill 1988.
Berger expressed similar personal feelings.
“Certainly as a Christian, it is very disconcerting when people use a symbol of our Savior to communicate a message of the devil,” he said.
Just as disturbing is what The Boston Globe described in December 2007 as a “resurgence of the noose” around the country, including the hanging of nooses from a tree at a school in Jena, La., and the discovery by a black professor at Columbia University Teachers College of a rope hanging from her office door.
Stateline.org, the Pew Research Center’s online magazine, reported just a week ago that the uptick in such displays is prompting a number of states to re-examine their laws. Both Connecticut and New York have adopted new noose statutes. Louisiana is working on a new law that could send offenders to prison for up to a year and fine them $5,000, while Florida, Maryland and Missouri, like North Carolina, are also considering bills that specifically point to noose displays as illegal and would stiffen ethnic intimidation penalties.
The Globe article examined the history of the noose, and said that few Americans fully understand its significance.
“The lynching of black America was not an occasional or aberrational event, the momentary outburst of an angry mob, but a sustained reign of terror visited on an entire people,” the article said. “… The threat of lynching – symbolized by the noose or the burning cross – was used to uproot black communities, suppress voting, and to intimidate blacks from acquiring land, aspiring to an education, or attaining success in business.”
As for America’s reaction to the symbol today, Philip Dray concludes in The Globe article that “Being frightened and offended by the noose, and condemning its appearance, is not enough. More than a symbol, the noose is also a kind of test – a challenge to America to own up to a policy of diabolical cruelty that was long sanctioned, and to ponder whether the faith in our country’s goodness can withstand such scrutiny.”
Senate Bill 1988 is still under scrutiny by Tar Heel lawmakers, but it has passed from the Senate Judiciary II Committee to the Committee on Appropriations/Base Budget.