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About Lynching

About Lynching

Robert L. Zangrando

Lynching is the practice whereby a mob--usually several dozen or several hundred persons--takes the law into its own hands in order to injure and kill a person accused of some wrongdoing. The alleged offense can range from a serious crime like theft or murder to a mere violation of local customs and sensibilities. The issue of the victim's guilt is usually secondary, since the mob serves as prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner. Due process yields to momentary passions and expedient objectives.

Vigilantism, or summary justice, has a long history, but the term lynch law originated during the American Revolution with Col. Charles Lynch and his Virginia associates, who responded to unsettled times by making their own rules for confronting Tories and criminal elements. "Lynching" found an easy acceptance as the nation expanded. Raw frontier conditions encouraged swift punishment for real, imagined, or anticipated criminal behavior. Historically, social control has been an essential aspect of mob rule.

Opponents of slavery in pre-Civil War America and cattle rustlers, gamblers, horse thieves, and other "desperadoes" in the South and Old West were nineteenth-century targets. From the 1880s onward, however, mob violence increasingly reflected white America's contempt for various racial, ethnic, and cultural groups. African-Americans especially, and sometimes Native Americans, Latinos, Jews, Asian immigrants, and European newcomers, felt the mob's fury. In an era when racist theories prompted "true Americans" to assert their imagined superiority through imperialist ventures, mob violence became the domestic means of asserting white dominance. Occasionally, this complemented the profit motive, when the lynching of a successful black farmer or immigrant merchant opened new economic opportunities for local whites and simultaneously reaffirmed everyone's "place" in the social hierarchy. Sometimes lynching was aimed at unpopular ideas: labor union organizers, political radicals, critics of America's role in World War I, and civil rights advocates were targets.

African-Americans suffered grievously under lynch law. With the close of Reconstruction in the late 1870s, southern whites were determined to end northern and black participation in the region's affairs, and northerners exhibited a growing indifference toward the civil rights of black Americans. Taking its cue from this intersectional white harmony, the federal government abandoned its oversight of constitutional protections. Southern and border states responded with the Jim Crow laws of the 1890s, and white mobs flourished. With blacks barred from voting, public office, and jury service, officials felt no obligation to respect minority interests or safeguard minority lives. In addition to lynchings of individuals, dozens of race riots--with blacks as victims--scarred the national landscape from Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898 to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921.

Between 1882 (when reliable statistics were first collected) and 1968 (when the classic forms of lynching had disappeared), 4,743 persons died of lynching, 3,446 of them black men and women. Mississippi (539 black victims, 42 white) led this grim parade of death, followed by Georgia (492, 39), Texas (352, 141), Louisiana (335, 56), and Alabama (299, 48). From 1882 to 1901, the annual number nationally usually exceeded 100; 1892 had a record 230 deaths (161 black, 69 white). Although lynchings declined somewhat in the twentieth century, there were still 97 in 1908 (89 black, 8 white), 83 in the racially troubled postwar year of 1919 (76, 7, plus some 25 race riots), 30 in 1926 (23, 7), and 28 in 1933 (24, 4).

Statistics do not tell the entire story, however. These were recorded lynchings; others were never reported beyond the community involved. Furthermore, mobs used especially sadistic tactics when blacks were the prime targets. By the 1890s lynchers increasingly employed burning, torture, and dismemberment to prolong suffering and excite a "festive atmosphere" among the killers and onlookers. White families brought small children to watch, newspapers sometimes carried advance notices, railroad agents sold excursion tickets to announced lynching sites, and mobs cut off black victims' fingers, toes, ears, or genitalia as souvenirs. Nor was it necessarily the handiwork of a local rabble; not infrequently, the mob was encouraged or led by people prominent in the area's political and business circles. Lynching had become a ritual of interracial social control and recreation rather than simply a punishment for crime.

See also: Walter White, Rope and Faggot: A Biography of Judge Lynch (1929); Robert L. Zangrando, The NAACP Crusade Against Lynching, 1909-1950 (1980).

Excerpted from a longer article in The Reader’s Companion to American History. Ed. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Co.

