- Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
-- Lewis Allen, "Strange Fruit" (popularized by Billie Holiday)
Slavery and war were the human institutions most closely related to eliminationism as it was practiced historically, proceeding as they did from the same dark, violent corner of the human psyche -- the one in which resides the impulse to dominate our fellow humans, along with its cornermate, the impulse to reduce our fellow humans to mere objecthood.
Thus the lion's share of the eliminationism practiced by the European colonists in the Americas had gone hand in hand with warmaking and enslavement. Most of the violent eradication of the native population -- particularly the extermination of the straggling remnant of Indians in North America after 1800 -- had occurred under the pretense of waging war, which itself was merely a pretext for taking land. And in the early years, at least, when the Spanish took many hundreds of thousands of Mesoamericans as forced labor for their mines -- which was itself a death sentence -- slavery played a significant role in the natives' extermination, both physically and culturally; even those slaves kept alive were usually forced conversos for whom observing any of their traditional rites or ceremonies was punishable by death.
The natives, however, were seen in quite distinct terms from the Africans captured as slaves and brought to American shores by the colonists. The former were identified with the wilderness and were the equivalent of untameable beasts, which played a large role in the white settlers' inclination toward rubbing them out. But African slaves were seen as completely subservient and thus a negligible threat.
This may explain why, during the years leading up to the Civil War, blacks in the South were rarely the victims of lynchings -- since they were viewed as property, it was considered an act of theft to kill someone else's slave. The main exception to this was directly related to those occasions in which the slaves were perceived as actual threats -- namely, putting down slave revolts.
The fear of black insurrection (and there were a handful of real slave revolts, notably Nat Turner's 1831 Virginia rebellion, in which some sixty whites were killed) was so pervasive among Southerners that any rumor that one might occur could bring swift death to the alleged conspirators, even if, as was often the case, it later turned out there were no such plans. In any event, when lynching did occur in the years before the Civil War, the victims predominantly were whites. Many of these were in the antebellum South, where lynch-mob treatment was often administered to abolitionists and other "meddlers."
If blacks' slave status largely protected them from racial violence before the Civil War, then its abolition also left them remarkably vulnerable to such assaults upon the South's defeat. Certainly, once emancipated, they became seen as a real threat to whites, and particularly to their dominant status; much of this perception, particularly regarding the violent nature of the newly freed blacks, as we shall see, was more an illusion produced by psychological projection than real in any meaningful way.
This became immediately manifest, during Reconstruction, when black freedmen were subjected to a litany of attacks at the hands of their former owners that went utterly unpunished. As documented by Philip Dray in his definitive study, At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, these crimes turned up in hospital records and field reports from the federal Freedmen's Bureau, all of which described a variety of clubbings, scalpings, mutilations, hangings and even immolations of former slaves, all within the first year after Appomattox.
In 1866, the violence became discernibly more organized with the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan, which originated with a clique of Confederate veterans in Pulaski, Tennessee, and spread like wildfire throughout the South. Initially much of the Klan night riders’ activities were relegated to whippings, a punishment intended to remind the ex-slaves of their former status. But as the assaults on blacks increased, so did the intensity of the violence visited on them, culminating in a steady stream of Klan lynchings between 1868 and 1871 (when the Klan was officially outlawed by the Grant Administration); at least one study puts the number at 20,000 blacks killed by the Klan in that period. In the ensuing years, the violence did little to decline, and in fact worsened, despite the Klan's official banishment.
David M. Chalmers in Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan, describes the early Klansmen was drawing from both the upper and lower strata of society, but unquenchably violent [p. 10]:
- The method of the Klan was violence. It threatened, exiled, flogged, mutilated, shot, stabbed, and hanged. It disposed of Negroes who were no respectful, or committed crimes, or belonged to military or political organizations such as the Loyal and Union Leagues. It drove out Northern schoolteachers and Yankee storekeepers and politicians, and "took care" of Negroes who gained land and prospered, or made inflammatory speeches or talked about equal rights. It assaulted carpetbag judges, intimidated juries, and spirited away prisoners. It attacked officials who registered Negroes, who did not give whites priority, or who foreclosed property.
