views updated May 29 2018


After the Civil War, with Abraham Lincoln dead and President Andrew Johnson politically ineffectual, Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts beginning in 1867, which gave northern radicals complete military control of the South. In response, extremist whites organized vigilante patrols such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) to intimidate black people. Thus violence, even lynching, was bred of the Civil War's turmoil and bloodshed.

Lynching is the punishment of alleged criminals by private persons (usually mobs) without due process of law. Lynch law penalizes a person without legal sanction. The vigilante mobs in the South quite frequently hung the accused person. The term "lynching" is often taken to mean death by hanging, but other forms of deadly force were also used. The term "lynch law" is associated with Charles Lynch of Bedford County, Virginia, and with William Lynch of Pittsylvania County, Virginia, both of whom meted out unofficial punishment during the American Revolution.

Statistics on lynching derive from three collections. The Chicago Tribune in 1882 initiated a yearly account. Ten years later, the Tuskegee Institute began collecting data about lynchings. Starting in 1912, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) maintained its account of mob lynching. These sources do not entirely agree either in the definition of "lynching" or in the number of lynchings. The Tuskegee Institute generally lists the fewest killings and it cites 1892 as the year with the

source: The Archives at Tuskegee Institute.

largest number of lynchings—230 persons, of whom 161 were black and the others were white.

The Ku Klux Klan, founded in 1866 in Pulaski, Tennessee, was organized in 1867 under its first Grand Wizard, former Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest resigned in 1869, angered at the actions of some local dens, but some dens continued to operate on their own. During the election of 1868, the Klan and other terror groups killed perhaps 1,000 people in Louisiana alone, most of them Republican leaders, political candidates, and others challenging white, Democratic office holders. Blacks, especially, feared these terrorist lynchings.

According to NAACP leader Walter Francis White (1893–1955) in his book Rope and Faggot: A Biography of Judge Lynch (1929), 4,951 people were lynched during the forty-six years between 1882 and 1927. These lynchings occurred in forty-four states and in the territory of Alaska. Of these, 3,513 were carried out against black people, which included 76 black women. About three-quarters of all lynchings occurred in Kentucky and the nine states of the Deep South (pp. 267–268).

Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862–1931), a black American journalist who was born a slave, offers examples of mob action that she put together in Lynch Law in Georgia, an 1899 pamphlet compiled from previous accounts in the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution. Nine black men were arrested near Palmetto, Georgia, in 1899 and were accused of burning three houses. A mob of more than one hundred white men, masked and armed with Winchesters, shotguns, and pistols, broke into the town jail and shot to death five black male prisoners, wounded two, and believed that they had killed nine; in fact, two escaped without wounds. Wells-Barnett describes another incident, this time in Newnan, Georgia. Samuel Hose, a black man, was accused of murdering his employer, Albert Cranford, in a dispute about wages that were owed to him. In addition, Hose was accused of assaulting Mrs. Cranford after ruthlessly tossing her infant to the floor. A Georgia newspaper announced that Hose, when caught, would either be lynched and his body riddled with bullets or that he would be burned at the stake. On 23 April 1899, in view of 2,000 people, Hose was stripped, parts of his body hacked off, and then he was burned on a pyre as he hung. On the following day, another black man, Elijah Strickland, a colored preacher, suffered torture and lynching in the nearby town of Palmetto.

The brutality worked against seventeen-year-old Jesse Washington in 1916 was similarly gruesome. Charged with the bludgeoning of Lucy Fryer, Washington, a black, confessed to rape and murder. The trial started a week later in Waco, Texas. The all-white jury deliberated just four minutes and found him guilty. Courtroom spectators seized Washington and hustled him outside to a mob of some four hundred who threw a chain around his neck. Doused with coal oil, he was lowered onto a burning pyre. The charred body was then placed in a sack, dragged behind an auto, and eventually hung for the public to view.

Perhaps Claude McKay (full name Festus Claudius McKay, 1889–1948) had torturous burnings like these in mind when he penned the poem "The Lynching," which was published in 1922 in James Weldon Johnson's anthology, The Book of American Negro Poetry. McKay initiates the sonnet with these words, "His spirit in smoke ascended to high heaven." This same collection offers two other McKay poems that indirectly attack mob bigotry: "If We Must Die," and "To the White Fiends."

