News item from the New York Times on the lynching of a Negro at Smithville, Ga., December 21, 1919: “The train was boarded so quietly . . . that members of the train crew did not know that the mob had seized the Negro until informed by the prisoner’s guard after the train had left the town . . . A coroner’s inquest held immediately returned the verdict that West came to his death at the hands of unidentified men.”
So quietly they stole upon their prey
And dragged him out to death, so without flaw
Their black design, that they to whom the law
Gave him in keeping, in the broad, bright day,
Were not aware when he was snatched away;
And when the people, with a shrinking awe,
The horror of that mangled body saw,
“By unknown hands!” was all that they could say.
So, too, my country, stealeth on apace
The soul-blight of a nation. Not with drums
Or trumpet blare is that corruption sown,
But quietly—now in the open face
Of day, now in the dark—and when it comes,
Stern truth will never write, “By hands unknown.”
From The Book of American Negro Poetry (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922), edited by James Weldon Johnson. This poem is in the public domain.