John F. Callahan

Lynching did not come out of nowhere. Its actual and symbolic grounding in history and literature goes back to slavery and slavery's defining persons of African descent as property. During slavery there were numerous public punishments of slaves, none of which were preceded by trials or any other semblance of civil or judicial processes. Justice depended solely upon the slaveholder. Executions, whippings, brandings, and other forms of severe punishment, including sometimes the public separation of families, were meted out by authority or at the command of the master or his representative. Often, slaves from the plantation and, sometimes, nearby plantations were assembled and made to witness the punishment as an example of the master's absolute authority to wield the power of life and death over each and every slave. Underlying this action was the idea that black slaves were not truly human beings or, if human, certainly not equal or endowed with any right to life or liberty beyond what their owners saw fit to grant.

After emancipation, despite the efforts of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments and federal Reconstruction legislation, white Southerners sought ways, legal and extralegal, to assert a white supremacy so extreme as to justify meting out ritual death to black persons without any formal legal process. The rise of lynching as a specific race ritual of terror coincided with the systematic passage of state laws disenfranchising black voters and decreeing separate but equal civil and social facilities. This Jim Crow way of life, law, and custom was given implicit national endorsement by the Supreme Court in its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson "separate but equal" decision.

In its random quality, lynching was arguably as bad or worse than the murders committed against slaves. During slavery anyone doing violence to a slave had to answer to that slave's master; otherwise the full weight of the law could be brought down upon whoever presumed to raise a hand against another man’s human property. With the rise of lynching after the Civil War and the cessation of Reconstruction there was no such restraint. In place of the master was the more vague standard of justice held by a particular "white community." Lynching derived its power from the participation of numerous white citizens in the ritual murder and the approval or acquiescence in the action by the remainder of the white community. Here it should be noted that through successful filibusters members of the U.S. Senate from the former Confederacy (and their occasional allies from other states) upheld the right of individual states to the custom of lynching.

Although abhorrent to many, even to some of its silent, acquiescent partners, lynching was not an aberration in American race relations. Rather, it served as an extreme reminder of the unreasoning power the basest passions, fears, and hatreds of white Americans could exercise over the lives and humanity of black Americans. For "the ultimate goal of lynchers," as Ralph Ellison reflected in Going to the Territory (1986), "is that of achieving ritual purification through destroying the lynchers' identification with the basic humanity of their victims. Hence their deafness to cries of pain, their stoniness before the sight and stench of burning flesh. . . ." At issue, then, in historical terms and the imaginative terms of African American literature, is lynching's ritual capacity to define and annihilate the humanity of the black victim and that of every last member of his or her race, symbolically or, if necessary, literally.

According to John Hope Franklin (From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans, 1967), "in the last sixteen years of the nineteenth century there had been more than 2,500 lynchings, the great majority of which were of Negroes." The early twentieth century did not see a significant decrease: "In the very first year of the new century more than 100 Negroes were lynched, and before the outbreak of World War I the number for the century had soared to more than 1,100." Lynchings declined in number but continued in ferocity during World War I. They were seized on so effectively by the Germans that, despite his Southern sympathies, President Wilson issued a statement against lynching and mob violence, But after the war more than a few returning black soldiers were lynched, some in their uniforms. The "Red scare" of 1919 was eclipsed by the racial violence and lynching fever of what James Weldon Johnson termed "the Red Summer." Riots and killings, some of them lynchings, occurred in Chicago, Texas, Washington, D.C., and with particular brutality that October in Arkansas. Although lynching was by no means an isolated, aberrant occurrence in the 1920s when the Klan was resurgent or in the 1930s when the depression fueled the hunt for racial as well as political scapegoats, the phenomenon was no longer virulent enough to claim one victim every two to three days. In its sporadic occurrences over the next decades, lynching continued to be a vehicle of terror and a last resort in opposition to the drive for political and civil rights through the 1950s, 1960s, and beyond.

There are convergences and divergences between lynching as a historical and a literary phenomenon. Though the sexual fears, guilt, and fantasies of white men and sometimes women (and to an almost negligible degree the actions of black men) played a role in lynching and became a central motif in literary representations by African American writers, the record is less sensational. "Although the impression was widely held that most of the Negroes lynched had been accused of committing rape on the bodies of white women," John Hope Franklin writes, "in the first fourteen years of the twentieth century only 315 lynch victims were accused of rape or attempted rape." Others were accused of homicide, robbery, insulting whites, and other "offenses." Not surprisingly, what literary expressions of lynching have in common with written and oral eyewitness accounts of mob violence are the ritual elements. Ralph Ellison calls lynching "a ritual drama that was usually enacted ... in an atmosphere of high excitement and led by a masked celebrant dressed in a garish costume who manipulated the numinous objects (lynch ropes, the American flag, shotgun, gasoline and whiskey jugs) associated with the rite as he inspired and instructed the actors in their gory task."

