As part of my first lecture in my course, I note the rising trend of African Americans lynched before 1920 – telling students there were 36 African Americans lynched in 1917, another 60 in 1918, and another 76 in 1919.
Numbers serve a way for us to get our minds around such an unspeakable tragedy, to quantify it, to track it, to try to make some sort of sense of it.
But it's also a way to minimize the true terror of what happened.
I note that during the 1930s, there were 28 lynchings of African Americans in Mississippi. And then I pause. "28 lynchings in ten years. In the grand scheme of things, maybe that doesn't sound like a lot to you."
And then I launch into the details of those 28 lynchings, drawing on the short accounts that open up Charles Payne's brilliant book on the Mississippi freedom struggle, I've Got the Light of Freedom.
Students try to keep up with the details, but they come so fast and so hard -- one of the lynchings involved a blowtorch, for instance -- that the pencils soon stop and the room gets painfully quiet.
I remind them that the 28 stands for 28 human beings who were tortured, mutilated, murdered and then, quite often, mutilated again after they had died.
But also to remind them that it wasn't just those 28 who were affected.
They were public in that they involved large numbers of white southerners, of course, but they were also public in that they were meant to send a message to even larger numbers of black southerners.
Local law enforcement was often complicit in the act of lynching, but even if it were not, it turned a blind eye. Judges and juries too.
Death might come. Justice wouldn't.
Every African American in Mississippi knew they could be the next victim, and as a result, every single one had to live in a state of terror on a daily basis.
"Only" 28 were lynched. But everyone else lived in terror as a result.
But those murders have a much broader resonance beyond those 13 lives that were taken, and the lives of their immediate family and friends.
Because what's the number have to be for you? 26? 52? 130?
Whatever it is, as long as it's not zero, the larger problem persists.
Because they and their children don't want to live in terror that they'll be added to the tally -- and worse -- that some people will shrug and say, oh well, it's "only" 14 now.