The Klan's violence, however, was not broadly eliminationist, but rather carefully channeled. Its clear intent was not to drive out blacks generally -- they were, after all, a valuable source of labor -- but to keep them under the thumb of their white "superiors." The chief means of doing this, however, entailed eliminating anyone who might pose even the slightest hint of a threat to the status of whites, particularly "interlopers" and "outsiders" who arrived after the war to help the freed slaves get on their feet:
- Although Klansmen occasionally sortied out across the moonlit countryside to punish criminal behavior, they most frequently called upon Radicals, Union and Loyal Leaguers, Republican candidates, and Northern schoolteachers. The purposes were clearly to destroy the basis of Negro political effectiveness by driving out its leaders, white and black. The particular opposition to schoolteachers seems based on the reasoning that the Negro was not capable of learning anything other than polticial insurrection and insolence toward whites, and in the years before the war, teaching a Negro to read had been a serious crime. In eastern Mississippi the new institution of public schooling had to face the added problem of economic depression. During a period when times were hard and Reconstruction had made labor uncertain and elevated livestock theft to a common profession, the farmers were called upon to pay taxes for a new school system which they feared might eventually mingle white and Negro schoolchildren. The response was a veritable reign of terror which saw schools burned and teachers whipped, tortured, murdered, and driven out of the state.
Francis Simkins' study of the South Carolina Klan observed that the Klan's campaign was "against the Negro as a citizen -- one attempting to be a voter and at times, the social equal of other men -- rather than against the Negro as a violator of law or the infringer upon the rights of other men." So to rationalize away their own wanton criminality, the Klan and its supporters relied on rhetoric aimed to convince the public of the criminality of the black population.
The chief purpose of the Klan, as Exalted Cyclops Ryland Randolph of South Carolina put it, was to stop what they saw as an insidious Northern plan "to degrade the white man by the establishment of Negro supremacy" -- though, of course, their actual purpose was to degrade the black man by the establishment of white supremacy. This kind of precisely mirrored projection was present in nearly every aspect of white racial hatred toward blacks, particularly regarding the most common defense for the wave of lynching that was to follow -- namely, that it was a natural community defense against savagely lascivious black men and their wanton desire to rape white women.
Sexual paranoia, rooted in long-held Christian European notions about sexuality that associated it with sinfulness, with the "muck" of nature and the wilderness, was central to the lynching phenomenon. In the years following black emancipation -- during which time a previously tiny class of black criminals became swelled by the ranks of impoverished former slaves -- a vast mythology arose surrounding black men's supposed voracious lust for white women.
"The Negro race," after all, was still closely associated with the jungles of Africa, the "heart of darkness" in the European mind; and sexual voraciousness was assumed in such folk, for though tame they might be, they still were scarcely a step removed from wild men of the jungle themselves; still scarcely human. Yet this was a legend for which in truth there was scant evidence, and one that stands in stark contrast to (and perhaps has its psychological roots in) the reality of white men's longtime sexual domination of black women, particularly during the slavery era.
In any event, the omnipresence of the threat of rape of white women by black men came to be almost universally believed by American whites. Likewise, conventional wisdom held that lynchings were a natural response to this threat: "The mob stands today as the most potent bulwark between the women of the South and such a carnival of crime as would infuriate the world and precipitate the annihilation of the Negro race," warned John Temple Graves, editor of the Atlanta Constitution. Such views were common not merely in the South, but among Northerners as well. The New York Herald, for instance, lectured its readers: "[T]he difference between bad citizens who believe in lynch law, and good citizens who abhor lynch law, is largely in the fact that the good citizens live where their wives and daughters are perfectly safe."
The cries of rape, for many whites in both South and North, raised fears not merely of sexual violence but of racial mixing, known commonly as "miscegenation," which was specifically outlawed in some 30 states. White supremacy was not only commonplace, it was in fact the dominant worldview of Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries; most Caucasians believed they represented Nature's premier creation (having been informed this by a broad range of social scientists of the period, whose views eventually coalesced into the pseudo-science known as eugenics), and that any "dilution" of those strains represented a gross violation of the natural order. Thus it was not surprising that a number of lynching incidents actually resulted from the discovery of consensual relations between a black man and a white woman.
