Life-sized photographs of the bodies of four African American people dangled from nooses on Barney’s tree in Glenn Beck’s studio on Wednesday evening in Irving. They were images of slaves who had been hanged in the past for real and then hanged again in effigy in the present, this time from a tree once used as a prop for the children's TV show Barney & Friends.
The tree was left behind in Beck's studios, which is where the show starring a purple dinosaur was once produced. Beck's team added the lynching photos.
Why? To trigger shock among viewers and perhaps inspire them to take up the cause of modern abolitionism. They're part of 12 Score & 3 Years Ago, The Unfinished Problem of Unity, an interactive and immersive slavery exhibition by Beck’s Mercury One foundation. The title refers to America's founding and more recent attacks on Christians. It opens to the public Saturday and runs until July 7. Beck will even show you around if you pay for the VIP tour.
When I was invited to Beck’s opening-night VIP party, I assumed I was just going on a studio tour. The person who invited me forgot to mention the slavery exhibit, so count me among the shocked.
I thought I was going to see where Beck weaves his conservative magic and interviews established and rising conservative stars of the Trump era. I felt like the kid peeking behind the curtain at a magic show. Here was the true enemy of the American people, according to my liberal journalist friends, and I was walking into enemy territory, seeking free booze and worried I’d be thrown out.
Instead, I walked into the hold on a slave ship. An artist had carefully replicated it. You could hear the sails and feel the ocean breeze (though it may have been from the door opening behind me). It was dark and cramped.
I was confused. I grew even more so when I exited the ship and the Barney hanging tree came into view. Illuminated in red, its branches unfolded like a flower blooming with four bodies swaying back and forth.
This was either a racists' wonderland or something else that wasn't immediately clear. A slave ship and replica lynching in the same exhibit as large photographs of civil rights movement leaders and marches seemed incongruous. A young Martin Luther King Jr. was in one. Black men holding protest signs that read “I AM” were in others. In glass cases were several racist storefront signs from the '60s. "NO Dogs Negroes Mexicans," one sign read.
Placards placed throughout cleared up my puzzlement. They provided viewers a sort of timeline of slavery. One pointed out that while 3,446 black people were lynched, so were 1,297 white people between 1882 and 1964. “Some lynchings were announced well in advance and, at times, picnics on the grounds were part of those activities,” one placard read.
The NAACP reports in “The History of Lynchings” section of its website that lynchings occurred between 1882 and 1968 but that not all lynchings were recorded. Some whites were hanged because they didn’t agree with public lynching or were helping black people.
But the lynchings never truly stopped, according to an ACLU article by economist and author Julianne Malveaux. They just became something less horrifying to see. In “Terrorism and Economic Injustice After Enslavement,” Malveaux argues that intimidation and Jim Crow laws took lynching's place. “The plan was to subjugate a people, to replicate the conditions of enslavement through law and intimidation,” she writes. “And though Black people asked for little from government, the plan was to offer them even less, to force them to pay, through taxation, for the elevation of the whites who blatantly oppressed them.”
A good example of this appears on one of several presidential placards on display: “In 1901, Woodrow Wilson published his five-volume A History of the American People, which propelled him into the presidency of Princeton University — the first non-clergyman to hold that position. His works promoted a racist view of American history, demeaning blacks and defending and excusing the Klu Klux Klan and other white supremacists.”
In the exhibit, department store mannequins wear Klu Klux Klan outfits. One was dressed as an ISIL fighter. Armed with an AR-15, he stood next to what I assumed were two journalists he planned to behead after the party. They were wearing orange jail threads and were locked in a cage from Marvel’s Thor Ragnarok movie.
Equating slavery in the U.S. with modern terrorism is not as far-fetched as it might sound. As Malveaux points out, “This is part of the basis of reparations. It is not just the enslavement disadvantage of Black people. It is also that the terrorism inflicted on Black people had consequences in terms of accumulation, participation, and the transmission of general wealth."
This isn’t the first exhibit hosted by Beck’s foundation. Last year, the focus was rights and responsibilities. He had the Gettysburg Address on display.
This year’s exhibit has the Emancipation Proclamation on display in front of the original Darth Vader helmet from Star Wars. (Beck is a Star Wars fan. Darth Vader was evil. Get it?) Beck also has a portrait of President Abraham Lincoln created out of nails hanging on his office wall.
A source claims that Beck is interested in modern slavery and its connection to historical slavery in the U.S. His foundation’s exhibit is trying to show this connection. Oddly missing was a section about corporations exploiting child labor in the developing world, but then, this was Glenn Beck's party.
Beck’s foundation does include Christians among other persecuted religious minorities. In early 2016, the British Parliament, the European Union and the U.S. voted unanimously to consider ISIL’s persecution of Christians as genocide. At Beck’s exhibition, a Virgin Mary statue beheaded by ISIL drove home this point.
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In the VIP lounge area, Beck appeared onstage sounding like a Southern gospel preacher. With short, white hair and goatee, he wore a black jacket, black vest and blue jeans. The crowd was a mixture of new and old money and included both blacks and whites. Beck told them he was probably committing “political suicide” for hosting this kind of exhibition. Then he began his talk about 40 million people enslaved today and how no one is paying attention.
That estimate of modern slavery is supported by the International Labor Organization, a U.N. agency on labor rights, and Walk Free Foundation, an international private organization seeking to end modern slavery. One in four of the estimated 40 million people enslaved in 2016 were children.
But like many alt-right conspiracy theorists, Beck weaves facts that seem intended to take the genocidal burden off America. “The slave trade in America was horrible, horrible,” he said in a recent interview with his foundation on YouTube. “But out of all those enslaved and brought across the ocean, we were only 4% of the receivers. No. 1 was Brazil.”