Bruce E. Baker in his essay "North Carolina Lynching Ballads" (1997) studies three ballads recounting the "folk culture of lynching" (p. 220). "The Death of Emma Hartsell" (1898) offers a fear-filled ballad depicting the murder of a twelve-year-old white girl and the subsequent lynching of two black men, Tom Johnson and Joe Kizer, in Concord, North Carolina. The ballad form simplifies, concentrates, and renders the incident memorable. Like folk tales, the songs skip situational factors or racial conflict and enshrine the event as timeless. The lynching victims in these songs were not always black. One North Carolina ballad recounts Alec Whitley, a white man of violence lynched for immorality. And the ballad "J. V. Johnson" refers to lynching a white man who murdered his own brother-in-law.

Women also suffered lynching. In May of 1918 in Valdosta, Georgia, Mary Turner, a black woman eight months pregnant, threatened to seek justice against the vigilantes who had previously lynched her husband. As a result, she was tied, hung upside down, doused with gasoline and burned. While she was yet alive, a man cut open her abdomen. The infant fetus had its head crushed and the mob riddled Mary's body with bullets.


While the majority of lynchings took place in the South and victimized blacks, the practice was also carried out in other parts of the country and targeted other people. On 28 October 1889, Katsu Goto from Japan was a lynching victim in Honokaa, Hawaii. Goto was part of a group of eight people who were accused of setting a fire. He was hanged to death from a telephone pole before he could stand trial. Four men were found guilty of his death, and they served time in prison.

On 14 March 1891 a mob stormed a jail in New Orleans where eleven Sicilian immigrants were incarcerated after being accused of killing the city's police commissioner. A jury had found these men not guilty, yet authorities incited a mob to violence. The mob stormed the jail and shot and killed the victims. Richard Gambino graphically describes this event in Vendetta: The True Story of the Largest Lynching in U.S. History (1998).

In 1920 a lynching occurred in Minnesota, a northern state that had not experienced many such events. It came about after an incident at a circus in Duluth. Nineteen-year-old Irene Tusken claimed that six black circus workers threatened her and her male escort with guns and that she was raped by the black men. In the morning, the doctor found no physical indication that Tusken had been raped, nor could the police verify claims of rape. Police jailed six black circus laborers in the Duluth County Jail. The newspapers reported the affair. A large mob formed at the jail, and soon it forcibly entered, using rails, timbers, and stones to rip open doors and cells. Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie were marched to a light pole, beaten, and hung. Kingsblood Royal (1947) by Sinclair Lewis (1885–1951) concerns racial prejudice set in a fictional city of Minnesota that resembles Duluth. This novel attacks racism and condemns lynching. Years later, Bob Dylan (1941–), who was born in Duluth, wrote and recorded the song "Desolation Row" (1965) that suggests this lynching with the mention of a circus, a spreading riot, a police commissioner wavering in his duty, and a hanging. Finally, Michael Fedo wrote a historical novel of this tragic affair, "They Was Just Niggers" (1979), which was later published under the title The Lynchings in Duluth.


The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (1902) by Owen Wister (1860–1938) established the western novel and became popular as exalting the individualistic hero cowboy. The Virginian presides over the mob hanging of his friend Steve, found guilty of rustling cattle. Wister sees this type of swift justice as necessary in a Wyoming territory where the law resides a long way off. In Wister's novel Lady Baltimore (1906), the lady says that claims of the "Republican upholding of Negro equality" are "on the wane." The white race suffers, she says, because it executes people "publicly." "What I'd never do would be to make a show, an entertainment, a circus out of it" (pp. 216–218). Wister thus accepts lynching as necessary but states that it ought not be a spectacle.

Other writers also defended the use of lynching. Thomas Dixon (1864–1946) from North Carolina became well known for his trilogy: The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burden 1865–1900 (1902), The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905), and The Traitor: The Story of the Fall of the Invisible Empire (1907). These novels offer an extremist Southern view of the Reconstruction era, vigorously promote anti-black sentiments, and forcefully support the Ku Klux Klan. In The Clansman, a white Klan chaplain offers a prayer, not for the accused man before him, but for the white women supposedly made fearful by the black murderers. The accused has a trial of sorts and then the Clan murders him.

The Birth of a Nation (1915), an early historical film by D. W. Griffith (1875–1948), is based on Dixon's The Clansman. Like the book, the film supported racist myths about black Americans, using scenes that would cause offense in that era: black legislators legalizing interracial marriage and political campaign signs calling both for marriage between the races and equal civil rights for blacks. The film masterfully employed new cinematic methods to present the Civil War, the Lincoln assassination, and the change, rise, and reuniting of Southern states with the North. But critics recognized it as "black poison," "disgraceful propaganda" (Dray, p. 202); it glorified the Ku Klux Klan and vilified black people. The anti-lynching reformer William Monroe Trotter urged that its showing be prohibited, and he declared on 17 April 1915, "if there is any lynching here in Boston, Mayor Curley will be responsible" (Dray, p. 203). Despite such protests, the film played to packed houses in Boston and across the nation.


