Lynch Law in America

views updated

Lynch Law in America

Magazine article

By: Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Date: 1900

Source: Wells-Barnett, Ida B. "Lynch Law in America." The Arena 23, 1 (1900): 15-24.

About the Author: Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862–1931) was a teacher, journalist, and social activist, renowned for her campaigns against the lynching of African Americans. She was born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi. After Emancipation, her parents were associated with Rust College in Holly Springs, where Wells was educated until the death of her parents and youngest brother in a yellow fever epidemic in 1878. After working as a schoolteacher to support her siblings, Wells moved to Memphis around 1880, where she continued to teach. During this period, Wells also began writing for local black publications, using the pseudonym Iola. She became a co-owner and frequent contributor to the Memphis newspaper the Free Speech and Headlight in 1889. In 1892, her editorials on the lynching of three respected Memphis businessmen resulted in the mob destruction of the Free Speech building, and Wells's life was repeatedly threatened. She went to New York, where she wrote for the New York Age, and published an analysis of lynching in the South entitled Southern Horrors.

The following year, Wells moved to Chicago, where she worked for the Conservator, a black newspaper founded and edited by Ferdinand Barnett. With Barnett and Frederick Douglass, Wells also co-authored a booklet called The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not Represented in the World's Columbian Exposition. In 1895, Wells married Barnett and published A Red Record. Wells-Barnett was active in the Niagara Movement in 1906, and was one of the founders of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) in 1909, although she left the organization in 1912. She remained active in many political groups in Chicago, both for African-Americans and women's suffrage, and ran for the Illinois State Senate in 1930.


Ida B. Wells-Barnett's Arena article was groundbreaking in many ways. Although the black press had covered mob violence for many years, Lynch Law in America was one of the first uncompromising, graphically descriptive portrayals of lynching to be aimed at an audience that was largely white. The Arena was a monthly literary magazine published in Boston from 1889–1909 that was dedicated to "The Betterment of Conditions" with a penchant for muck-raking, so Wells-Barnett's urgent plea for social justice fit the magazine's agenda well, even if the topic was uncomfortable for many of its readers.

Wells-Barnett's claim that lynching was not mindless mob action, but brutality with a hidden motivation, was equally innovative. Her analysis of the unwritten laws used to justify illegal and otherwise unconscionable activities foreshadows modern historical analyses. Dray (2002) and Tolnay and Beck (1995), for instance, expand on Wells-Barnett's ideas to explain lynching as a method of social control, disenfranchisement, and terror, a manner of controlling economic and political competition, and as a way to punish those who challenged the rigid ideology of sexual segregation.

Wells-Barnett's use of statistics to describe the magnitude of the lynching problem was also a first. By using figures collected from white sources, such as the Chicago Tribune in Lynch Law in America, Wells-Barnett was able to forestall her critics' dismissal of lynching as an infrequent or usually warranted practice. She also pointed out that fewer than a third of the victims of lynchings were even accused of rape, which was its most common justification.


Our country's national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of an hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an "unwritten law" that justifies them in putting human beings to death without complaint under oath, without trial by jury, without opportunity to make defense, and without right of appeal …

The alleged menace of universal suffrage having been avoided by the absolute suppression of the negro vote, the spirit of mob murder should have been satisfied and the butchery of negroes should have ceased. But men, women, and children were the victims of murder by individuals and murder by mobs, just as they had been when killed at the demands of the "unwritten law" to prevent "negro domination." Negroes were killed for disputing over terms of contracts with their employers. If a few barns were burned some colored man was killed to stop it. If a colored man resented the imposition of a white man and the two came to blows, the colored man had to die, either at the hands of the white man then and there or later at the hands of a mob that speedily gathered. If he showed a spirit of courageous manhood he was hanged for his pains, and the killing was justified by the declaration that he was a "saucy nigger." Colored women have been murdered because they refused to tell the mobs where relatives could be found for "lynching bees." Boys of fourteen years have been lynched by white representatives of American civilization. In fact, for all kinds of offenses—and for no offenses—from murders to misdemeanors, men and women are put to death without judge or jury; so that, although the political excuse was no longer necessary, the wholesale murder of human beings went on just the same. A new name was given to the killings and a new excuse was invented for so doing.

Again the aid of the "unwritten law" is invoked, and again it comes to the rescue. During the last ten years a new statute has been added to the "unwritten law." This statute proclaims that for certain crimes or alleged crimes no negro shall be allowed a trial; that no white woman shall be compelled to charge an assault under oath or to submit any such charge to the investigation of a court of law. The result is that many men have been put to death whose innocence was afterward established; and to-day, under this reign of the "unwritten law," no colored man, no matter what his reputation, is safe from lynching if a white woman, no matter what her standing or motive, cares to charge him with insult or assault.

