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Lynching

LYNCHING

Violent punishment or execution, without due process, for real or alleged crimes.

The concept of taking the law into one's own hands to punish a criminal almost certainly predates recorded history. Lynching (or "lynch law") is usually associated in the United States with punishment directed toward blacks, who made up a highly disproportionate number of its victims. (While the origins of the term "lynch" are somewhat unclear, many sources cite William Lynch, an eighteenth-century plantation owner in Virginia who helped to mete out vigilante justice.)

Lynching acquired its association with violence against blacks early in the nineteenth century. It was used as a punishment against slaves who tried to escape from their owners. Sometimes, whites who openly opposed slavery were the victims of lynch mobs as well. Perhaps not surprisingly, lynching did not become a pervasive practice in the South until after the Civil War. The passage of the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution granted blacks full rights of citizenship, including the right to due process of law. Southern whites had been humiliated by their loss to the North, and many resented the thought that their former slaves were now on an equal footing with them (relatively speaking). Groups such as the ku klux klan and the Knights of the White Camelia attracted white Southerners who had been left destitute by the war. These groups promoted violence (sometimes indirectly) as a means of regaining white supremacy.

Part of the appeal of groups such as the Ku Klux Klan was their white supremacy focus. But these groups also played on the fears of Southern whites—that blacks would be able to compete with them for jobs, that blacks could run for political office, and even that blacks could rebel against whites. Lynchings were carried out because of these fears. Whites believed that lynchings would terrorize blacks into remaining subservient while allowing whites to regain their sense of status.

Lynchings became even more widespread beginning in the 1880s and would remain common in the South until the 1930s. Between 1880 and 1930, an estimated 2,400 black men, women, and children were killed by lynch mobs. (During the same time period, roughly 300 whites were lynched.) Most lynchings occurred in the Deep South (i.e., Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama, and South Carolina). Border Southern states—Florida, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, and North Carolina also had a noteworthy number of lynchings.

A partial list of "crimes" that prompted lynch mobs during these years underscores a chilling disregard for life: gambling, quarreling, arguing with a white man, attempting to vote, unruly remarks, demanding respect, and "acting suspiciously." Lynchings were often carried out against those suspected of more serious crimes, but they were carried out without allowing a fair trial. It is no exaggeration to state that any black man, woman, or child in the South during these years was in danger of being lynched for any real or imagined improper behavior.

Often, the victim of a lynching would be dragged from his or her home; not infrequently, a lynch mob would drag a victim from a jail cell where supposedly he or she was to be awaiting a fair trial. The typical lynch mob would be made up of local citizens; a core group would actually carry out the crime, while many of the town's residents would look on. The spectators often included "respectable" men and women, and children were often brought to lynchings. A lynching victim might be shot, stabbed, beaten, or hanged; if he was not hanged to death, his body would often be hung up for

display. Local police, and even members of the armed forces, either could not or would not intervene to stop a lynch mob from taking the law into its own hands. Not infrequently, a lynching would conclude with a loud, rowdy demonstration among the assembled crowd. The clear message in each lynching was that the mob was in control.

One of the most common crimes answered by lynch mobs was rape—particularly the rape of a white woman by a black man. Often, all that a black man had to do to be accused of rape was to speak to a white woman or ask her out. Lynchers justified their actions by saying that they needed to protect women from dangerous men. In response, a group of prominent women from seven Southern states met in 1930 to form the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching. This group deplored not only the act of lynching itself, but also the fact that lynchings were frequently witnessed by women and children. They were angered by claims that lynching was a means of protecting white women. During the 1930s, they worked to eliminate lynchings throughout the South.

Efforts by politicians to end lynchings were weak at best. Efforts to move anti-lynching legislation through Congress in the early 1900s and again in the 1930s proved futile, in part because Southern representatives and senators

carried significant political weight. The first politician to take a visible stand against lynching was President harry s. truman, in 1946. Shocked by a lynching in Monroe, Georgia, in which four people—one a world war ii veteran—were pulled off of a bus and shot dozens of times by a mob, Truman launched a campaign to guarantee civil rights for blacks, including a push for federal anti-lynching laws.