Underlying the stated fear of black rape, moreover, was a broad fear of economic and cultural domination of white Americans by blacks and various other "outsiders," including Jews. These fears were acute in the South, where blacks became a convenient scapegoat for the mesh of poverty that lingered in the decades following the Civil War. Lynching in fact was frequently inspired not by criminality, but by any signs of economic and social advancement by blacks who, in the view of whites, had become too "uppity."
There were, of course, other components of black suppression: segregation in the schools, disenfranchisement of the black vote, and the attendant Jim Crow laws that were common throughout the South. But lynching was the linchpin in the system, so to speak, because it was in effect state-supported terrorism whose stated intent was to suppress blacks and other minorities, in no small part by eliminating non-whites as competitors for economic gain. These combined to give lynching a symbolic value as a manifestation of white supremacy. The lynch mob was not merely condoned but in fact celebrated as an expression of the white community’s will to keep African-Americans in their thrall. As a phrase voiced commonly in the South expressed it, lynching was a highly effective means of "keeping the niggers down."
As Chalmers describes the early Klan violence:
addition to lynching for rape ... the Klan whipped for sass, insolence
or theft. Here and elsewhere, industrious Negroes who improved their
farms also received attention from the Klan.
Other suffered because they violated the racial mores. The Klan punished Negroes who associated with poor white women. White prostitutes in South Carolina accused of receiving Negroes were tarred and driven away. A Negro was killed and his daughter was whipped because she had "caused some embarrassment" to a white family by beating the child of one of its members. Another Negro girl was beaten for "breaking the peace" between a wife and her husband.
Many of the poor, ignorant, illiterate South Carolina men, who later confessed in open court, pleaded that they had only joined the Klan to avoid becoming its victims. Their night riding had been crudely conceived and carried out, with none of the dash and the disciplined planning that marked much of the Klan activity elsewhere. Generally speaking, however, the leadership, if not the rank and file, represented some of the best elements of society, with the younger men usually the most venturesome. Acts of violence were usually applauded by the conservative press and justified then, and afterward, by the always allegedly bad reputation of the victims.
Moreover, in addition to the night-riding type of terrorist attacks, mass spectacle lynchings soon appeared. These were ritualistic mob scenes in which prisoners or even men merely suspected of crimes were often torn from the hands of authorities (if not captured beforehand) by large crowds and treated to beatings and torture before being put to death, frequently in the most horrifying fashion possible: people were flayed alive, had their eyes gouged out with corkscrews, and had their bodies mutilated before being doused in oil and burned at the stake. Black men were sometimes forced to eat their own hacked-off genitals. No atrocity was considered too horrible to visit on a black person, and no pain too unimaginable to inflict in the killing. (When whites, by contrast, were lynched, the act almost always was restricted to simple hanging.)
A classic instance of this occurred in the little East Texas town of Center, about sixty miles due north of Jasper, in 1920. The victim was a black teenager named Lige Daniels, who was accused of killing an elderly white woman who lived in Center. When word reached the governor that mob violence was imminent, he wired the captain of the Seventh Cavalry stationed nearby to protect the prisoner. The cavalry, however, never showed. The captain later explained that he had been unable to "find any members of his company in time for mobilization."
So at about noon on August 3, 1920, a mob of about one thousand men stormed the Center jail, knocked down the steel doors, and dragged Daniels outside, where they proceeded to beat him severely. A rope was thrown over a nearby oak tree, and Daniels was then hung.
A photo postcard that was available for many years afterward, mostly in the backwaters of trinket shops, recorded the event. It is a remarkable photo, and not only for the warm glow of the sun peering through the oak tree and bathing Lige Daniels' corpse, hanging from the bough, in an almost angelic light. What makes the portrait unforgettable instead is the crowd gathered below—stern-faced fathers and laborers, all looking quite proud of themselves; and a handful of children. One young boy (he appears to be about ten), dressed in his Sunday shirt and tie, is beaming beatifically. He probably remembered that day till he died.