The NAACP strongly opposed Griffith's film and as part of its efforts produced Rachel, a three-act drama by Angelina Weld Grimké(1880–1958). The play appeared first in Washington, D.C., at the Myrtilla Miner Normal School in 1916 and served as a means to rally opposition against the motion picture. Griffith himself directed a sequel, Intolerance (1916). Black filmmakers brought forward The Birth of a Race (1918) by Emmett Jay Scott (1873–1957), but it failed to gather enthusiasm. Oscar Micheaux (1884–1951), another black director, offered The Homesteader (1919) and Within Our Gates (1920), which enjoyed more success.

Opposition to lynching had begun much earlier, however. Among the first opponents was Wells-Barnett. Beginning in the late 1880s Wells-Barnett helped publicize lynching incidents throughout the South, using Free Speech, the Memphis paper she coowned, as the forum for most of her writings. After publishing an editorial in 1892 that attacked the myth that black men were a dangerous threat to white women, a mob ransacked the newspaper offices, destroying her printing press. Wells-Barnett relocated to the northern United States but continued her anti-lynching efforts. She published A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892–1893–1894 (1895).

Albion W. Tourgée (1838–1905), a lawyer and writer, vigorously opposed the Ku Klux Klan in his several novels. His A Fool's Errand (1879), which sold more than 200,000 copies, concerned Reconstruction problems and evils in the South. Among other writings, he published a lengthy letter in the New York Tribune that was addressed to an acquaintance in the U.S. Senate. He opens his letter by accusing the Klan of murdering a judge in the grand jury room of the courthouse. He recounts the Klan's beatings and scourgings, offering specific instances in North Carolina counties. He wants federal action: "Put detectives at work to get hold of this whole organization. . . . If we have not pluck enough for this, why then let us just offer our throats to the knife, emasculate ourselves, and be a nation of self-subjugated slaves at once."

In "The United States of Lyncherdom" (1901) Mark Twain (1835–1910) quotes lynching statistics from the Chicago Tribune. Twain bemoans that Missouri has witnessed this terrible crime near Pierce City in the southwestern corner of the state where "the people rose, lynched three negroes—two of them very aged ones—burned out five negro households, and drove thirty negro families into the woods" (p. 140). Twain quotes a telegram from Texas in which a mob procures coal oil to fuel the flames that burn a Negro alive. Calling such events an "epidemic of bloody insanities," Twain asks for "martial personalities" who "can face mobs without flinching" (p. 145) and so end these brutalities.

The cartoonist William A. Rogers used his drawings in Harper's Weekly magazine to demand an end to lynching. In the 8 August 1903 issue, for example, he specifically calls for an end to mob violence against black Americans. Here, the demonic figure of "Lynch Law" wielding a bloody knife, hangman's noose, and torch, succumbs to "The Law" as applied in two northern cities, Evansville, Indiana, and Danville, Illinois.

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) by James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) is a novel about a light-skinned black man able to pass as a white. In the book, Johnson describes the narrator entering a mob scene. Rabid whites coil a chain around the victim and link it to a railroad tie sunk into the ground. The lynchers burn the victim. "He squirmed, he writhed, strained at his chains, then gave out cries and groans that I shall always hear . . . a great wave of humiliation and shame swept over me" (pp. 136, 137).

Walter Van Tilburg Clark (1909–1971) sets The Ox-Bow Incident (1940) in Nevada in 1883. The entire novel concerns lynching, first in the forming of a posse that seeks to hang rustlers and second in that posse's execution of the suspects. The vigilantes hang a family man, an elderly man who is witless, and a Mexican who claims to be unable to speak English. Within an hour of the hanging, the mob finds it has killed innocents and that the ranch hand whom they thought had been murdered is actually alive. The leading lyncher and his son commit suicide. The novel dramatizes turning away from the lynching evil.


A riot lasting three days occurred in Springfield, Illinois, in August 1908, when a white woman claimed to have been violated. The sheriff transferred the accused black man to the jail of a neighboring town, which prevented him from being victimized, but mobs lynched two other blacks in Springfield, attacked houses in the African American section of town, and dragged blacks from homes and streetcars. National Guard troops did restore order, but by then four whites and two blacks had been killed. This racial tragedy in the home city of Abraham Lincoln staggered white people. The following year in New York City, whites gathered with prominent blacks to establish the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

