It’s been widely accepted that lynching was
a systematic method of a social and racial weapon intended to instil terror and
fear into the psyche of the average black American, forcing them into submission
and helping to cement their place in the lower rung of the inglorious racial
The ignoble practice became widely predominant through the
southern USA approximately from 1877, which saw the end of post-civil war
reconstruction, through the 1950s.
In a typical lynching scenario, the pay
card usually involved blacks being accused of often faux criminal activities,
then arrested, followed by a marauding gang of lynch mob descending on the
hapless victim to exact street justice
even before an often tacit law enforcement took control of the situation.
Black victims often faced all forms of
physical abuse, which usually culminated in a public hanging on a tree and then
set ablaze. In the worst case scenarios, victims will be cut to pieces, with
parts of their remains taken apart and burnt as souvenirs.
In the large number of cases, the jungle
justice mob was tacitly enabled by the white-dominated law enforcement system.
Often, law enforcement officers will knowingly leave a black inmate's jail cell
unprotected even after a lynching rumour is in circulation, allowing the lynch
mob to reach the victim even before they got a chance at the judicial process.
Triggered A Lynching?
One of the most virulent triggers for lynch
cases was the occasional but often faux claims of sexual contact by any black
man against a white woman. The typical imaginary of the hyperactive black male
and the helplessly pure white woman persisted in the white public
consciousness, and remained a popular trope used by white supremacists.
Data sourced from Equal Justice Initiative (EJI)
indicates that approximately 25% of victims of lynching were those accused of
having sexual contact with white women. Of those, nearly 30% were accused of
According to historian Howard Smead in his
Justice: The Lynching of Mack Charles Parker, the lynch mob “turned the act
into a symbolic rite in which the black victim became the representative of his
race and, as such, was being disciplined for more than a single crime … The
deadly act was [a] warning [to] the black population not to challenge the
supremacy of the white race.”
Many Lynching Took Place in America?
Due to the often secretive nature of most
lynching, which often involved summary executions outside the ambit of the law,
it was hard to keep track of the numbers and statistics. This has, according to
most historians, led to the underreporting of most lynching cases.
However, the most comprehensive and
up-to-date data, according to the Tuskegee Institute, is 4,743 victims who lost
their lives at the hands of white lynch mobs in the United States between the years 1881 and 1968. Of
those, 3,446, which is nearly three quarters of those lynched, were blacks.
This numbers have been relied upon by the
EJI in compiling its own numbers, and from others sources, including newspaper
archives and other historical records to arrive at a total number of 4,084
race-related terror lynching in at least 12 southern states between the end of
the Reconstruction Era in 1877 and 1950, and another 300 victims in other
states across the country.
While the Tuskegee data is more inclusive,
EJI numbers tend to exclude lynching incidents that they consider acts of mob
violence that was the result of actual and legitimate criminal trial procedures
or that were, in their words, “were committed against non-minorities without
the threat of terror”.
Did Most Lynchings Take Place?
The most sickening reality of the various
lynchings were the degree to which white Americans accepted it as normal, not
as a necessary evil or as a means of law enforcement, but as a welcome means of
justice that elucidated joy and celebrations.
In typical lynching scenarios, whole white
families came together in a kind of family union, united by the bizarre
spectacle of watching a black man hanging lifelessly on a tree. An editorial in
the Raleigh News and Observer captured it succinctly: ‘It was the show offthe
countryside – a very popular show. Men joked loudly at the sight of the
bleeding body … girls giggled as the flies fed on the blood that dripped from
the Negro’s nose.”
To add to the gory scene, victims of
lynchings were often cut to pieces into some weird form of human trophy and the
parts shared among mob members.
WEB Du Bois, in his autobiography, writes
of the 1899 mob lynching of one Sam Hose in Georgia. According to his account,
the knuckles of the victim were put on display at a local store on Mitchell
Street in Alabama and even a piece of the victims heart and liver were given as
gifts to the state governor.
Also, in the 1931 lynching of Raymond Gunn
in Maryville, Missouri, the frantic crowd, put at between 2,000 – 4,000, were
composed of a quarter women and hundreds of children attendance. Arthur
Raper in The Tragedy of Lynching wrote that one woman “held her little girl
up so she could get a better view of the naked Negro blazing on the roof”.
When the fire died down, hundreds of
spectators went about poking at his ashes in search of souvenirs. According to
Raper, “the charred remains of the victim were divided piece by piece”.
Was The Political Context Then?
Lynching was just one of the many
expressions of the white-led acts of terrorism against the black minority in
America at the turn of the 19th century. Back in the days of the
plantation, white planters have all resorted to the use of malevolent and
highly visible acts of violence against their slaves just to try to put down
any act of insubordination or insurrection.
In 1811, after a failed slave uprising just
outside of New Orleans, the roads leading up to the various plantations were
strewn with the decapitated heads of slaves, many of whom the whites were to
later admit were innocent of the uprising.
One thing though: lynching wasn’t
particular to the south of the country. For instance, in 1712, the British
colonial authorities in New York
manacled, burned and broke on the wheel 18 enslaved blacks who were accused
of planning to press for their freedom.
White mobs also periodically threated
communities of free blacks with race riots and pogroms throughout much of the
19th century and right into the lynching era. Typically was the
complete destruction of the Tulsa, Oklahoma neighbourhood of Greenwood in 1921,
following false rumours of a black man raping a while woman in a lift.
Sometimes referred to as the “Black Wall Street”, the Greenwood neighbourhood
was noted for its economic vibrancy before the decimation. According to some
estimates, it is believed that at least between 100 to 300 blacks were
massacred by white mobs just in a couple of hours.
People Face Punishment For Engaging in Lynchings?
The overall majority of lynching
perpetrators were not arrested or made to face trial. This is because, in most
cases, they had the tacit approval and blessing of the law enforcement system
of the day, and also because they often had hundreds of people engaged in the
act. However, punishment were sometimes meted out to perpetrators, although in
most cases, lynchers were not tried for lynching but for lesser crimes of
arson, rioting or some other misdemeanour.
and How Did Lynching Come to An End?
Lynchings gradually wound down during the
middle of the 20th century with the coming of the civil rights
Led by women organisations, anti-lynching
efforts gradually gained momentum, helping to generate overwhelming support
from whites, eventually leading to an anti-lynching bill in 1937, although such
legislation was hampered by filibusters from southern Democrats in the Senate.
Another game-changer was the great
migrations o black people from the south into major urban centres in the north
and west. More than 6 million blacks, pushed by racial terror and dwindling
agricultural outputs and a surfeit of industrial job opportunities, migrated to
other economically viable parts of the country in search of employment.
Despite the shift in thinking and action
over time, the spectre of ritual back death as public affair did not end with
the lynching era. Even till this day, black deaths at the hand of the
white-dominated system is still seen as a normal occurrence and not something
to be abhorred of frowned upon.
Below is a list of some lynching victims,
the vast majority of whom were African Americans: