By now everyone who might remotely have an interest already knows that Jeffrey Lord’s attack on Shirley Sherrod was utterly wrongheaded. His attempt to discredit her story of a relative’s lynching was both factually erroneous and morally obtuse. He’s been rightly vilified by commentators from across the political spectrum, from Media Matters to Radley Balko to his own colleagues at the American Spectator. This kind of brouhaha has a life cycle, and this one has reached its end.

So why did I take the time to write a 1700-word exegesis of an obscure 1945 court case last night, and why am I back at it today?

Because lynching, as it turns out, matters.

Race is, of course, a vexed topic in America today. And it’s one on which reasonable people may disagree. People of goodwill can differ sharply on affirmative action, on the use of race in the census, on the place of the NAACP in the country’s national discourse, on the extent of racism in contemporary society.

But if we’re going to have a productive dialogue on race in the 21st century, we need to understand how it operated in the 20th and before. The history of race is, as I said in my first post on the Spectator scandal, a subject of which no decent American has the right to remain ignorant.

Let me go back to Lord, one more time, to explain what I mean by that.

In his original piece, Lord described Lynching as “part of the romantic image of the Klan, of the crazed racist.” The “image of the noosed rope in the hands of a racist lynch mob,” he said, ” was frighteningly chilling.”

All of this is true, to a point. The Ku Klux Klan was an agent in untold hundreds of lynchings in the Jim Crow south, and the noose and the tree are still potent symbols of racial violence in the United States.

But to imagine lynching as merely the act of a “crazed racist” or a hooded mob, as Lord does — and as many Americans do — is to fundamentally misunderstand the act.

Lynching was not, at its core, an act of criminality. It was an act perpetrated by, or on behalf of, the most powerful people in the community. To lynch someone in the Jim Crow south was not to place yourself outside the law, but to make yourself an instrument of the law. Sometimes lynching was perpetrated by those who held power, sometimes it was merely tolerated by them, but it was almost always condoned and virtually never punished.

Lynching was an instrument of social control.

This is why lynchings were so often attended by crowds. (This is why parents brought their children — to watch and learn.) This is why lynchings were so often carried out in broad daylight. This is why lynchings were so often perpetrated by police officers and other public officials. This is why lynchers were so eager to show their faces, so eager to be photographed, so eager to have those photographs reproduced and disseminated. If you have a strong stomach, do a Google image search on “lynching.” Look at the size of the crowds. Look at the faces of the perpetrators. Look at how they smile for the camera.

Lynching was an instrument of social control.

This is why the bodies of those lynched were mutilated, desecrated, burned — before and after death. This is why their corpses were left out in public. This is why pieces of their bodies were fought over as souvenirs, and placed on public display.

Lynching was an instrument of social control.

This is why black men were lynched for sleeping with white women. This is why black women were lynched for sleeping with white men. This is why black people were lynched for refusing to sign contracts on white people’s terms. This is why black people were lynched for opening businesses, for joining unions, for registering to vote. This is why mothers were lynched for attempting to save their children from lynch mobs.

Lynching was an instrument of social control.

It was an instrument of social control in a society that placed African Americans outside of the protection of its laws, a society in which a man — or a woman, or a child — could be murdered in public by known actors without consequence. It was a reminder to blacks and to those who were inclined toward friendships with blacks that their lives could be taken from them, that anything they had could be taken from them, at any time.

Lynching, then, was not a lawless act. It was the ultimate expression of the law, the real law, that held sway in the American South at the time. It was a reflection and a foundation of the fact that the American South was not a democracy, was not an ordered society, was not a land of liberty or a land of justice.

Lynching was an instrument of social control.

Lynching was an instrument of social and political and economic control.

This is why supporters of democracy, black and white, tried so hard for so long to pass an a federal anti-lynching law — because ending lynching was a necessary pre-requisite to bringing democracy to the American South.

And this is why the failure of the American government to pass such a law was such a travesty of democracy. Lynching wasn’t an example of lawlessness on the level of an incident, on the level of a mob. It exemplified the fundamental lawlessness of an entire region, and the complicity in that lawlessness of an entire nation.

This is the history that Shirley Sherrod was invoking when she told the story of Robert Hall — Robert Hall, who was lynched five years before Sherrod was born. Robert Hall, who was lynched twenty-two years before Sherrod’s own father was shot and killed by a white man who never faced a jury.

This is the history that anyone who would criticize Sherrod for using the word “lynching” must first, as a matter of basic human decency, acquaint himself.

Shirley Sherrod was speaking to a meeting of the NAACP. The NAACP has come in for considerable criticism in recent weeks, from all points on the political spectrum. But anyone who would mock the NAACP, who would mock the devotion that many still feel for that organization, must first know this:

In the early 20th century, when few would speak against lynching, the NAACP did. When few would act against lynching, the NAACP did. The NAACP fought lynching in the press and in the courts and in the halls of Congress and on the ground. It fought lynching on Fifth Avenue, where it would hang a flag from its headquarters after every murder: “A MAN WAS LYNCHED YESTERDAY.”

Anyone who would mock the NAACP, anyone who would mock the name of the NAACP, must must first, as a matter of basic human decency, acquaint himself with these facts.

And again, as I said at the outset, I am not arguing that there aren’t legitimate disagreements among people of good will about matters of race. I’m happy to argue about any of the issues I mentioned at the top of this piece without rancor. (Some, like the place of the NAACP in the 21st century, I’m happy to argue either side of.)

But the facts that I have laid out here are not in dispute. They are not disputed, and they are not obscure. This is the history of our country. This is our past. This what we carry.

We can carry it however we like, but we carry it.

Let me say that again, one more time: We can carry it however we like. But we carry it. It’s how we got here.

And we should know what we’re carrying.