There were many such postcards. Perhaps the most notorious were those from the lynching of another black teenager, Jessie Washington, by a mob of several thousand residents of Waco, Texas, on May 16, 1916. Washington, who was retarded, had confessed to the murder of an elderly Waco resident. At the moment his conviction (with four minutes' deliberation by a white jury) was announced, the mob surged forward into the courtroom and dragged Washington outside, where he was stripped, beaten, stabbed, and wrapped with a chain, which was draped over a tree limb, just above a pyre of wooden crates. Washington was then jerked twice into the air, and his body lowered onto the pyre, where he was sprinkled with coal oil and set alight.
|The lynching of Jessie Washington, May 16, 1916, Waco, Texas|
The lynchings of Daniels and Washington were mere drops in an ocean of bloodshed. Between 1882 and 1942, according to statistics compiled by the Tuskegee Institute, there were 4,713 lynchings in the United States, of which 3,420 involved black victims. Mississippi topped the list, with 520 blacks lynched during that time period, while Georgia was a close second with 480; Texas' 339 ranked third. And most scholars acknowledge that these numbers probably are well short of the actual total, since many lynchings (particularly in the early years of the phenomenon) were often backwoods affairs that went utterly unrecorded. In that era, it was not at all uncommon for a black man to simply disappear; sometimes his body might wash up in one of the local rivers, and sometimes not.
The violence reached a fever pitch in the years 1890-1902, when 1,322 lynchings of blacks (out of 1,785 total lynchings) were recorded at Tuskegee, which translates into an average of over 110 lynchings a year. The trend began to decline afterward, but continued well into the 1930s, leading some historians to refer to the years 1880-1930 as the "lynching period" of American culture.
|The lynching of Rubin Stacy|
Indeed, lynchings seemed to be cause for outright celebration in the community. Residents would dress up to come watch the proceedings, and the crowds of spectators frequently grew into the thousands. Afterwards, memento-seekers would take home parts of the corpse or the rope with which the victim was hung. Sometimes body parts -- knuckles, or genitals, or the like -- would be preserved and put on public display as a warning to would-be black criminals.
That was the purported moral purpose of these demonstrations, at least in the South: Not only to utterly wipe out any black person merely accused of a crimes against whites, but to do it in a fashion intended to warn off future perpetrators. This was reflected in contemporary press accounts, which described the lynchings in almost uniformly laudatory terms, with the victim's guilt unquestioned, and the mob identified only as "determined men." Not surprisingly, local officials (especially local police forces) not only were complicit in many cases, but they acted in concert to keep the mob leaders anonymous; thousands of coroners’ reports from lynchings merely described the victims’ deaths occurring "at the hands of persons unknown." Lynchings were broadly viewed as simply a crude, but understandable and even necessary, expression of community will. This was particularly true in the South, where blacks were viewed as symbolic of the region's continuing economic and cultural oppression by the North. As an 1899 editorial in the Newnan, Georgia, Herald and Advertiser explained it: "It would be as easy to check the rise and fall of the ocean's tide as to stem the wrath of Southern men when the sacredness of our firesides and the virtue of our women are ruthlessly trodden under foot."
Thus the numbers of deaths produced by the lynching phenomenon only hint at their impact, which broadly affected literally millions of more Americans, effectively keeping them in the thrall of terror that their white neighbors might, with the least provocation, murder them horribly.
Of course, the threat of the rape of white women and other pretenses for lynching presented handy pretexts for these horrors. As always, the violence was predicated on a fear of future violence; lynching was excused as a preemptive act.
Yet in reality a black person could be lynched for literally no reason at all -- in some cases, simply for defending himself from physical assault, or for just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Lynching laughed at the notion of blacks advancing through hard work; moderately prosperous blacks who managed to do so were often the first targets of angry lynch mobs intent on dealing with "uppity" blacks.
Lynchings unquestionably had the short-term desired effect of suppressing blacks' civil rights; the majority of African Americans in the South during that era led lives of quiet submission in the hope of escaping that horrific fate, and relatively few aspired beyond their established station in life. Those who did often migrated northward, where lynchings were hardly unknown (some of the most notorious occurred in places like Indiana and Minnesota, and they in fact were recorded in nearly every state in the Union), but were not as endemic. However, the awfulness of the mobs' brutality, often reported and photographed in gruesome detail, ultimately also inspired a reaction that gave birth to the Civil Rights movement and eventually the demise of the racial caste system lynching was intended to enforce.