African American William Edward Burghardt (W. E. B.) Du Bois (1868–1963) became the leader of the organization, and he campaigned for the immediate equality of black people in the NAACP's periodical The Crisis. Walter White (1893–1955) was one of the association's most diligent activists in regard to lynching. Although his blond hair and blue eyes indicated that he had a high percentage of white ancestry, he chose his bit of African American heritage to arrange his life. His novel The Fire in the Flint (1924) depicts a young black man who returns with a medical degree from Harvard to his home in the South. There, he defies racism and confronts the Klan. White's Rope and Faggott: A Biography of Judge Lynch became the best known of his several writings that opposed lynching. White was also active in seeking legal remedies to lynching, throwing the NAACP's support behind the Dyer Bill in 1919. Despite his efforts, a federal anti-lynching measure was never made law. Earlier congressional bills had sought to create commissions to investigate the problem. Senator John Logan of Illinois sponsored such a bill in 1884, and Representative Henry Blair from New Hampshire proposed another in 1890. A North Carolina congressperson offered an anti-lynching bill in 1900. None of these measures passed.

The NAACP's efforts to end lynching met with success. In 1911, shortly after the association began its work, there were 71 lynchings; by the time of World War II, the practice had been abolished. These efforts are detailed by Robert L. Zangrando in The NAACP Crusade against Lynching, 1909 to 1950 (1980).

Lynching declined after World War I for several reasons. Law enforcement improved. Newspapers condemned such mob action. Organizations such as the NAACP became more effective in their efforts. Black people offered even armed resistance and some blacks left the South and its segregation that led to lynching. Black writers of the Harlem Renaissance implicitly challenged the white supremacist view that underlay lynching.

The Tuskegee Institute ended its keeping of lynching records, which had started in 1882. In 1962 the Institute found no more accounts of such violence.

See alsoBlacks; Jim Crow; Ku Klux Klan; Reconstruction; Violence


Primary Works

Clark, Walter Van Tilburg. The Ox-Bow Incident. New York: Random House, 1940.

Dixon, Thomas. The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. New York: Doubleday, Page, 1905.

Dixon, Thomas. The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burden, 1865–1900. New York: Doubleday, Page, 1902.

Dixon, Thomas, Jr. The Traitor: A Story of the Fall of the Invisible Empire. New York: Doubleday, Page, 1907.

Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an ExColored Man. 1912. Edited by William L. Andrews. New York: Penguin, 1990.

Johnson, James Weldon, ed. The Book of American Negro Poetry. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1922.

Lewis, Sinclair. Kingsblood Royal. New York: Random House, 1947.

Tourgée, Albion. "On the KKK." New York Tribune, May 1870.

Wells-Barnett, Ida B. Lynch Law in Georgia. Chicago: This pamphlet is circulated by Chicago Colored Citizens . . . , 1899.

Wells-Barnett, Ida B. A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892–1893–1894. Chicago: Donohue and Henneberry, 1895.

White, Walter Francis. The Fire in the Flint. 1924. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.

White, Walter Francis. Rope and Faggot: A Biography of Judge Lynch. 1929. New York: Arno Press, 1969.

Wister, Owen. The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains. London: Macmillan, 1902.

Wister, Owen. Lady Baltimore. 1906. Ridgewood, N.J.: Gregg Press, 1968.

Secondary Works

Baker, Bruce E. "North Carolina Lynching Ballads." In Under Sentence of Death: Lynching in the South, edited by W. Fitzhugh Brundage, pp. 219–245. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

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

Fedo, Michael. The Lynchings in Duluth. Duluth: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2000.

Gambino, Richard. Vendetta: The True Story of the Largest Lynching in U.S. History. Toronto: Guernica, 1998.

Hatch, James V., ed. Black Theater U.S.A: Forty-five Plays by Black Americans, 1847–1974. New York: Free Press, 1974.

Oggel, L. Terry. "Speaking Out About Race: 'The United States of Lyncherdom' Clemens Really Wrote." In Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies 25, edited by Jack Salzman, pp. 115–158. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Zangrando, Robert L. The NAACP Crusade Against Lynching, 1909 to 1950. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980.

Emmett H. Carroll


views updated Jun 08 2018


Although rooted in an older and broader tradition of vigilantism, the term lynching is primarily associated with the killing of African Americans by white mobs in the period from the Civil War to the middle of the twentieth century. By most accounts, the practice originated on the Revolutionary War frontier when Colonel Charles Lynch and other prominent citizens of Bedford County, Virginia, organized informally to apprehend and punish Tories and other lawless elements throughout the community.

Lynching in Antebellum America

"Lynch law" subsequently spread to other parts of the country, but it became especially prevalent in less-settled frontier areas with poorly developed legal institutions. Initially, lynch mobs punished alleged lawbreakers and enforced community mores through whippings, tarring and feathering, and, on occasion, extralegal executions by hanging or shooting. Victims were mostly white and

ranged from outlaws and horse thieves in frontier areas to Catholics, immigrants, and abolitionists in northern cities.