It is considered a sufficient excuse and reasonable justification to put a prisoner to death under this "unwritten law" for the frequently repeated charge that these lynching horrors are necessary to prevent crimes against women. The sentiment of the country has been appealed to, in describing the isolated condition of white families in thickly populated negro districts; and the charge is made that these homes are in as great danger as if they were surrounded by wild beasts. And the world has accepted this theory without let or hindrance. In many cases there has been open expression that the fate meted out to the victim was only what he deserved. In many other instances there has been a silence that says more forcibly than words can proclaim it that it is right and proper that a human being should be seized by a mob and burned to death upon the unsworn and the uncorroborated charge of his accuser. No matter that our laws presume every man innocent until he is proved guilty; no matter that it leaves a certain class of individuals completely at the mercy of another class; no matter that it encourages those criminally disposed to blacken their faces and commit any crime in the calendar so long as they can throw suspicion on some negro, as is frequently done, and then lead a mob to take his life; no matter that mobs make a farce of the law and a mockery of justice; no matter that hundreds of boys are being hardened in crime and schooled in vice by the repetition of such scenes before their eyes—if a white woman declares herself insulted or assaulted, some life must pay the penalty, with all the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition and all the barbarism of the Middle Ages. The world looks on and says it is well.

Not only are two hundred men and women put to death annually, on the average, in this country by mobs, but these lives are taken with the greatest publicity. In many instances the leading citizens aid and abet by their presence when they do not participate, and the leading journals inflame the public mind to the lynching point with scare-head articles and offers of rewards. Whenever a burning is advertised to take place, the railroads run excursions, photographs are taken, and the same jubilee is indulged in that characterized the public hangings of one hundred years ago. There is, however, this difference: in those old days the multitude that stood by was permitted only to guy or jeer. The nineteenth century lynching mob cuts off ears, toes, and fingers, strips off flesh, and distributes portions of the body as souvenirs among the crowd. If the leaders of the mob are so minded, coal-oil is poured over the body and the victim is then roasted to death. This has been done in Texarkana and Paris, Tex., in Bardswell, Ky., and in Newman, Ga. In Paris the officers of the law delivered the prisoner to the mob. The mayor gave the school children a holiday and the railroads ran excursion trains so that the people might see a human being burned to death. In Texarkana, the year before, men and boys amused themselves by cutting off strips of flesh and thrusting knives into their helpless victim. At Newman, Ga., of the present year, the mob tried every conceivable torture to compel the victim to cry out and confess, before they set fire to the faggots that burned him. But their trouble was all in vain—he never uttered a cry, and they could not make him confess …

Quite a number of the one-third alleged cases of assault that have been personally investigated by the writer have shown that there was no foundation in fact for the charges; yet the claim is not made that there were no real culprits among them. The negro has been too long associated with the white man not to have copied his vices as well as his virtues. But the negro resents and utterly repudiates the effort to blacken his good name by asserting that assaults upon women are peculiar to his race. The negro has suffered far more from the commission of this crime against the women of his race by white men than the white race has ever suffered through his crimes. Very scant notice is taken of the matter when this is the condition of affairs. What becomes a crime deserving capital punishment when the tables are turned is a matter of small moment when the negro woman is the accusing party …

No scoffer at our boasted American civilization could say anything more harsh of it than does the American white man himself who says he is unable to protect the honor of his women without resort to such brutal, inhuman, and degrading exhibitions as characterize "lynching bees." The cannibals of the South Sea Islands roast human beings alive to satisfy hunger. The red Indian of the Western plains tied his prisoner to the stake, tortured him, and danced in fiendish glee while his victim writhed in the flames. His savage, untutored mind suggested no better way than that of wreaking vengeance upon those who had wronged him. These people knew nothing about Christianity and did not profess to follow its teachings; but such primary laws as they had they lived up to. No nation, savage or civilized, save only the United States of America, has confessed its inability to protect its women save by hanging, shooting, and burning alleged offenders.


Wells-Barnett's campaign to eradicate lynching was based on personal experience as well as a desire for social justice. In March 1892, three of Wells-Barnett's friends—Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart, the owners of a Memphis grocery store—were arrested on suspicion of inciting a riot following altercations over competition with a neighboring white grocery. A lynch mob took the three men from jail and murdered them in a field outside the city. Wells-Barnett's exposé of this tragedy was the beginning of her impassioned pieces on lynching, which included several searing editorials in her Memphis paper, the Free Speech. The newspaper offices were subsequently burned by an angry mob, and violent personal threats led Wells-Barnett to leave the South, taking her battle to larger and more receptive audiences in Northern cities and in Europe.

Wells-Barnett was the most active journalist and lecturer to record lynching while it was at its peak in the 1890s. Tolnay and Beck documented over 2,800 people murdered by lynch mobs in the South in the years between 1882 and 1930. Almost 2,500 of these victims were African Americans. These historians also point out that "The scale of this carnage means that, on the average, a black man, woman, or child was murdered nearly once a week, every week, between 1882 and 1930 by a hate-driven white mob." The number of people killed increased sharply in the 1890s, which accounts for some of the urgency and despair voiced by Wells-Barnett in Lynch Law in America.

Although the frequency of lynchings decreased in the twentieth century, there was at least one killing by lynch mobs each year until 1952. More than two hundred pieces of anti-lynching legislation were introduced to the U.S. Congress in this time period, in no small part inspired by the work of Ida B. Wells-Barnett and the movement she started. The House of Representatives succeeded in passing laws against lynching three times, but senators from southern states repeatedly refused to endorse the proposed laws. In June 2005, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution apologizing for its failure to enact anti-lynching legislation.



Brown, Mary Jane. Eradicating This Evil: Women in the Anti-Lynching Movement 1892–1940. New York: Garland, 2000.

Dray, Philip. At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America. New York: Random House, 2002.

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

Tolnay, Stewart E. and E.M. Beck. A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882–1930. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1995.