Ellison's observations bridge the gap between history's documentary discourse and the imaginative, mythic rhetoric of literature. At times the mob has a leader, at times not; at times the leading participants are masked, at others not; at times the brutality, though appealing to and possessing ritual elements, is spontaneous and chaotic; at other times carefully planned in advance, even down to advertisements in local newspapers. What is striking, however, is that lynching as an American race-ritual has exerted a powerful pull upon the imaginations of African American writers. Paradoxically, lynching is an even stronger motif for writers after the period between 1880 and 1920 than for earlier writers. As African American literature became more abundant and more prominent in the latter half of the twentieth century lynching, like slavery, came to seem a ritual actuality of race in American life that black writers felt bound to confront and perhaps imaginatively transform or transcend in asserting their African American identity. For the writers who must somehow contain and create past, present, and future, lynching has been an unavoidable, inexorable consequence of race, slavery, and blackness in the United States. Furthermore, though lynching singled out its victims, its point was unmistakable: Any black person who enough white people suspected or considered guilty of any offense was subject to murderous, extralegal punishment almost certain not to call down any consequences upon the heads of the perpetrators. Whatever their different approaches to matters of form, technique, style, or subject matter, black writers have represented and confronted this condition and consequence of blackness in America.

Throughout African American literature lynching tends to be a thread of the ancestors' common experience and a cautionary tale in the historical and imaginative present of American experience. In Exorcising Blackness: Historical and Literary Lynching and Burning Rituals (1984), Trudier Harris explores the connections between lynching as a historical and a literary phenomenon. Her study demonstrates the extent to which lynching has been and continues to be rooted in the imagination of black writers no matter what their generation, genre, or gender. Also noted is the great diversity with which the phenomenon of lynching is treated by African American writers even as these authors show, in Harris's words, that "black heritage, via black history, is a continuing and integral part of black existence in spite of its brutal and dehumanizing aspects."

In Jean Toomer’s "Blood-Burning Moon" and to a lesser extent in "Kabnis" and elsewhere in Cane (1923), for example, a surviving black character is utterly devastated as a consequence of lynching. In "Blood-Burning Moon," Louisa is moonstruck. She has no articulate sense that her involvement with a white man and then a black man would lead to the white man's ineffectual rage against his powerful black competitor. In the knife fight the white man starts he is quickly killed by the black man. Tom Burwell, who kills in self-defense, is then immediately burned alive in ritual fashion by a white mob. Toomer imagines Louisa alone in the street afterwards singing to the full "blood-burning moon," the other black folks huddled inside their shacks.

In a very different response the narrator of James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1927), a stranger passing for white in a southern town, decides to continue passing after he witnesses a black man dragged into town and burned alive in a carefully planned lynching complete with the rebel yell and attended by men, women, and children. Few characters (or their creators) in African American literature enjoyed the ambivalent choice belonging to Johnson's narrator. In Richard Wright's "Big Boy Leaves Home" (1938), when Big Boy and Bobo accidentally shoot and kill a white man, the black community swings into action knowing it will be subject to destruction by fire or worse. Its members realize all they can do is try to prevent the lynching of their sons, and they instantly put all of their ingenuity and resources behind the escape. Bobo is caught and lynched in a fall carnival ritual of dismemberment and burning in front of the town's men, women, and children while Big Boy is an invisible witness from the bottom of a lime kiln in an adjacent field. In the morning Big Boy escapes hidden in the back of a truck bound for Chicago, driven by someone's brave relative.