Blacks were by no means immune to mob action and sometimes received harsher treatment than white victims, but lynching had not yet attained its special association with race. Even under slavery, the lynching of blacks was relatively infrequent. The economic self-interest and paternalistic attitudes of masters, combined with a rigid system of slave control, normally militated against widespread mob violence against slaves, although in the aftermath of slave rebellions, mobs sought out and ruthlessly punished suspected conspirators.

Lynching after the Civil War

After the Civil War, lynching spread rapidly and became a systematic feature of the southern system of white supremacy. Mob-inflicted deaths increased during Reconstruction as southern whites resorted to violence to restore white control over ex-slaves. The practice reached epidemic proportions in the late 1880s and 1890s, averaging more than 150 incidents per year in the latter decade, and began to decline after the turn of the century.

Overall, between 1882, when the Chicago Tribune began recording lynchings, and 1968, an estimated 4,742 persons died at the hands of lynch mobs. Although whites continued to be victimized on occasion, African-American men and women accounted for the overwhelming majority (some 72 percent) of known lynchings after 1882. By the 1920s, 90 percent of all victims were black, and 95 percent of all lynchings occurred in southern states.

Southern whites justified lynching as a necessary response to black crime and an inefficient legal system, but virtually any perceived transgression of the racial boundaries or threat to the system of white supremacy could provoke mob action. The alleged offenses of lynching victims ranged from such actual crimes as murder, assault, theft, arson, and rape to such trivial breaches of the informal etiquette of race as "disrespect" toward whites and failing to give way to whites on the sidewalks.

The most frequent justification, however, was the charge of rape or sexual assault of white women by black men. Although fewer than 26 percent of all lynchings involved even the allegation of sexual assault, the mythology of rape and images of the "black beast" despoiling white womanhood dominated the southern rationale for lynching by the 1890s and inflamed mobs to ever-increasing brutality.

The Nature of Lynchings

Lynchings took various forms, ranging from hangings and shootings administered by small groups of men in secret, to posses meting out summary justice at the conclusion of a manhunt, to large public spectacles with broad community participation. The classic public lynchings for which the South became so notorious always involved torture and mutilation and ended in death for the victim, either by hanging, or, increasingly, by being burned alive. The lynching ritual characteristically included prior notice of the event, the selection of a symbolically significant location, and the gathering of a large crowd of onlookers, including women and children.

Mobs typically sought to elicit confessions from their victims and frequently allowed them to pray before the final act of the drama. Lynchers often left the bullet-ridden bodies of hanging victims on public display as a warning to other potential transgressors. In both hangings and

burnings, mobs tortured, mutilated, castrated (in the case of males), and even dismembered their victims. The victim of the alleged crime or a victim's close relative often played a prominent role in the ritual. A particularly gruesome feature of lynchings was the taking of souvenirs in the form of body pieces, bone fragments salvaged from the ashes, or photographs.

The social composition of southern mobs remains obscure. Some have argued that lynch mobs were composed primarily of lower-class whites, but most scholars agree that the upper class and community leaders at the very least condoned the mob's actions and not uncommonly were themselves participants. Police were rarely effective in preventing lynchings, even when they tried, and mob members were almost never identified and prosecuted. Authorities typically attributed lynchings to "persons unknown."

The Social Forces behind Lynching

Lynching was ultimately a product of racism and the caste system it sustained, but social, economic, and political conditions shaped the rhythms and geographical distribution of the practice. Early twentieth-century investigators linked lynchings to such factors as rural isolation, poorly developed legal institutions, broad economic fluctuations, the price of cotton, the ratio of blacks to whites in the population, the structure of county government, revivalism, and the seasonality of southern crops. In his classic study The Tragedy of Lynching (1933), Arthur Raper concluded that lynchings were most likely to occur in the poorest, most sparsely populated southern counties, and especially in recently settled ones where blacks constituted less than 25 percent of the population.

Extending these earlier findings, modern social scientists have viewed lynching variously as a form of "scapegoating"

in which white aggression and frustration was displaced onto blacks during periods of economic decline, either as a consequence of direct economic competition between whites and blacks or as a manifestation of repressive justice in response to a "boundary crisis" precipitated by Populist Party efforts to unite lower-class whites and blacks in the 1890s.

