It’s been widely accepted that lynching was a systematic method of a social and racial weapon intended to instill 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 caste system.
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, it usually involved blacks being accused falsely of criminal activities, then they get arrested, followed by a marauding gang of lynch mob descending on the helpless victim to exact street justice. In many cases, the law enforcement would arrive late to the scene of the crime, and in other cases, they would be reluctant in defending the victim.
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 a 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 inmates jail cell unprotected even after a lynching rumor is in circulation, allowing the lynch mob to reach the victim even before they got a chance at the judicial process.
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 imagery 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 the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) indicate that approximately 25% of victims of lynching were those accused of having sexual contact with white women. Of those, nearly 30% were accused of murder.
According to historian Howard Smead in his book Blood 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.”
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 US lynch mobs 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 were 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”.
The most sickening reality of the various lynchings was 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 of the 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 a 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 victim’s 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 attending. 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”.
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. Typical was the complete destruction of the Tulsa, Oklahoma neighborhood of Greenwood in 1921, following false rumors of a black man raping a white woman in a lift.
Sometimes referred to as the “Black Wall Street”, the Greenwood neighborhood 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.
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, punishments 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 misdemeanor.
Lynchings gradually came to a practical end during the middle of the 20th century with the coming of the civil rights movement. 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 of black people from the south into major urban centers in the north and west. More than 6 million blacks, pushed by racial terror and dwindling agricultural outputs and an abundance 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 specter of ritual black death as public affair did not end with the lynching era. Even to this day, black deaths at the hand of the white-dominated system are 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:
- Hose, Sam
- Joe Coe
- Henry Smith
- Lovejoy, Elijah
- Miller, Amos
- Taylor, Jim
- Jones, David
- Grizzard, Ephraim
- Shorter, William
- Anderson, Orion
- Thompson, Benjamin
- McCoy, Joseph
- Fletcher, Magruder
- Reed, Joseph
- Baker, Frazier B.
- Moss, Tom
- McDowell, Calvin
- Stewart, Will
- Lundy, Dick
- Divers, Emmett
- Great Hanging at Gainesville (number > 16
- Peterson, John
- Harrington, Levi
- Mingo Jack
- McIntosh, Francis
- Ford, Andrew
- James, John Henry
- Porter, Nevlin
- Spencer, Johnson
- Outlaw, Wyatt
- Stevenson, Cordella
- Council, Lynn
- Harrison, Cellos
- Thompson, Shedrick (also spelled “Shamrock”)
- Moore’s Ford lynchings (George W. and Mae Murray Dorsey; Roger and Dorothy Malcom)
- Jones, Paul
- Jameson, Jordan
- Walters, Lemuel
- Wilkins, Willie
- Ruffin, John
- Ruffin, Henry
- Nelson, Laura
- Jay Lynch
- Pyszko, Marian
- Johnson, Ed
- Clark, James
- Williams, Elbert
- Brown, Will
- Wright, Cleo
- Walters, Lemuel
- Richards, Benny
- Walker, Zachariah
- Clayton, Elias, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie
- Smith, Samuel
- Miles Phifer, Robert Crosky and John Temple
- Williams, Matthew
- Hartfield, John
- Till, Emmett
- Claude Neal
- Dick Rowland (attempted lynching)
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