January 15, 1920 –
Florala, Covington County, Alabama
As they returned from service in WWI, so many black soldiers and veterans were lynched and killed, both individually and in race riots that attacked and destroyed entire black communities, that the summer of 1919 became known as “Red Summer.” Many of these veterans returned from fighting for their nation and for democracy and freedom abroad to demand greater freedom at home as well, confidently speaking out against the discrimination and oppression they faced both in the military and civilian life. Some white Americans feared that these demands represented a threat to their own power, an attitude that led to the surge in lynchings and racial violence in the years immediately following the war.
Jack Waters from Florala, Alabama, a small town that straddles the Alabama-Florida line, was one of these black veterans. In January 1920, a local woman, Mrs. Haines, reported being assaulted and raped while walking home from delivering her husband’s lunch to him at work. Late that night, “several negroes suspected of the crime were brought before Mrs. Haines” for her to identify her assailant. She pointed to Jack Waters, a veteran who had fought in the US military in France. Allegedly, Waters confessed, and claimed that as he was dying of an incurable disease, “it made no difference to him when death came.” A mob took Waters to the town square, told him to run, and illuminated the square with the headlights of their automobiles. Before he took more than a few steps, the mob fired upon Waters, killing him.
Community members in Florala still remember this lynching, almost 100 years later, sharing the memory of Waters’ mother standing up and declaring that “Florala is forever changed” for the worse after the lynching. Like many lynchings, the circumstances of this one appear suspicious at best, particularly Waters’ nonsensical given motive for the crime. And while many accused lynchers did allegedly confess, as did Waters, generally either the media fabricated these confessions or mobs elicited them through torture as a way to justify the lynching. Furthermore, lineups like the one from which Mrs. Haines picked out Waters as her assailant offered abundant opportunity for errors ranging from genuine mistaken identity to deliberate blame and falsehood. Given these circumstances, it is quite possible that the community targeted Waters not for assaulting a woman, but for his service in the US military.
Today, a memorial to US military war veterans stands on the square where the mob most likely lynched Jack Waters. It does not include his name.
Photograph of soldiers: Soldiers of the 369th Infantry who won the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action, “Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans,” Equal Justice Initiative, 2017.
“Negro Lynched by Florala Mob this Morning,” Dothan Eagle, 15 Jan 1920, p. 1.
“Negro Lynched by Florala Mob Thursday,” Southern Star (Newton, AL), 21 Jan 1920, p. 7.
“He Went to France, Then H—,” The Choctaw Advocate (Butler, AL), 21 Jan 1920, p. 1.
“Negro Lynched at Florala, Troy Messenger, 21 Jan 1920, p. 6.
“Editorial Sparks,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 21 Jan 1920, p. 22.
“Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans.” Equal Justice Initiative (2016).