Lynching in the United States

John Heath's corpse hanging from a pole in Arizona after being lynched on February 22, 1884.
The body of George Meadows, lynched near the Pratt Mines in Alabama's Jefferson County on January 15, 1889.
Bodies of three men lynched in Georgia, May 1892.
Six African-American men lynched in Lee County, Georgia, on January 20, 1916

Lynching is the practice of murder by a group by extrajudicial action. Lynchings in the United States rose in number after the American Civil War in the late 1800s, following the emancipation of slaves; they declined in the 1920s but have continued to take place into the 21st century. Most lynchings were of African-American men in the South, but women were also lynched, and white lynchings of blacks occurred in Midwestern and border states, especially during the 20th-century Great Migration of blacks out of the South. The political message — the demonstration of white male supremacy and black male impotence — was a key element of the ritual. On a per capita basis lynchings were also common in California and the Old West, especially of Latinos, although they represented less than 10% of the national total. Native Americans and Asian Americans were also lynched.[1] Other ethnicities (white, Finnish-American, Jewish, Irish, Italian-American) were occasionally lynched.

The stereotype of a lynching is a hanging, because hangings are what crowds of people saw, and are also easy to photograph.[2] Some hangings were professionally photographed and sold as postcards, which were popular souvenirs in some parts of the U.S.[3][4] Victims were also killed by mobs in a variety of other ways: shot repeatedly, burned alive, forced to jump off a bridge, dragged behind cars, and the like. Sometimes they were tortured as well, with body parts sometimes removed and sold as souvenirs.[5] Occasionally lynchings were not fatal (see Lynching survivors in the United States). A "mock" lynching, putting the rope around the neck of someone suspected of concealing information, might be used to compel "confessions".[6]:38–39

According to the Tuskegee Institute, 4,743 people were lynched between 1882 and 1968, including 3,446 African Americans and 1,297 whites. More than 73 percent of lynchings in the post-Civil War period occurred in the Southern states.[7]

Lynchings were most frequent from 1890 to the 1920s, with a peak in 1892. Lynchings were often large mob actions, attended by hundreds or thousands of watchers, sometimes announced in advance in newspapers and in one instance with a special train. However, in the later 20th century lynchings became more secretive, and were conducted by smaller groups of people.

On April 26, 2018, in Montgomery, Alabama, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened. Founded by the Equal Justice Initiative of that city, it is the first large memorial to document lynchings of African Americans in the United States.

Background

After the Reconstruction era, most of the South was politically dominated by white Democrats. Lynchings were used to enforce white supremacy and intimidate blacks by racial terrorism.[8] The rate of lynchings in the South has been strongly associated with economic strains,[9] although the causal nature of this link is unclear.[10] Low cotton prices, inflation, and economic stress are associated with higher frequencies of lynching.

The granting of U.S. Constitutional rights to freedmen after the American Civil War, especially the vote, was resisted by many white Southerners. Some blamed the freedmen for their own wartime hardships, post-war economic losses, and loss of social and political privilege. During Reconstruction, freedmen, and white people working for civil rights were attacked and sometimes lynched. Black voting was suppressed by violence as well as by poll taxes and literacy tests. White Democrats regained control of state legislatures in 1876, and a national compromise resulted in the removal of federal troops from the South in 1877. In later decades, violence continued around elections until blacks were disfranchised by the states from 1885 (see Florida Constitution of 1885) to 1908 through constitutional changes and laws that created barriers to voter registration across the South.

White Democrats enacted segregation and Jim Crow laws to enforce blacks' second-class status. During this period that spanned the late 19th and early 20th centuries, lynchings reached a peak in the South. Florida led the nation in lynchings per capita from 1900 to 1930.[11][12] Georgia led the nation in lynchings from 1900 to 1931 with 302 incidents, according to The Tuskegee Institute. Lynchings peaked in many areas when it was time for landowners to settle accounts with sharecroppers.[13]

There is no count of recorded lynchings which claims to be precise, and the numbers vary depending on the sources, the years considered, and the definition used to define an incident. The Tuskegee Institute has recorded 3,446 blacks and 1,297 whites being lynched between 1882 and 1968, with the annual peak occurring in the 1890s, at a time of economic stress in the South and increasing political suppression of blacks.[14] A five-year study published in 2015 by the Equal Justice Initiative found that nearly 3,959 black men, women, and children were lynched in the twelve Southern states between 1877 and 1950. Over this period Georgia's 586 lynchings led all states.[15][16][17]

African Americans mounted resistance to lynchings in numerous ways. Intellectuals and journalists encouraged public education, actively protesting and lobbying against lynch mob violence and government complicity. Anti-lynching plays and literary works were produced. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and related groups, organized support from white and black Americans, publicizing injustices, investigating incidents, and working for passage of federal legislation. African-American women's clubs raised funds and conducted petition drives, letter campaigns, meetings, and demonstrations to highlight the issues and combat lynching.[18] In the Great Migration, particularly from 1910 to 1940, 1.5 million African Americans left the South, primarily for destinations in northern and mid-western cities, both to gain better jobs and education and to escape the high rate of violence. From 1910 to 1930 particularly, more blacks migrated from counties with high numbers of lynchings.[19]

From 1882 to 1968, "nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress, and three passed the House. Seven presidents between 1890 and 1952 petitioned Congress to pass a federal law."[20] None succeeded in gaining passage, blocked by the Solid South - the delegation of powerful white Southerners in the Senate, which controlled, due to seniority, the powerful committee chairmanships.[20] During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, black activists were attacked and murdered throughout the South. The 1964 Mississippi Burning murders galvanized public support for passage of Civil Rights legislation that year and the next.