American Civil Rights Movement: Lynching


Figure 1.--This dreadful 1919 image shows the aftermath of a lynching. Most lynchings occurred in the South to terrorize the black population into submission. There were also lynchings in the north, this one took place after a mob stormed a court house in Omaha, Nebrraska. Not only were black teenagers and youths sometimes the tagets of vicious white mobs, but white children and teenagers were often part of the mob. Notice the boy looking on in the crowd and the expressions of the other onlookers.

The lynching and extra-legal terror aimed at Blacks in the South is one of the saddest chapters in American history. Blacks did not just face a corupt legal system, but they faced extra-legal terror, unprecedented in its viciousness. This meant in part the lynch mob. Some victims were burned to death. Most of the victims were young men, but women and children were also targeted. And there was no legal recourse. In fact Blacks who challenged the system were likely to invite a night-time visit from the Klan themselves. Murder in most cases were state and local crimes and all-White Soutern juries did not convict Whites for killing Blacks, no matter what the evidence. While Blacks were by far the principal target. Klan hate also included both Catholics and Jews. The most widely reported lynching of a Jew occuurred in 1915 when businessman Leo Frank was falsely convincted of raping a female worker. This occurred not in some rural backwater, but in the South's most important cityy--Atlanta, Georgia. [Oney] The NAACP fought for years to get an anti-lynch law enacted by Congress. NAACP official Walter White who could pass for white, traveled throughout the South and North, at great personal danger, gatering information on lynching, sometimes even being invighting into the home of Klansmen. The resulting articles are chilling. [Janken] One of the great failures of President Roosevelt and the New Deal was the failure to enact an anti-lynching law. Here President Rooosevelt was afraid to endanger the New Deal by challening important Southern Congressmen. It was not just the Southern seats in Congress, but because Southern voters rarely voted Republican and ousted incumbants, many leadership posts were held by Southerners because of the senority rules. The president frankly told Walter White, "If I come out for the anti-lynching bill, they will block every bill I ask Congress to pass to nkeep America from collapsing, I just can't take that risk." [Goodwin, p. 163.]

Extra-legal Terror

The lynching and extra-legal terror aimed at Blacks in the South is one of the saddest chapters in American history. Blacks did not just face a corupt legal system, but they faced extra-legal terror, unprecedented in its viciousness. This meant in part the lynch mob. Some victims were burned to death. Most of the victims were young men, but women and children were also targeted. And there was no legal recourse. In fact Blacks who challenged the system were likely to invite a night-time visit from the Klan themselves.

The Klu Klux Klan

Southern Whittes not only used legal means such as Black Codes to control emancipated blacks, but they turned to extras-legal terrorism as well. Much of this was accomplished through covert vigelantee action through secret soicieties, especisally the Ku lux Klan. The impetus here was provided by famed Confederate Calvalry commander, Nathan Bedford Forest. The Klan was founded in Tennesee but rapidly expanded throughout the South. White southerners formed a secret paramilitary white supremacist organization, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The KKK terrorized blacks with beatings, whippings, burning of homes and lynching. The Klan was active. The Klan operated throughout the South during the Renconstruction era, but then with the pasage of Federal terrorism laws and the success of white southerens in regaining control of state governments, the Klan largely disappeared. It was later revived and this time spread beyond the borders of the former Confederate states.

Extent

There are reasonably good records on lynchings. These were not surepticious crimes. Lynchings were conducted in public, often in front of a substantial crowd. There were about 5,000 men lynched in America. One study places the number from 1882-1968 at 4,743 [Tuskegee University Archives] The great majority of the men lynched were blacks. This varied state by state. In northern states there were fewer lynchings and quite a number of whites were lynched. In southern states there were more lynchings and most of those lynched were blacks. Some states there were no reported lynchings (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Vermont). Outside of New England, there were lynching reported throughout America. Some southern states weee notable for lynchings (Mississippi--581, Georgia--531, Texas--493, Louisiana--391, and Alabama--347. It is likely that the actual number of killings was slithly higher as the data here is pubically reported lynchings. There were no doubt other killings. We believe, however, that this is the great proportion of the killings. This was because the Klan and other white racists wanted the public show.

Nature

The numbers and the public nature of the lynchings are important. Some observers haved used the terms genocide or holocaust to decribe racial lynchings. This was not genocide. It amounts to only about 6 people a year and some were whites. The victims were carefully selected. They were almost always men or male teenagers. Women were rarely targeted for lynching, neither were young children or the elderly. There was never an attempt to exterminate the black population or whole families. (There were a few instances in which Black ommunities were targetted.) Both genocide and the holocaust involve killings on a much wide scale. The NAZIs in the Holocaust especially targeted young children and the eldely--all those who were considered unproductive. The purpose of the racist lynchings and other ectra-lega; violence was terror--to force blacks to accept segregation and their subservient place in American society.

