Lynching Victim Hangs Above White Crowd
Lynching Victim Hangs Above White Crowd
Date: October 15, 1938.
Source: "Lynching Victim Hangs Above White Crowd." Corbis, 1938.
About the Photographer: This photograph is part of the stock collection at Corbis photo agency, headquartered in Seattle and provider of images for magazine, films, television, and advertisements. The photographer is not known.
"Lynching" is a term given to vigilante justice handed out by a mob that is beyond the jurisdiction of normal legal process. It usually concludes in death or at the very least serious physical assault. The term derives from "Lynch Law," which originates with the American Revolution when Colonel Charles Lynch responded to criminal and pro-British elements by handing out a brutal form of summary justice according to his own rules. In reality, the practice of vigilante or mob justice has existed since the start of human civilization, although the term "lynching" is largely synonymous with the United States, and particularly its southern states.
As America spread westward in the years after independence, vigilante law and lynching was often the only form of justice available and was applied frequently and—one can assume—haphazardly. The actual term "lynching," however, only moved into popular parlance after the Civil War.
The practice of lynching was carried out most commonly in the four decades following the Civil War's end, and although incidence of lynching decreased in the twentieth century, such attacks were still carried out in significant numbers (e.g., eighty-three in 1919; thirty in 1930) until the Second World War, and did not die out until the late 1950s. Between 1882 (when reliable statistics were first collated) and 1968, 4,743 people died as a result of lynching, 3,446 of whom were black men and women.
What was most shocking about this form of justice was the racial motivation often underlying the attack and the ritualistic complexion lynching sometimes assumed. Hundreds of seemingly respectable citizens could and did attend lynchings, and on one occasion, 15,000 were estimated to have turned up to one southern lynching. Authorities frequently looked the other way as the people carried out their own form of justice. Mark Twain, one of lynching's most vehement opponents, characterized a typical mob as consisting of "5,000 Christian American men, women, and children, youths and maidens." Desecration of a victim's body for "souvenirs" or prior disembowelment were not uncommon. In the primary source photograph below, an apron covers the victim's waist, probably because his genitalia had been removed. Note also what appears to be a young boy at the scene.
The practice of lynching in the United States unofficially ceased after 1955, when the case of Emmett Till provoked national and global outrage. Till was an African-American teenager from Chicago visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi. At a local grocery store, Till was alleged to have wolf-whistled or flirted with the proprietor's wife, Carolyn Bryant, and word spread around the small town. When Bryant's husband, Roy Bryant, returned from a business trip, he plotted revenge with his half-brother J.W. Milam. The two brutally beat Till and gouged out an eye before finally shooting him several hours later. They then dumped his body in a river. Yet when the case came to trial a month later, Bryant and Milam were acquitted by an all-white jury after just sixty-seven minutes of deliberations. A year later the duo admitted the crime to Look magazine, but were unable to be prosecuted because of their rights under double jeopardy.
LYNCHING VICTIM HANGS ABOVE WHITE CROWD
See primary source image.
Nothing was more synonymous with white man's unchecked persecution of blacks in America's south than the activities of lynch mobs. Although by the mid-twentieth century the perception about their prevalence was usually worse than the reality, the number of notorious cases that periodically emerged, often combined with the failure of the authorities to prosecute those who had carried out such acts, was seen as incontrovertible evidence of discrimination against the south's black communities. Lynching was an appalling example of the absolute power, outside any process of law, justice, or rationality that could be imposed in order to maintain white power. With blacks often disenfranchised in southern states, local officials usually felt no obligation to respect their interests, and worse still could sometimes be seen leading or partaking in a lynching.
Lynchings and the other injustices suffered by Southern African Americans were one of the reasons behind their mass migration from the rural south to the urban northeast and Midwest. This "Great Migration" started during World War I and continued until the 1960s, and fundamentally altered the racial complexion of the north's urban conurbations. Although northern cities were usually more tolerant than the rural south and often without officially sanctioned segregation or political disenfranchisement, black southern migrants were still amongst the poorest sections of their populations and were economically marginalized. Their communities often became ghettoized and cut off from mainstream society, leading to deep-seated racial tensions and periodic urban violence. Riots in Chicago in 1919, Detroit in 1943 and 1967, and Los Angeles in 1965 and 1992 were periodic if not extreme reminders that the schism between black and white communities had never been fully healed.
Following the end of slavery, lynching became a cause célèbre for liberals both in and outside the United States. In Britain, where liberals stood at the forefront of the global anti-slavery movement and a stance against lynching was seen as an extension of their work, the incidence of lynching was watched closely. Streams of protests would periodically wind their way to the U.S. Ambassador or any American politician or public individual seen to be supporting or sympathizing with lynching. Frances Willard, President of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, was one such individual harangued by British antislavery activists after making comments construed as being sympathetic to lynching.
The most famous opponent to lynching, however, was Mark Twain, who gave numerous lectures and wrote several essays opposed to the practice. His 1869 essay Only a Nigger, which originally appeared anonymously in the Buffalo Express, clearly illustrated the depth of his opposition:
"Mistakes will happen, even in the conduct of the best regulated and most high-toned mobs, and surely there is no good reason why Southern gentlemen should worry themselves with useless regrets, so long as only an innocent "nigger" is hanged, or roasted or knouted to death, now and then … Keep the lash knotted; keep the brand and the faggots in waiting, for prompt work with the next "nigger" who may be suspected of any damnable crime! Wreak a swift vengeance upon him, for the satisfaction of the noble impulses that animate knightly hearts, and then leave time and accident to discover, if they will, whether he was guilty or no."
Twain's involvement in the anti-lynching movement is just one example of the issue being brought into popular culture. Other famous references include Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit (1937), the Bob Dylan song The Death of Emmett Till (1962), the Toni Morrison play Dreaming Emmett (1986), and Richard Powers' novel The Time of Our Singing (2001).
Perhaps more than any other event, it was the 1955 murder of Till that mobilized the American civil rights movement. Within three months of his body being recovered, the Montgomery Bus boycott had begun, kick-starting one of America's largest and most significant protest movements. Within a decade, the so-called Jim Crow laws and segregation had become a thing of the past in principle if not practice. Racially motivated lynching in the U.S. was effectively banished to the past.
Beyond the United States, however, lynching continues to rear its head. This tends to be in areas of the world where there is little faith in criminal justice systems or in times of conflict, particularly when collaboration is suspected. In Apartheid-era South African townships, where there was no faith in white-administered justice, lynch mobs would periodically try and impose their own form of justice—this effort was publicly supported by Winnie Mandela, then-wife of the imprisoned Nelson Mandela. More recently, in Israel's occupied territories, Palestinians have been known to lynch and desecrate the bodies of Israeli collaborators and, in one well-publicized attack in Ramallah in October 2000, Israeli soldiers. Far-right Israeli extremists have also been known to carry out unprovoked lynchings of Palestinian Arabs.
Powers, Ron. Mark Twain: A Life. New York: Free Press, 2005.
Wells, Ida B. On Lynchings. New York: Humanity Press, 2002.
PBS.org. "American Experience: The Murder of Emmett Till." 〈http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/till〉 (accessed March 5, 2006).