The first voices raised against lynching were heard in the 1890s, even as the bloodbath was cresting. Civil-rights pioneer Ida B. Wells, a well-educated black woman who had risen to the editorship of a leading black newspaper in Memphis, began questioning the myths underlying the popular rationale for condoning the killings. As she gathered statistics about lynching, she noted, for instance, that even though the threat of black rape was the foremost excuse for the phenomenon, in fewer than one-third of the lynchings was rape even alleged. (Later, more complete statistics particularly bore this out; congressional testimony in 1922 indicated that only 28.4 percent of the blacks lynched between 1889 and 1918 had been accused of raping or attempting to assault a white woman. This remained the case over time as well; the Tuskegee Institute's lynching data for 1882 to 1951 indicate that lynching victims were accused 41 percent of the time of felonious assault, 19.2 percent of rape, 6.1 percent of attempted rape, 4.9 percent of robbery and theft, 1.8 percent of insulting white people, and 27 percent for miscellaneous offenses. Moreover, among the lynching victims between 1882 and 1927 were 76 black women.) Often the accusations of rape were completely spurious.
Indeed, in two-thirds of the cases, Wells found, lynchings were for incredibly petty crimes such as stealing hogs and quarreling with neighbors. A black person could easily face an agonizing death at the hands of a mob merely for trying to vote, or for testifying against a white man or getting into a fight with him, or asking a white woman to marry -- and sometimes for no offense at all.
Wells also attacked the myth of black men's sexual voraciousness. She adroitly observed that during the Civil War, many slave owners willingly left their wives and daughters in the care of their black manservants, who were frequently entrusted with the defense of the home during those years. And if black men were prone to sexual assault, there was little evidence of it before the war as well; contemporary historian Ulrich B. Phillips, for instance, examined Virginia's court and criminal records from 1783 to 1863, and found only 105 blacks convicted of sexual assault over the eighty-year span.
Wells (who became Ida Wells-Barnett in 1895 after her marriage to Chicago attorney Ferdinand Barnett) ultimately published her findings in a widely distributed 1901 book titled Lynching and the Excuse. She was soon joined in her crusade by other leading African Americans, including W. E. B. DuBois, Frederick Douglass and William Monroe Trotter. It was their view that the systematic oppression of black Americans needed to be confronted directly, and lynching was the system's most egregious component. In 1905, DuBois, Wells-Barnett, and other black leaders organized the Niagara Movement to demand full citizenship rights for African Americans: freedom of speech, an "unfettered and unsubsidized" press, full voting rights, full civil liberties, and recognition of the principle of human brotherhood. The Niagara Movement's manifesto, written mostly by DuBois, did not address lynching directly, but observed: "The Negro race in America -- stolen, ravished, and degraded, struggling up through difficulties and oppression -- needs sympathy and receives criticism, needs help and is given hindrance, needs protection and is given mob-violence, needs justice and is given charity, needs leadership and is given cowardice and apology, needs bread and is given a stone. This nation will never stand justified before God until these things are changed."
However, the leading black figure of the time in the minds of most Americans was Booker T. Washington of Alabama's Tuskegee Institute, acclaimed for its pioneering work in education young black people. His famed 1895 speech (which came to be known as the "Atlanta Compromise") before a mostly white audience at the Atlanta Exposition had counseled black Americans to give up agitation for political rights and social equality in exchange for the opportunity to work and prove themselves, suggesting that racial segregation was an acceptable and perhaps even desirable state. Washington urged blacks to steer away from dreams of returning to Africa: "Cast down your bucket where you are," he counseled. Instead, he admonished them to focus their efforts on their own resourcefulness and hard work, and to emphasize the honor of common labor. For these sentiments, Washington was widely praised by white politicians across the American spectrum, but other black leaders were unconvinced. The Niagara Movement, with its emphasis on open agitation for blacks' civil rights, represented a direct challenge to Washington's compromise.
