In the spring of 1916, a group of white Waco citizens surged into the 54th District Court and seized Jesse Washington, a seventeen-year-old African American who had been convicted of raping and murdering a white Robinson woman, Lucy Fryer. The mob hanged and burned and tortured Washington and then dragged his mutilated corpse through town. A huge crowd of spectators (15,000 by some estimates) looked on with glee, while storied local photographer, Fred Gildersleeve, recorded the event in gruesome detail.

Washington had confessed to the crime, the prosecution produced compelling evidence, and a jury of twelve white men found him guilty after four minutes of deliberation, seven days after his arrest. Nevertheless, for many reasons, we cannot make a conclusive finding of guilt or innocence in this 90-year-old case at this juncture, and we should not try. Also, we should be mindful that the brutal murder of Mrs. Fryer was a tragic event for her family, and we should be sensitive to the reality that the slaying lingers as a painful legacy for her descendants.

Notwithstanding, clearly the community of Waco, Texas permitted an egregious violation of Jesse Washington’s fundamental rights to due process under the Constitution of the United States. Although a McLennan County jury sentenced the convicted man to death, the preemptory actions of the mob, and their exhorters, deprived an American citizen of his right to appeal to a higher court and short-circuited the legal process. For all of us who salute the flag and pledge “justice for all,” the events of May 15, 1916 sting with inequity and disgrace.

Even worse, clearly the gross inhumanity of the Washington lynching was emblematic of a period in which our community regularly denied our African American neighbors basic human rights. The “Waco Horror,” as it came to be known to the world, was not an isolated case; egregious abuses and humiliations were the rule in Central Texas and throughout the South during our long, dark period of racial segregation, intolerance and mistreatment.

Recently, a well-intentioned group of contemporary Wacoans, the Community Race Relations Coalition, proposed a resolution apologizing for past lynchings, expressing sympathy and regret for the descendants of lynching victims, and affirming our communal commitment to reconciling the past and moving forward toward a more perfect world. It seems hard to argue with those sentiments. Nevertheless, the resolution has met with stiff resistance. According to the Waco Tribune-Herald, their non-scientific website poll showed that 80 percent of respondents opposed a formal apology.

Perhaps one of the problems is the ambiguity surrounding the word “apology.” For whom and to whom are we apologizing? The Resolution states that we are apologizing for “past leaders” to the descendants of past victims. Do we have the moral authority to apologize for past leaders?

A corporate apology for the misdeeds of past generations is an exercise freighted with divisive political overtones. Proponents see the collective act as a required and appropriate element for reconciliation, while the action strikes others as a disingenuous and hypocritical and self-serving ritual.

Perhaps the apology by proxy is a dispensable stumbling block to the vital overarching process of denunciation, remembrance and healing. In his Letter to the Editor on May 7, Lawrence Junek suggested that in lieu of an apology, leaders “request forgiveness.” That is a constructive suggestion, but it may present some of the same questions inherent in the apology.

Possibly the answer is a revised Resolution, with the condemnation and expressions of regret intact, but granting (rather than requesting) forgiveness. Wacoans of 1916 committed an atrocity, and we continue to live with the legacy of their crime. Present Waco inherited a racial history mined with a tradition of exploitation and mistrust. Our entire contemporary community needs to forgive our ancestral community for transgressions of commission and omission over time. Let us forgive and remember and commit ourselves to healing.