While acknowledging some connection between lynching and populism, historians generally attribute the sudden emergence of lynching as a prominent feature of race relations in the 1880s and 1890s to broader and more complex forces. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall has argued that in addition to being a form of "repressive justice" designed to preserve the caste system, lynching served to dramatize "hierarchical power relationships based on gender and race" (Hall, 1979, p. 156). It reinforced racial boundaries for black men and helped maintain caste solidarity for whites generally, but it also reinforced notions of female vulnerability and subordination in a patriarchal society. Joel Williamson (1984) also stressed the association between lynching and sex roles, but he attributed the growth

of lynching in the late nineteenth century to the convergence of a radical strain of racism, deep-seated economic trouble, and white male anxiety over the perceived erosion of their ability to provide materially for their women and families. The pathological obsession with the black rapist, and the firestorm of lynchings it produced in the 1890s, thus constituted a kind of "psychic compensation" for male feelings of inadequacy (Williamson, 1984, p. 115). Edward L. Ayers traces the epidemic of lynchings to a "widespread and multifaceted crisis" rooted in the economic depression of the 1890s. That depression contributed to the growth of crime and vagrancy, particularly among blacks, thereby feeding the submerged fears and anxieties of southern whites (Ayers, 1984, pp. 250253).

Lynching in the Twentieth Century

The number of lynchings declined gradually in the first three decades of the twentieth century, dropped dramatically after the early 1930s, but continued sporadically well into the 1950s. The emergence of vocal opposition to lynching, both inside and outside the South, contributed to its demise, as did fundamental changes in southern society and in race relations. Some blacks, and a few white liberals, spoke out against the horrors of lynching in the late nineteenth century, most notably Ida B. Wells (18621931), a black woman activist from Memphis who sought to mobilize public opinion against mob violence through newspaper editorials and lectures. After 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), under the leadership of W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, and others, investigated and publicized lynchings, pressured political leaders to speak out, and lobbied for antilynching legislation. Some states passed laws against lynching, but they were largely ineffective. Despite decades of effort, and near success in 1922, 1937, and 1940, no federal antilynching legislation was ever enacted. Within the South, opposition to lynching centered on two interracial organizations: the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, founded in 1919, and the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, founded by Jessie Daniel Ames in 1930.

The modernization of southern society and the institutionalization of other forms of repression also hastened the decline of lynching. New roads, electricity, telephones, automobiles, and other social changes transformed the most isolated and lynching-prone areas of the South. Business leaders worked to change the violent image of the region in an effort to encourage investment and economic development. And law enforcement officials became more effective in preventing lynchings. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, furthermore, the emergence of alternative forms of racial controlsegregation, disfranchisement, and tenant farmingmade lynching less essential to the preservation of white supremacy.

There is also evidence that the decline of lynching was accompanied by an increase in "legal" executions of blacks in the South, often with the mere formality of a trial, and that other forms of violence against blacks increased as the incidence of lynching waned in the twentieth century. African Americans would continue to be killed in the name of white supremacy, particularly at the height of the civil rights movement, but lynching, in the classic sense of the earlier era, appears to have ended with the murder of Emmett Till in 1955 and of Mack Charles Parker in 1959.

In 2005 Senators Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and George Allen from Virginia raised a proposal to apologize for the Senate's failure to pass antilynching legislation. The nonbinding proposal, formally apologizing to victims of lynching and their families, was passed in the U.S. Senate without objection in June 2005.

See also National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Till, Emmett


Ayers, Edward L. Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the Nineteenth-Century South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd. Revolt against Chivalry: Jessie Daniel Ames and the Women's Campaign against Lynching. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.

McGovern, James R. Anatomy of a Lynching: The Killing of Claude Neal. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.

Raper, Arthur F. The Tragedy of Lynching. 1933. Reprint, New York, 1969.

Tolnay, Stewart Emory, and E. M. Beck. A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 18821930. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.

Wells-Barnett, Ida B. On Lynchings. 1892. Reprint, Amherst N.Y.: Humanity Books, 2002.

Whitfield, Stephen J. A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till. New York: Free Press, 1988.

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

Zangrando, Robert L. The NAACP Crusade against Lynching, 1909-1950. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980.

l. ray gunn (1996)
Updated bibliography


views updated May 18 2018


Rooted in the broader tradition of vigilantism, the word lynching is primarily associated with the killing of African Americans by white mobs from the Civil War to the late twentieth century. At the height of lynchings in the United States, between 1882 and 1956, more than 4,700 men, women, and children were killed, about 80 percent of them black. In particular, lynching became an integral part of social control in the South, where whites sought to maintain their traditional authority and deny African Americans basic political, social, and economic freedoms. Although the practice declined in the face of gains made during and after the Civil Rights era, occasional lynchings continued up to the turn of the twenty-first century.