Though this nascent organization mostly foundered, its underlying principles came fully to life in 1909, when DuBois, Wells-Barnett, and other Niagara leaders joined forces with white civil-rights reformers to create the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP's principles were broad-ranging, but within the first year of its existence it became clear that the primary challenge it faced was in organizing a national campaign to combat the practice of lynching -- and for the ensuing three decades, leading the fight against lynching and mob violence was the organization's major preoccupation.
It was clear to the NAACP's leadership that Booker T. Washington's "compromise" was not only counterproductive, but his prescription for black Americans -- steady forward progress by embracing the all-American values of hard work, integrity and individual enterprise -- was in fact a recipe almost certain to invite vicious repercussions in the form of a lynch mob. As the NAACP began systematically compiling information about lynchings, it became clear that blacks who succeeded economically and socially (particularly those who became landowners) were the frequent targets of lynching, and any indications of civic advancement by blacks often met violent opposition. Among the many victims of lynchings were black postal clerks, grocery owners, farmers, and white-collar professionals, such as doctors. Black veterans returning from action in World War I were sometimes lynched merely for wearing their uniforms in public.
Likewise, it was becoming increasingly clear, even to the public, that the rationales proffered for decades to justify the lynch mobs' actions -- particularly the threat of black rape -- were not merely flimsy but entirely hollow, a cover for the real motivation for lynching, which was to terrorize and subjugate the black community. A 1918 lynching case drove this point home in horrific fashion.
It began on May 16 when a white landowner in rural Valdosta, Georgia, was shot to death at his home. His wife accused a black man named Sidney Johnson, and a lynch mob soon formed with the purpose of carrying out summary justice for the farmer's murder. However, when it was unable to locate Johnson, the mob turned its wrath on five black men who'd had the misfortune of being in the vicinity at the time and lynched them instead. Among the five was Haynes Turner, a former employee of the murdered farmer.
Turner's wife, Mary, was eight months pregnant, and when she heard of the murder, she vowed publicly to find the men responsible, swear out warrants against them, and ensure they were punished in the courts. Not surprisingly, her vow to seek justice doomed her; as an Associated Press report of the affair put it, Mary Turner had made "unwise remarks" about the execution of her husband, "and the people, in their indignant mood, took exceptions to her remarks, as well as her attitude." The local sheriff placed her under arrest, reportedly for her protection, but then surrendered her to a mob of several hundred white men and women -- as well as a number of children -- determined to "teach her a lesson."
At a place outside town called Folsom's Bridge, they stripped her, tied her ankles together, and hung her upside down from a tree. Dousing her with gasoline, they slowly roasted her to death. While she was still alive, a man using a knife ordinarily reserved for splitting hogs walked up and cut open the woman's abdomen. "Out tumbled the prematurely born child," wrote a news reporter covering the event. "Two feeble cries it gave -- and received for the answer the heel of a stalwart man, as life was ground out of the tiny form." Hundreds of bullets were then fired into Mary Turner's body. Sated, the mob left her body by the roadside. She and her child were buried in a shallow grave near the bridge.
Mary Turner's murder -- which made clear irrevocably that lynching more often than not had nothing to do with black rape -- made national headlines. On its heels came the "Red Summer" of 1919; there were seventy-six blacks lynched that year, but even more horrifying were the "race riots" that broke out in twenty-six cities, including Chicago; Washington, D.C.; Omaha, Nebraska; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Charleston, North Carolina; and Knoxville, Tennessee. These insurrections in fact were massive assaults by whites upon local black populations, often sparked by an imagined offense. In Tulsa, where a prosperous black population was literally bombed out of existence over two days of complete lawlessness, the rioting was set off by a black youth's alleged assault on a local white girl that later turned out to be harmless consensual contact. Nonetheless, a Tulsa newspaper had publicly called for the young man's lynching, and when a group of local blacks attempted to ward off a lynch mob, the fighting broke out. By the time the violence had subsided, as many as three hundred black people were believed killed, many of them buried in a mass grave, and thirty-five city blocks lay charred.
Such horrors, and many others of similar brutality, lent real credence to the NAACP's anti-lynching campaign. Its black-white coalition made steady gains in attaining widespread respect for its cause, both with public officials and the public at large, in the decade after its founding. A 1915 nationwide boycott of D. W. Griffith's film The Birth of a Nation (an overtly racist paean to the Ku Klux Klan and the virtues of the lynch mob), was reasonably successful and helped attract a broad range of supporters. Moreover, the fledgling organization worked tirelessly to lobby local and state officials about the pernicious nature of lynching and to act to correct the injustices.
