Don’t Kill My Baby and My Son

On May 25, 1911, a mob lynched an African-American woman and her teenage son near Okemah, Oklahoma. Through a direct family connection to the lynching, the acts that day would later inspire one of Woody Guthrie’s great songs.

Oklahoma Lynching

The lynching of the woman and her son occurred in response to the death of a well-respected white deputy sheriff, Goerge Loney. Earlier, Loney was investigating the theft of livestock when teenager Lawrence Nelson reportedly thought the officer was going for a gun and shot Loney. Loney bled to death.

A posse then went to arrest the teen and his family, which included his mother Laura Nelson and her infant son. Lawrence’s father ended up in jail too.  But a mob eventually took the teenager and his mother Laura, who at one point tried to protect her son by saying she fired the fatal shot.

It is unclear what happened to the infant, but the mob ended up hanging the teen and his mother from a bridge. According to some reports, Laura Nelson was raped before she was lynched.

“Don’t Kill My Baby and My Son”

One of the members of the lynching crowd was a man named Charley.  A year later, Charley would name his new son Woodrow after Pres. Wilson. Woodrow grew up to have quite a different view of the lynching than the participants. And Woody, as we would come to know him, developed political views that diverged from his father, Charley Guthrie.

Woody Guthrie wrote the song, “Don’t Kill My Baby and My Son” about that lynching in Okfuskee County, Oklahoma. In the chorus, Woody chose to view the song from the standpoint of the woman who was lynched rather than choosing the voice of his father in the crowd:

O, don’t kill my baby and my son,
O , don’t kill my baby and my son.
You can stretch my neck on that old river bridge,
But don’t kill my baby and my son.

Now, I’ve heard the cries of a panther,
Now, I’ve heard the coyotes yell,
But that long, lonesome cry shook the whole wide world
And it come from the cell of the jail.

Singer-songwriter Brooke Harvey, who is from Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia, recorded a beautiful rendition of Guthrie’s song:

Although “Don’t Kill My Baby and Son” is not one of Guthrie’s most well-known songs, it is among his most heartbreaking. Besides being a great song, it documents a horrible injustice that we should not forget.

More information about the lynching is in the biography Woody Guthrie: A Life, in a recent book on the history of capital punishment and the use of lynching, and on the Executed Today website, which includes the haunting photo of the lynching that was later used as a postcard.

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