Truman was able to realize part of what he wanted, but the powerful Southern lobby managed to maintain much of the status quo. Although large-scale lynchings were no longer staged, blacks in the South still faced vigilante retribution. The murder of Emmett Till, in 1955, put enormous pressure on the South to condemn such barbarism. Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago, was visiting relatives in rural Mississippi, where he made suggestive remarks to a white woman. The woman's husband and brother-in-law tracked Till down, shot him, and threw his body in a river. Although (perhaps because) they were acquitted of the murder, the case added momentum to the growing civil rights movement. People across the nation were genuinely shocked at the trial's outcome, and new civil rights legislation was introduced in Congress. By the time the civil rights act of 1965 was signed into law, there were still racial tensions—and elements of racial discord continue into the twenty-first century—but the era of the free-for-all lynch party in which entire communities participated had effectively come to a close.

further readings

Branch, Taylor, 1988. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Ginzburg, Ralph, ed., 1998. One Hundred Years of Lynchings. Baltimore: Black Classic Press.

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. 1969. Thirty Years of Lynching in the U.S. 1889–1918. New York: Arno Press.

cross-references

Civil Rights Movement; Slavery; Vigilantism.

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Lynching

LYNCHING

LYNCHING. Defined as an act of violence perpetrated for the purpose of punishment (usually torture and death) for an alleged crime carried out by an extralegal mob, lynching has a long history in the United States. Historians have traced its roots to seventeenth-century Ireland; the American Revolutionary War Colonel Charles Lynch, from whose name the term derives, was said to have indiscriminately meted out the punishment of flogging for Tory sympathizers. Lynch law, or mobrule, became part of the fabric of the United States; lynchings took place in every geographic section of the nation, and victims included African Americans, immigrants, and native-born whites. Alleged crimes varied, but most lynchings involved a perceived transgression of community values or a violation of societal honor codes.

During the antebellum period, lynch mobs across the country preyed upon individuals and groups deemed dangerous because they were political, religious, or racial "others." Abolitionists, Catholics, Mormons, Asian, Mexican, and European immigrants and African Americans all were targets. The pattern of mob violence and lynching changed after the Civil War. During the five decades between the end of Reconstruction and the New Deal, there were three specific transformations in the character of American lynching: increased numbers over all; increased likelihood that African Americans would fall victim to lynch mobs; and a concentration of lynchings in the South, particularly after 1886. The Tuskegee Institute started recording statistics on lynchings in 1882 (later, the Chicago Tribune and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP] also collected statistics). The first decade of those statistical findings best illustrates the transformation of lynching patterns. In 1882, 113 people were lynched, sixty-four whites and forty-nine African Americans. The year 1885 was the last during which more whites than African Americans were lynched, and 1892 witnessed the largest number of lynchings in U.S. history (230). From 1882 to 1903, there were approximately one to two hundred lynchings annually. Between 1882 and 1968, there were 4,742 recorded lynchings (3,445 of the victims were African American, or approximately seventy-five percent). During World War I


and the postwar red scare, race riots swept the country, wreaking havoc in Chicago, St. Louis, Tulsa, Omaha, Washington, D.C., and other cities. Lynchings decreased dramatically during the New Deal era, and the period between 1952 and 1954 was the longest during which no lynchings were recorded. But lynch mobs did not disappear completely. As civil rights workers stepped up their campaigns for desegregation and voting rights, they were beaten, killed, and tortured. Although some argue that race relations have improved, the tragedy of American lynching has not been completely eradicated. The dragging death of James Byrd, in Texas, and the beating and crucifixion murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming have been called late twentieth-century lynchings.

There was, however, clearly a decline in lynching during the twentieth century, and this was a result of long and hard-fought battles of anti-lynching crusaders. In 1892, after three prominent Memphis businessmen were lynched, Ida B. Wells, the renowned journalist, began speaking out about the violence. She used Memphis newspaper, the Free Speech, to spread her outrage. She was soon joined by other prominent individuals and organizations. The founders of the NAACP in 1909 cited lynching as key to its formation and agenda. The organization was joined by the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching in the 1930s. Wells's research did the most to destroy the myths about the causes of lynching, though it took decades for her findings to permeate mainstream American consciousness. In her pamphlet, "Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases," Wells argued that the majority of alleged rape charges were not only impossible to prove—that sexual liaisons between many black men and white women might have been consensual—but that rape was not even cited by mobs as the cause of lynching. Retribution for alleged homicide and assault were the most common reasons for the formation of lynch mobs. Legislation was a key goal of those who fought to punish the violence. Although many had tried to use the Fourteenth Amendment to prosecute lynchers, most efforts failed. In 1922, the House of Representatives passed the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, which had been sponsored by the NAACP. The bill died in the Senate, however, thanks to a filibuster by southern senators. Similar tactics were used to kill bills in 1937 and 1940. President Truman's Committee on Civil Rights recommended anti-lynching legislation but was ignored by Congress. Finally, in 1968, under the Civil Rights Act, the federal government could take action against mob violence and lynching.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brundage, W. Fitzhugh. Lynchings in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880–1930. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Raper, Arthur F. The Tragedy of Lynching. New York: Dover, 1970.