Over the succeeding years, the NAACP's anti-lynching campaign gathered momentum, particularly during the fight in Congress over the Dyer Bill, the anti-lynching law passed by the House in 1922 but killed by Southern Democrats in the Senate. There were subsequent attempts to pass anti-lynching legislation. The Dyer Bill was resurrected in 1926, but again did not survive the Senate. In 1934, a pair of Democratic senators -- Colorado's Edward Costigan and New York's Robert Wagner -- offered a measure that would have punished law-enforcement officials who by neglect allowed their charges to be taken by a mob. Again the legislation had the NAACP's full-fledged backing, and again the public support was overwhelmingly in its favor (indeed, one poll found even that 65 percent of Southerners supported a federal law outlawing lynching). Ultimately, however, it met the same fate as the Dyer Bill; it passed handily in the House, only to succumb to a fatal filibuster by Southerners in the Senate. Two later efforts in the 1940s to pass anti-lynching legislation met similar fates.
These failures, however, were anything but. What no one expected was that even though the effort to enact federal anti-lynching laws did not succeed, the broad national debate it had inspired achieved nearly spectacular results in undermining the lynching phenomenon. By the 1930s lynching was no longer celebrated in the public view, but widely condemned as barbarous and unjust by nearly every responsible segment of society. Even in the South, the views of such Caucasian organizations as the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching had come to hold sway.
Over the course of the succeeding decade, from 1922 to 1932, lynching deaths -- which had somewhat steadily declined in frequency after 1904 anyway -- dropped dramatically, from fifty-nine black lynchings in 1922 to only six in 1932. The trend continued during the 1930s; only ninety-three black lynchings were recorded during the entire decade.
The nature of lynchings changed dramatically during this period -- driven, almost certainly, by the stigma that had become attached to mob justice, and the clear withdrawal of public sanction for such murders. The mass spectacle lynchings, which had seemingly reached their apex in the bloody "Red Summer" of 1919, virtually disappeared over the course of the 1920s. By the 1930s, lynchings had largely reverted back to the form in which they first manifested themselves during the early Reconstruction period: furtive affairs involving midnight riders, arsonists and shooters, usually involving only a handful of perpetrators. By 1952, when there were no black lynchings recorded at Tuskegee (though it must be noted that, even then, this did not necessarily none had occurred), the era of the lynch mob seemed to have become a thing of the past.
This watershed change in the American cultural landscape occurred with virtually no official or legal support from Washington, D.C. Congress, of course, never enacted an anti-lynching law. And the Supreme Court, for most of the lynching era, had declined to involve itself in lynching cases, preferring to leave them to the jurisdiction of state courts. A handful of decisions, however, gradually turned the tide in the courts, and simultaneously left a permanent impression on the larger body of criminal law: Moore v. Dempsey in 1923, which overruled the death sentences of six black men convicted (in a lynch-mob atmosphere) of insurrection following a rural Arkansas "race riot," for the first time stipulated that in light of the requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment, any denial of due process was the concern of the federal government; Powell v. Alabama in 1932, which overturned the verdict in the infamous case of the "Scottsboro Boys," nine itinerant black workers who were convicted on flimsy evidence of raping two white women, and which further stipulated that the right to an attorney was an indispensable part of due process; Norris v. Alabama in 1935, which overturned the third conviction delivered against the Scottsboro boys, on grounds that the exclusion of blacks from the jury violated the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; and finally Brown v. Mississippi in 1936, which found that a Southern sheriff’s extraction of a murder confession from a black suspect by torturing him was likewise a violation of a defendant’s constitutional rights. However, most of these rulings came well after the lynching era had begun its decline, and only Moore v. Dempsey -- delivered at a crucial juncture in the national debate -- could be said to have had any appreciable role in the sea change of public attitudes about mob justice.