Lynching originated in Bedford County, Virginia, around the time of the Revolutionary War when Colonel Charles Lynch and other white males organized informally to apprehend and punish Tories and other lawless elements. The term "lynch law" spread throughout the American frontier as lawbreakers were punished with summary whippings, tarring and feathering, and occasionally extralegal hangings or shootings in areas where organized legal systems were scarce. Victims were mostly white and ranged from petty criminals to Catholics and immigrants. After the 1830s, lynchings began to assume a more racial tone in the North in the form of race riots and other mob actions staged in opposition to the movement to end slavery.

In the South, lynching did not gain its special association with race until after the Emancipation Proclamation. The economic self-interest of white masters made it illogical for them to kill or seriously harm their slaves, especially in light of the rigid system of slave control then in existence. Exceptions were made in the cases of slave rebellions when white mobs actively sought out and killed suspected African-American participants. Beginning in the Reconstruction Era, freed blacks became more common targets of lynch mobs as justification for the protection of white supremacy, for misdeeds from murder to talking back to whites or other violations of strict social mores. The mythical desire of African-American men to rape white women accounted for less than one-quarter of all lynchings, and that estimate does not take into account the Southern definition of rape which included all sexual relations between the races. Still, white mobs lynched black men accused of rape in such far northern states as Maine, Minnesota, and Washington.

Lynching became an almost wholly southern phenomenon by the turn of the twentieth century. Most lynchings involved secret hangings and shootings administered by small groups of white men in mainly rural areas. Public lynchings in the South came to involve torture and mutilation and frequently included death by being burned alive instead of strangulation. The public ritual included prior notice of the event, selection of a symbolically significant location, and the presence of a large crowd that included women, children, and even photographers. A black school teacher-turned-journalist, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, began publicizing southern lynchings in her newspaper, the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, in 1892 and until she left the South out of fear for her personal safety. At least a half-dozen black southern women, including a pregnant Georgia woman named Mary Turner and a 13-year-old nanny named Mildrey Brown, were lynched in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the South. The Chicago Tribune began a tally of lynchings in 1882 that it continued until 1968. It was joined by Crisis, the official publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), in 1912, in a list that came to be called "The Shame of America."

The NAACP began investigating individual lynching cases during World War I. One of the more prominent instances involved Leo Frank, a Jewish factory supervisor who was lynched in 1915 near Marietta, Georgia, for allegedly murdering a 13-year-old white Atlanta girl, Mary Phagan. The identities of the real killer and lynch mob participants remained under speculation and the incident was reexamined in President John F. Kennedy's 1956 Pulitzer-prize winning book, Profiles in Courage and in a short-lived Broadway musical, Parade, in the late 1990s. Other whites and immigrants were lynched by southern mobs, including 11 Italian immigrants in New Orleans in 1891 and 26 Mexicans and Mexican Americans in Texas and New Mexico in 1915. The NAACP's first report, Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889-1918, released in the race riot year of 1919, influenced the United States House of Representatives to approve by a vote of 230 to 119 the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill in 1922. The legislation, introduced by Representative L. C. Dyer of Missouri, asserted the federal government's right to protect individual rights and anticipated the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The United States Senate, dominated by southerners such as John Sharp Williams and Pat Harrison of Mississippi, prevented the Dyer Bill from coming to a vote.

Walter Francis White, the NAACP's executive director, published additional lynching research in his 1929 Rope and Faggot: A Legal Assault on Lynching. Various Congressional efforts were made during the 1930s and 1940s, including the 1934 Costigan-Wagner Anti-Lynching Act. Southern legislators, led by Mississippi's Theodore G. Bilbo, filibustered the bill to death. Meanwhile, nine black youths known as the Scotsboro Nine were legally lynched in Alabama in 1931 after they were convicted of the rape of two white women by an all-white jury. There were more than 3,000 hastily-tried "legal" lynchings in the United States between 1880 and 1960 that are not included in the total number of "illegal" lynchings.

The number of lynchings in the South declined after 1935 but never ceased altogether. Southerners were able to prevent serious legislation until the 1960s but the federal courts, led by the United States Supreme Court in the 1951 Williams v. United States, reaf-firmed that federal law, including the Civil War-era Fourteenth Amendment, forbid local and state law enforcement officials from depriving citizens of individual rights. Vocal opposition to lynching from inside and outside of the South contributed to its decline. Actor Paul Robeson met with President Harry Truman as part of a crusade to end lynching in 1946. Nevertheless, sporadic lynchings continued. A 14-year-old Chicago youth, Emmett Till, was murdered in 1955 in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman while a black veteran, Mack Charles Parker, was shot to death in the same state in 1959 while awaiting trial for the alleged rape of a white woman.

