Lynchings, illegal killings performed by groups of people under service to justice, race, or tradition, are a phenomenon seen across human history, from ancient cultures through contemporary ones, in pre-modern and modern Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Across cultures and eras, mobs have perpetrated lynchings in order to punish what they have perceived as behavior that violates societal norms. The definition of deviant behavior varies widely across cultural contexts, but most commonly lynch mobs have collectively murdered those they have accused of transgressions such as murder, rape, theft, the crossing of racial boundaries, or witchcraft. Roberta Senechal de la Roche argues in “The Sociogenesis of Lynching” (1997) that lynchings are more likely to occur in times and places where great social distance exists between deviants and those offended by their behavior. Lynchings have meaning as performances of collective violence, with mobs resorting to varying degrees of ritual, such as selecting a site of symbolic significance for a mob execution, the desecration of a victim’s body, or taking trophies or affixing signs to a victim’s corpse. With such ritualistic punishment, mobs have sought to emphasize particular values and the cleansing of a community of a victim’s alleged offense.
In the last several centuries, lynchings have arisen amid cultural conflict over changing legal systems, particularly when certain social groups have perceived themselves as alienated from or unprotected by the formal legal system. This was the case in the United States in the early to mid-nineteenth century, when lynching arose south and west of the Allegheny Mountains amid profound shifts in understandings of law and the criminal justice system. On the southern, midwestern, and far western frontiers of the United States in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, white Americans seized upon lethal group violence unsanctioned by law—particularly hangings—to enforce mandates of racial and class hierarchy and to pull into definition tenuous and ill-defined understandings of social order and community. Collectively murdering Native Americans, Mexicans, African American slaves and free blacks, and working-class, nonlanded whites, white Americans rejected growing due-process legal reforms that offered the promise of fairness to the unpopular and powerless by protecting the rights of those accused of crimes. Invoking popular sovereignty, a notion stemming from the American Revolution that government was rooted in the people and could be reclaimed by them if their life, liberty, and property were threatened, lynchers imitated customary public punishments, the pillory and the gallows, even as reformers sought to abolish those institutions on grounds of humanitarianism and the maintenance of public order.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the ranks of lynchers included rural landholding elites and members of the rural and urban working classes. Significant numbers of lynchings occurred in the American West and Midwest. On the southwest borderlands of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, lynchers killed hundreds of Mexicans following the American conquest of those territories in the mid-nineteenth century and during the era of the Mexican Revolution in the 1910s. Beyond racial animosities, lynchings in the West and Midwest in the nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth centuries were motivated by criminal justice concerns and class prejudices revolving around the landed elite’s protection of property on the range. For instance, in California between 1875 and 1947, lynch mobs killed thirty-five whites, fifteen Mexicans, nine Native Americans, three Chinese, and two African Americans. In Iowa during the same era, by contrast, lynchers murdered twenty-three white men and one Native American.
However, the vast majority of lynchings in the United States occurred in the South, where mobs killed at least 2,805 persons, 2,462 of them African American, between 1882 and 1930. Stewart E. Tolnay and E. M. Beck (1995) document the leading states for lynching as Mississippi (452 victims), Georgia (381), and Louisiana (274). In the South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, lynching became a dramatic and frequent means for whites to seek to assert racial hierarchy over African Americans. Lynchings were concentrated in Cotton Belt and Gulf Plain counties that had seen significant recent black in-migration and where African Americans composed from half to three-fourths of the population. Lynchings often stemmed from violent disputes in which African American laborers had resisted the authority of planter-class whites or the indignities of the emerging Jim Crow system that segregated blacks from whites in public spaces. In some Cotton Belt jurisdictions, such as Caddo, Bossier, and Ouachita parishes in Louisiana, whites completely abandoned formal criminal justice institutions in favor of rampant lynching violence that reaffirmed white supremacy. In another social setting that became conducive to lynching, the growth of towns and cities mixed whites and blacks from different parts of the South. In these novel urban locales, thousands of whites sometimes participated in highly ritualistic lynchings of African Americans, as for example in the mob execution of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas, on May 15, 1916.
Lynchings waned in the early to middle decades of the twentieth century, as antilynching advocates such as Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862–1931), the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and Jessie Daniel Ames (1883–1972) protested the injustices of mob violence. During the same decades, a significant southern, white middle class developed that opposed lynching and placed its faith instead in formal law, especially the death penalty. The U.S. House of Representatives passed several antilynching laws, but these were defeated in the U.S. Senate (on June 13, 2005, the Senate approved a resolution apologizing to the descendants of lynching victims for its historical failure to enact anti-lynching legislation). Brief surges in lynchings in and outside of the South during World War I (1914–1918), the Great Depression, and World War II (1939–1945) raised fears that the practice could be reviving. However, lynching lost its public face in succeeding decades and went underground. In the latter decades of the twentieth century, small groups of whites murdered African Americans such as Emmett Till in northern Mississippi in August 1955; Michael Donald in Mobile, Alabama, in March 1981; and James Byrd Jr., in Jasper, Texas, in June 1998; as well as civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney in Neshoba County, Mississippi, in June 1964.
In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, lynchings occurred in such places as Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and the urban United States. In these locales, crowds of people have lethally punished alleged perpetrators of crime and have sought to explain their actions by citing ineffectual, distant, or corrupt criminal justice institutions.
SEE ALSO Jim Crow; Race Relations; Wells-Barnett, Ida B.
Brundage, W. Fitzhugh. 1993. Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880–1930. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Brundage, W. Fitzhugh, ed. 1997. Under Sentence of Death: Lynching in the South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Pfeifer, Michael J. 2004. Rough Justice: Lynching and American Society, 1874–1947. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Senechal de la Roche, Roberta. 1997. The Sociogenesis of Lynching. In Under Sentence of Death: Lynching in the South, ed. W. Fitzhugh Brundage, 48–76. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Tolnay, Stewart E., and E. M. Beck. 1995. A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882–1930. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Michael J. Pfeifer