Where the legal system failed, though, it is clear in retrospect that the moral suasion underlying the campaign to combat lynching succeeded. While the NAACP's campaign to pass a federal anti-lynching law fell short, its broader campaign to debunk the myths that had been used to defend lynching, and to permanently stigmatize the practice as inimical to basic American values of justice and fair play, were remarkably effective. It could be argued that this tends to support the position of Caucasian anti-lynching organizations like the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, which had opposed federal anti-lynching laws as an unnecessary intrusion on a natural process of incremental change in cultural attitudes wrought by moral persuasion and not the law. But the historical record is also clear that when anti-lynching statutes were properly enforced -- as they were, for example, in Illinois after 1911 -- the laws were remarkably effective tools for changing social mores regarding lynching.
Although lynchings declined, they did not disappear altogether, by any means. Certainly, the deep racial animus that had always inspired them was still alive and well, particularly in the South. They continued to occur periodically, but instead of being treated as commonplace, they became the subject of intensive international news coverage. The 1955 lynching of a Chicago teenager named Emmett Till, on vacation in Mississippi, for being "fresh" with a white woman, became a national cause célèbre, playing a prominent role in the claims of civil-rights advocates that justice for black people did not exist in the South.
For those Southerners still dedicated to the tenets of white supremacy, and who permanently opposed the substantial gains made during the 1950s and '60s for African Americans' civil rights -- in particular the desegregation of schools and other facilities that began with the Supreme Court's landmark Brown v Board of Education ruling in 1950 -- lynching continued to hold its longtime value as a tool for terrorizing the black community and reaffirming the dominance of white supremacy. But without the cover of public sanction, lynching and racial violence became a surreptitious crime that was strategically deployed in a vain attempt to stem the tide of the Civil Rights movement. As such, lynchers frequently targeted the persons they saw as the source of the agitation. The 1964 slayings of three civil-rights workers in Mississippi, which became a landmark in rising national attitudes supporting the movement, was in most respects a classic lynching. But now the lynchers also turned to other kinds of violence: burning and bombing African American churches, attacking civil-rights marchers, and assassinating the leaders in the movement.
All these events, of course, were largely playing out in the South, which had its own special history as the place where the Klan and lynching had largely originated. Yet that focus obscured a broader reality: Just as the Klan, by the 1920s, had become a genuinely national phenomenon (with national headquarters located in Indiana) so too was the lynching of black Americans widely practiced throughout America. In fact, a quick look at the Tuskegee Institute's state-by-state numbers for the so-called "Lynching Era" (1882-1968) reveals that they in fact occurred in nearly every state in the Union, particularly in the Midwest -- though not as prolifically as they occurred in the South. Likewise, a survey of "race riots" in the same period reveals they occurred in a number of places well outside the South.
The raw numbers of lynched blacks outside the South, however, were smaller for a simple reason: their purpose was different. Lynchings in the Midwest, Northeast, and the West occurred for an explicitly, and broadly, eliminationist purpose. Unlike their Southern brethren, whites elsewhere simply chose not even to let blacks live among them, and so they violently drove them out of their communities en masse and forbade them to return thereafter.
Thus the fight over Brown v. Board of Education and school desegregation took place largely in the South for a very simple reason: school districts outside the South largely did not have to desegregate because blacks had not been permitted to live within their borders for generations. They had just been driven out.
In the South, whites chose to deal with blacks by oppressing them; in much of the rest of the country, white communities simply eliminated their presence altogether. And by making the South the nation's racial scapegoat, it allowed those communities to smugly pretend that since they had no such strife to face, they were not part of the problem.
As a result, the unsettled legacy of racism in the South continues to be a wound in the national psyche that refuses to heal -- and the hidden legacy of eliminationist racism in the rest of the country continues to fester like a long-silent cancer.
[Note: This post is a republication of a piece originally published Jan. 10, 2007.]
Confederate Heritage Month:
Day 1: Strange Fruit
It Was About Slavery
That Peculiar Institution
How Poor Whites Got Suckered
The First American War Criminals
'The River Was Dyed'
War By Other Means
Carpetbaggers, Scalawags, and the Liars Who Named Them
Crying 'Bloody Shirt'
Hamburg and Reconstruction's End
Red Shirts and Whitewashes