Schechter, Patricia A. Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880–1930. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

White, Walter. Rope and Faggot: A Biography of Judge Lynch. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001.

Williamson, Joel. The Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations n the American South since Emancipation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Caroline WaldronMerithew

See alsoCivil Rights Act of 1964 ; Civil Rights and Liberties ; Civil Rights Movement .

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lynching

lynching, unlawfully hanging or otherwise killing a person by mob action. The term is derived from the older term lynch law, which is most likely named after either Capt. William Lynch (1742–1820), of Pittsylvania co., Va., or Col. Charles Lynch (1736–96), of neighboring Bedford (later Campbell) co., both of whom used extralegal proceedings to punish Loyalists during the American Revolution. Historically, the term lynching is most commonly applied to racist violence in the post–Civil War American South.

Lynching was common among North American pioneers on the frontier, where legal institutions were not yet established. Lesser crimes might be punished by exile, while crimes that seemed to them capital, such as rape, horse stealing, and cattle rustling, were punished by lynching. Pioneers formed vigilance committees to repress crime (see vigilantes). When legal institutions had been duly established, such vigilance committees normally tended to disappear. Measures by such committees had the intrinsic danger of resorting to violence and hasty injustice, and posed a tangible threat to the basis of the law.

Between 1882, when reliable data was first collected, and 1968, when the crime had largely disappeared, there were at least 4,730 lynchings in the United States, including some 3,440 black men and women. Most of these were in the post-Reconstruction South between 1882 and 1944, where southern whites used lynching and other terror tactics to intimidate blacks into political, social, and economic submission. Contrary to a widespread misconception, only about a quarter of lynch victims were accused of rape or attempted rape. Most blacks were lynched for outspokenness or other presumed offenses against whites, or in the aftermath of race riots. In many cases lynchings were not spontaneous mob violence but involved a degree of planning and law-enforcement cooperation. Racially motivated lynchings, which often involved the mutilation and immolation of the victim, might be witnessed by an entire local community as a diverting spectacle.

State and local governments in the South did little to curtail lynchings; various laws against mob violence were seldom enforced. Three times (1922, 1937, 1940) antilynching legislation passed the House of Representatives, only to be defeated in the Senate. Although the term has fallen into disuse since the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, similar practices still occur, often classified today as "bias crimes."

See R. L. Zangrando, The NAACP Crusade Against Lynching, 1909–1950 (1980); P. Dray, At the Hands of Persons Unknown (2002).

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lynch

lynch / linch/ • v. [tr.] (of a mob) kill (someone), esp. by hanging, for an alleged offense with or without a legal trial. DERIVATIVES: lynch·er n.

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lynch

lynch •Romansh •blanch, Blanche, branch, ranch, tranche •avalanche •backbench, bench, blench, clench, Dench, drench, entrench, French, frontbench, quench, stench, tench, trench, wench, wrench •crossbench • workbench •cinch, clinch, finch, flinch, inch, lynch, Minch, pinch, squinch, winch •chaffinch • greenfinch • hawfinch •goldfinch • bullfinch •carte blanche, conch •graunch, haunch, launch, paunch, raunch, staunch •brunch, bunch, crunch, hunch, lunch, munch, punch, scrunch •honeybunch • keypunch

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lynching

lynching •waxing •passing, surpassing •Lancing, Lansing •blessing, distressing, dressing, Lessing, pressing, unprepossessing •hairdressing •bracing, casing, facing, lacing, placing, self-effacing, spacing, tracing •steeplechasing • interfacing •unceasing • Gissing • unconvincing •unpromising •enticing, icing •self-sacrificing • crossing •kick-boxing •rejoicing, voicing •conveyancing • embarrassing •videoconferencing •dashing, flashing, lashing, thrashing •square-bashing • tongue-lashing •lynching, unflinching •garnishing • furnishing • ravishing •Cushing •Flushing, gushing, unblushing •inrushing • onrushing

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