A Ku Klux Klansman, Henry Francis Hays, was convicted and executed for the random lynching of a 19-year-old African-American man, Michael Donald, in Mobile, Alabama, in 1981. The victim's mother, Beulah Mae Donald, won a $7 million civil suit against the Klan in 1987 for the wrongful death of her son, the first such case in the Klan's long history. In 1998, a 49-year-old unemployed African-American man, James Byrd, Jr., was chained and dragged to his death behind a pickup truck in Jasper, Texas, in what authorities termed a "backwoods lynching." And a "Redneck Shop" opened in Laurens, South Carolina, in 1996, specializing in Ku Klux Klan memorabilia including lynching photographs and t-shirts reading "Original Boys in the Hood." Clearly racism, the root cause of lynching, remains in America.

—Richard Digby-Junger

Further Reading:

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

Duggan, Paul. "'That Ain't the Boy I Knew'; How Did 'Regular Kid'Become Man Accused in Grisly Race Killing?" Washington Post. February 19, 1999, A6.

Edwards, Willard. "Robeson's Talk of Lynch Action Angers Truman." Chicago Daily Tribune. September 24, 1946, 5.

Finkelman, Paul, editor. Lynching, Racial Violence, and Law. New York, Garland Press, 1992.

Kovaleski, Serge F. "South Carolina's Trouble in a Hood: Is Old Cinema Featuring KKK's Past or the Rebirth of a Hateful Nation?" Washington Post. May 30, 1996, A3.

Massey, James L., and Martha A. Myers. "Patterns of Repressive Social Control in Post-Reconstruction Georgia, 1882-1935." Social Forces. Vol. 68, 458-88.

McMurry, Linda O. To Keep the Waters Troubled: The Life of Ida B. Wells. New York, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Zangrando, Robert L. The NAACP Crusade Against Lynching, 1909-1950. Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1980.

Zuckerman, Dianne. "Murder Stories: Lynchings of Black Women Recounted." Denver Post. March 19, 1999, E30.


views updated May 09 2018


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.


Civil Rights Movement; Slavery; Vigilantism.


views updated May 23 2018


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.


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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With the legalization of so-called Jim Crow laws in the American South that encouraged racism and segregation (separation of African Americans from whites), the year 1890 ushered in another violation of justice: the phenomenon of lynching (unlawful hanging by rope until death).

In the past, white supremacy groups (who believed other races to be inferior to whites) like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) sometimes used lynching as a way to try to control and threaten African American communities and populations. Mostly, the KKK tried to keep the African American race submissive by restricting their right and ability to vote. Even if the law permitted them to vote, the KKK terrorized African Americans into giving up that right in order to stay alive. Those who refused to be intimidated often were the victims of KKK violence and torture.

Lynching gained momentum beginning in 1890. Historians estimate that 233 lynchings took place between 1880 and 1884, and 381 from 1885 to 1889. From 1890 to 1894 lynchings hit an all-time high for the century of 611.

Antilynching campaign gains momentum

Local and state governments did nothing to deter the lynchings of the South. One brave woman, a teacher named Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862–1931), became known throughout the nation as leader of the antilynching campaign. Born in Mississippi , Wells-Barnett experienced the Jim Crow laws firsthand. When a conductor tried to force Wells-Barnett to give up her first-class accommodations and move to the Jim Crow car of the train, she refused. As the conductor tried to physically remove her, Wells-Barnett bit his hand and then was thrown off the train. Although she sued and won, the defendant eventually won in appeals court.

Wells-Barnett became co-owner of an African American newspaper in Memphis, Tennessee , called The Free Speech & Headlight. Her editorials and essays spoke out against racism and discrimination, and her writing got her fired from her teaching job. She turned to writing full time.

In 1892, three people, one a good friend of Wells-Barnett's, were lynched while defending their grocery store from white attackers who wanted to put the store out of business. In the scuffle, one of the owners shot one of the attackers. An outraged Wells-Barnett criticized the event in her newspaper and specifically discussed the evils of lynching. She encouraged African Americans to leave town. While out of town herself, a white mob ransacked and destroyed her newspaper office and warned her not to return. Wells-Barnett took her campaign to England, where she founded the National Afro-American Council and served as chairman of its Anti-Lynching Bureau. Wells-Barnett eventually helped establish the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Lynching continued to be used as a terrorist weapon well into the twentieth century. Across the nation, nearly five thousand African Americans were lynched between the mid-1800s and 1955. Most of these victims were murdered because they were political activists or labor organizers. Others simply violated unspoken laws of how whites expected African Americans to behave.


views updated Jun 11 2018

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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