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Renée Graham

R. Kelly and Bill Cosby are not being lynched

R. Kelly at the 2013 American Music Awards in Los Angeles.FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

No, R. Kelly is not being lynched.

Fueled by the #MeToo movement and #MuteRKelly campaign, decades of sexual misconduct accusations may finally be catching up to the R&B singer. Now the Time’s Up organization, founded after published reports of rampant sexual assault and harassment by powerful men, has thrown its considerable support behind the anti-Kelly effort.

“We join the call to #MuteRKelly and insist on the safety + dignity of all women,” tweeted filmmaker Ava DuVernay, a member of the Time’s Up women of color committee. “We demand investigations into R. Kelly’s abuse allegations made by women of color + their families for two decades. We call on those who profit from his music to cut ties.”


This is what Kelly and his team dare to compare to lynching.

“Since America was born, black men and women have been lynched for having sex or for being accused of it,” his rep said in a statement. “We will vigorously resist this attempted public lynching of a black man who has made extraordinary contributions to our culture.”

Evoking one of the most heinous acts of racial terrorism is an ugly tactic to silence critics. It’s a verbal nuclear option that dishonors thousands of men, women, and children who were shot, strung from trees, and disemboweled for being black. And Kelly isn’t even the only black man shameless enough to offer this as an acceptable defense.

This appalling dodge is not new. In 1991, Clarence Thomas, then a Supreme Court nominee, went there during his confirmation hearing. After Anita Hill testified that Thomas had sexually harassed her, he called the proceeding a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.” It achieved Thomas’ desired effect, shutting down any meaningful opposition to his nomination.

Nearly three decades later, Bill Cosby is tossing the same garbage. After his aggravated indecent assault conviction last month, Ebonee Benson, his publicist, appeared on “Good Morning America.”


“Since when are all people honest?” she said. “And since when are all women honest? We can take a look at Emmett Till, for example. Since when are all people honest?”

With a straight face, Benson compared Cosby to Till, a black teenager kidnapped, tortured, and lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after a white woman falsely accused him of flirting with her. In defense of her husband, Camille Cosby also mentioned Till, saying, “unproven accusations evolved into lynch mobs.” Rapper Chuck D called Cosby’s conviction “a public lynching.”

If any of these people want to see a public lynching, original photos aren’t hard to find. They can see the hideously disfigured Till in his coffin, left open by his mother Mamie so that the world could see what racists had done to her son. They can see the grainy prints of white people, including children, smiling and pointing at brutalized black bodies dangling from trees, their necks stretched, their heads at unnatural angles. Victims were jeered and spat on. Some were castrated. White participants and onlookers even claimed body parts as souvenirs.

In its report, “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror,” the Equal Justice Initiative documented more than 4,400 lynchings of black people in America between 1877 and 1950. That doesn’t include Till, or James Byrd Jr. In 1998, Byrd was chained to a truck by three white supremacists in Texas, and dragged along a road. He was decapitated.


All this careless talk of lynching comes as its real victims have finally been memorialized. In Montgomery, Ala., last month, the Equal Justice Initiative opened its Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice to remember those murdered, and to confront this nation’s continuing legacy of racial intimidation and violence.

“These projects for me are about ending the silence,” said Bryan Stevenson, the initiative’s founder.

As a nation, we still struggle with how to have productive conversations about racism, as well as enacting positive action against it. What we don’t need are men like Kelly and Cosby pretending to be victims of lynching. The #MuteRKelly campaign is not a waiting rope dangling from a poplar tree, any more than the jury that convicted Cosby is an angry mob meting out senseless violence instead of reasoned justice.

For decades, both Cosby and Kelly have been accused of using female bodies for their own perverse purposes. No surprise, then, that they would conjure as a diversion one of this nation’s bloodiest chapters. Perhaps lynching needs a rule similar to Godwin’s law, which mocks those who lazily resort to Hitler analogies to make their point.

Nothing is comparable to lynching. Once it is invoked, any argument is lost. The comparison disgraces the dead, and indicts as immoral those who carelessly deploy it.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.