Social Events

A lynching was often a community social event and a popular one at that. These were not sureptious killings in the dark of night. They were public events with consdiderable public participation. Many had a carnival-like atmosphere. Notably the many ohotographic rimages of lynchings show people having a good time withot the slightest suggestion that they were doing something wrong or any concern that there would be any legal consequences. Often the time and place would be announced in newspapers. Exrain trains were scheduled. Businesses and schools closed to so anyone who wanted could attend. Many lynchingstook place after a black man was arrested. Especially incenderary were arrests for rape or assaults and preceived assaults on white women. (The same was not true of white men raping black women.) A common senario would be a mob breaking into the jail, normally with perfunctory resistance by the local sheriff, if any at all. Often civil leaders were involved. Sometimes they were directly involved, other times indorectly. Not all the victims were crime suspects. Some were black men preceived as "upity". Another target were successful black landowners. As a lynching unfolded, the terrified man would be beaten or worse. Some mobs were intent on torturing and humiliating the man. Eyes were goughed out, teeth smashed or pulled out with plyers. Otghers were burned, catrated, and dismembered. Sometimes this was done after the hanging, often it was dine before. Finally the man was hung. Sometimes the man's neck was broken when hung. More commonly in these mob lymchings, the man who weite in agony for several minutes. Often bullets were fired into the body. Sometimes the body was burned or mutilated. Mob members often took souviners like ears, toes, and fingers. Pieces of the rope used in the hanging were also popular. Many lynchings werde emorialized with commemorative postcards. Thus there is an extensive photographic recor of these lynchings. One 1915 card reads, "This is a barbeque we had last night." Locals would send the cards to friends and family. Surviving cards often have chilling messages on the back. The stunning aspect of these images besides the obscene barbarity depicted is the public aspect of these lynchings and the presence of children.

Murder

Murder under the Constitution is a crime which with a few exceptions is a violation of state law and thus tried in state courts. All-white juries, especially in Southern states, refused to convict white men guilty of killing black men. This was the case no matter what the evidence. Blacks were by far the principal target of lynchings. About three-quarters of those lynched were blacks, a lower percebntage in the North and a higher percentage in the South.

Immigrants

Blacks were the main target of lynchings, but they were not the only target. Klan hate also included both Catholics and Jews. (Orinentals are not included as a major Klan target because most orientals were in California.) The immigrants targeted iwere primarily Catholic and Jewish. In California Chinese immigrants were targeted. Lynchings od immigrants was such a problem that the United States in the early 20th century paid about $0.5 million to foreign governments (China, Italy, and Mexico) because of the lynching of their citizens. The most widely reported lynching of a Jew occuurred in 1915 when businessman Leo Frank was falsely convincted of raping a female worker. This occurred not in some rural backwater, but in the South's most important cityy--Atlanta, Georgia. Tom Watson, a former Congressman and powerful force in Georgia politics, helped stir up the mob by anti-Semetic articles in his weekly newspaper. Fearing that the Supreme Court would overturn his conviction, the mob acted first. [Oney]

Anti-lynching Law

Faced with brutal lynchings throughout the South and even in some northern states, civil rights groups led by the NAACP fought for years to get an anti-lynch law enacted by Congress. NAACP official Walter White who could pass for white, traveled throughout the South and North, at great personal danger, gatering information on lynching, sometimes even being invighting into the home of Klansmen. The resulting articles are chilling. [Janken] The NAACp campaign achieved some success. Some Americans were affected by accounts of lynching. Mark Twain was moved. President Benjamin Harrison supported an anti-lunching bill (1891). Opposition to lynching grew after World war I. At the urging of civil righs groups, the House of Represenatives did three times pass an anti-lynching bill. Each time, however, passage was blocked by the U.S. Senate. The powerful Southern delegations managed defeat the bill each time. The use of the filibuster meant essentially that a two-thirds vote was needed to pass the bill. One of the great failures of President Roosevelt and the New Deal was the failure to enact an anti-lynching law. Here President Rooosevelt was afraid to endanger the New Deal by challening important Southern Congressmen. It was not just the Southern seats in Congress, but because Southern voters rarely voted Republican and ousted incumbants, many leadership posts were held by Southerners because of the senority rules. Mrs Roosevelt argued forcefully for the bill and there is no doubt that the President supported it, but given the other issues he was struggling with, Roosevelt did not forcefully push the bill. The House passed an anti-lynching bill in 1937 and 38. A furious debate ensued in the Senate. There debate raged for 6 weeks until supporters faced with a southern filibuster finlly gave up. The President frankly told Walter White, "If I come out for the anti-lynching bill, they will block every bill I ask Congress to pass to keep America from collapsing, I just can't take that risk." [Goodwin, p. 163.]

Psychological Impact

Racial terrorism in America worked. Blacks in the Southern states were cowed. The terror persisted years later. This can be seen in the work of black artists and writers. Nillie Holiday's haunting record "Strange Fruit" dealt with a lynching. Writrs and poets like Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou addressed the topic. White southern authors like William Faukner have addressed the subject. An attempted lynching was depicted in Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird".

Sources

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. No Ordinary Time: Franlkin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II (Simon &Schuster: New York, 1994), 759p.

Oney, Steve. And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mar Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank (Pantheon, 2003), 742p.

Tuskegee University Archives.

????. Without Sanctury: Lynching Photography in America. This is a collection of postcards with images of lynchings. The stunning aspect of these images besides the obscee barbarity depicted is the public aspect of these lynchings and the presence of children.






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Created: October 25, 2003
Last updated: 12:58 AM 6/12/2005