The effects of lynching are diverse: paralysis, solidarity; and escape, often to ghettos in the North. One effect explored is the appalling sense of the absolute power, outside any process of law, justice, or rationality, that could be brought to bear to keep the idea and practice of white supremacy alive. Black writers from William Wells Brown, whose Clotel (1853) depicts the burning of a black slave, to almost every African American writer of note, from Charles Waddell Chesnutt and Paul Laurence Dunbar at the turn of the century to Robert Hayden and Ralph Ellison at midcentury, to Toni Morrison, Michael S. Harper, and Ernest J. Gaines in the late twentieth century, have explored black Americans' response to lynching and its prevention through abundant use of what Ellison calls "shit, grit, and mother wit." In a reversal of the literary and historical pattern, John Edgar Wideman had his novel, The Lynchers (1973), turn on the plot hatched by four black men to lynch a white policeman. Wideman's novel, like almost all other representations of actual or aborted lynchings in African American literature, shows such plans and deeds done at the cost of the humanity of victim and perpetrator alike.

See also James E. Cutler, Lynch-Law: An Investigation into the History of Lynching in the United States, 1905. Walter F. White, The Fire in the Flint, 1924. Walter F. White, Rope and Faggot: A Biography of Judge Lynch, 1929. Ralph Ginsburg, 100 Years of Lynching, 1962. NAACP, Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889-1918, 1969. Ida B. Wells, On Lynching; Southern Horrors; A Red Record; Mob Rule in New Orleans, 1969. James R. McGovern, Anatomy of a Lynching, 1982. Trudier Harris, Exorcising Blackness: Historical and Literary Lynching and Burning Rituals, 1984. Ralph Ellison, Going to the Territory, 1986.

From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Copyright © 1997 by Oxford University Press.

Antilynching Campaign

Dickson D. Bruce, Jr.

Antilynching Campaign: a movement to end mob violence against African-Americans--particularly the summary execution of individuals accused of crime (often the rape of white women)--in the southern United States during the period from the 1880s to the 1940s. The antilynching campaign, led by such organizations as the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Council for Interracial Cooperation (CIC), and the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL), sought to fight lynching through education or legal action, or by securing federal legislation against it.

Women played a major role in the campaign. The most effective leader in its early development was Ida B. Wells-Barnett. An African-American teacher and journalist, Wells-Barnett was moved initially by the 1892 Memphis lynching of three black businessmen whose success had outraged their white competitors. Responding with a series of newspaper columns, later expanded into the widely circulated pamphlet Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892), Wells-Barnett documented the innocence of many victims of lynching, especially those charged with rape, while denouncing the failure of leading white southerners to act forcefully against the evil. In 1895, she published a larger investigative work, A Red Record, which served as a major resource for the campaign itself. Wells-Barnett led legal efforts to prevent lynchings and worked through both the NACW and the NAACP (an organization that she helped found) to secure antilynching legislation. It was through these organizations that other black women, including the writers Angelina Weld Grimké and Georgia Douglas Johnson, also became active in the effort.

Beginning in the 1920s and 1930s, an increasing number of white women, especially in the South, joined the antilynching movement. Revolted by the brutality of lynching, and resenting the white southern defense of lynching based on the "protection" of white womanhood, women such as Jessie Daniel Ames and others worked through the CIC and, after 1930, the ASWPL to try to bring the practice to an end. Focusing on education and the courts--and ambivalent about federal legislation--they worked to create a climate of opinion among white southerners that would lead to lynching's demise.

Although both the CIC and the ASWPL chiefly involved women activists rather than writers, those organizations provided a background for the work of one of the most eloquent white literary opponents of lynching, and of racial injustice in general, the Georgia writer Lillian Smith. In such major works as her 1944 novel Strange Fruit and her 1949 collection of essays Killers of the Dream, Smith elaborated on arguments developed by ASWPL activists that linked lynching to a larger system of racial and sexual pathology and exploitation in the South.

With a decline in lynching in the 1940s, most of those involved in the campaign began to focus on other issues. Nevertheless, the campaign itself provided an important background to the larger battle against racism and segregation that ultimately took shape in the southern United States.

See also Morton Sosna. In Search of the Silent South: Southern Liberals and the Race Issue (1977). Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Revolt Against Chivalry: Jessie Daniel Ames and the Women's Campaign Against Lynching (1979). Robert L. Zangrando, The NAACP Crusade Against Lynching, 1909-1950 (1980). Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of B1ack Women on Race and Sex in America (1984). Trudier Harris, comp., Selected Works of Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1991).

From The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States. Copyright © Oxford University Press.

Photographs of Lynching Victims

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