The lynching problem / Dalrymple, 1899. Courtesy: Library of Congress
“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
~ Maya Angelou, On the Pulse of Morning
WARNING: The information in this newsletter may be upsetting and potentially traumatizing.
DISCLAIMER: In researching material for this newsletter, I saw photos so graphic that they made me nauseous. My purpose in this newsletter is to inform, not to traumatize. So I have restrained from including some of the most graphic images of horrendous, inhumane brutality against Blacks. However, if you spend time on Google, you will be able to find them.
The definition of lynching, which became the legal definition in the 1920’s, is when three or more persons, which constitute a mob, put someone to death extra legally, without court sanction, without legal sanction, for the purpose of their version of justice. The NAACP adopted this definition in their struggle against lynching and their efforts to make lynching a federal crime.
Lynching first began as a form of vigilante retribution used to enforce “popular justice” on the Western frontier. But lynching did not initially mean killing. Rather, vigilantes punished thieves, highwaymen, swindlers and card sharks with tarring-and-feathering, beatings and floggings.
But starting in the 1830’s and continuing in the decades after the Civil War, lynching became synonymous with hanging. The first broadly publicized lethal lynching occurred in Madison County, Mississippi in 1835, after a fabricated story of a planned slave uprising generated local panic, resulting in the hangings of several Black slaves.
Between 1830 and 1860, Southern mobs killed at least 400 enslaved Blacks. Most were lynched under suspicion of conspiring to mount a slave uprising, a growing fear among Southern White slave holders.
After the Civil War, lynching became a way to enforce White supremacy and suppress Black civil rights. Lynching in the early decades following the Civil War was often done in secret, usually at night. By the end of the 19th century, although Southern states had readily-available, fully-functioning criminal justice systems, Southern lynching was used as a tool of racial control. Many lynching victims were not accused of any criminal act, and lynch mobs regularly disregarded the legal system.
Over time, the character of the violence changed as gruesome public spectacle lynchings became more common. These public spectacle lynchings were often held as festive community gatherings with large crowds of Whites watching Black victims’ prolonged torture, mutilation, dismemberment, and burning at the stake. Now the acts were being carried out by people who felt no need to hide their identities.
According to a report by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), lynchings of the type mentioned in this newsletter were “acts of terrorism because these murders were carried out with impunity . . . and generally took place in communities where there was a functioning criminal justice system that was deemed too good for Blacks. Terror lynchings were horrific acts of violence whose perpetrators were never held accountable. Indeed, some public spectacle lynchings were attended by the entire White community and conducted as celebratory acts of racial control and dominance.”
Prejudices around color existed since the first Africans came to the US, but in the late 19th century, with the advent of Social Darwinism and the need to think about Black people and Black labor and Black bodies in a particular way, many people began to embrace the idea that Black people were inferior to White people. And therefore, there was a justification to suppress their advancement in all areas, lest the society as a whole be brought down. And scientists actually sought to prove these things empirically.
Also in the late 19th century, viable Black towns sprang up across the South and Blacks began to make political and economic inroads by registering to vote, establishing businesses, and running for public office. Many Whites — landowners and poor Whites — felt threatened by any rise in Black prominence.
Ideas around women’s sexuality began to change in this time period as well. The need of White men to believe that White women had to maintain their purity and the purity of the race, brought up fears around interracial relationships. Southern men saw themselves as protectors of their White women. Some Whites espoused the idea that Black men were sexual predators and wanted integration in order to be with White women. The emerging myth of the threat of rape of a White woman by a Black man became a tense focal point, and the often-false accusation of rape, one of the chief justifications for lynching.
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The Equal Justice Initiative has documented 4,084 lynchings of Black people in 12 Southern states between 1877 and 1950. Of these lynching victims, nearly 25% were accused of sexual assault and nearly 30% were accused of murder. Others were lynched based on accusations of far less serious crimes like arson, robbery, non-sexual assault and vagrancy, many of which were not punishable by death in a court of law. Additionally, Blacks were lynched for non-criminal violations of social customs or racial expectations. Finally, many Blacks were lynched, not because they committed a crime or social infraction, but because they were Black and present when the accused party could not be found. For example, in 1901, in Smith County, Tennessee, Ballie Crutchfield’s brother found a lost wallet with $120 and kept the money. As he was about to be lynched by a mob, he broke free and escaped. Thwarted in their attempt to kill the suspect, the mob turned to his sister and lynched Ms. Crutchfield in her brother’s stead.
The circumstances behind most lynchings fell into several categories:
- Those resulting from a wildly distorted fear of interracial sex
- Those in response to a casual social transgression
- Those based on allegations of serious violent crime
- Public spectacle lynchings
- Lynchings targeting the entire Black community
These lynchings kept the Black community terrorized and in a constant state of fear.
Lynchings Based on a Distorted Fear of Interracial Sex
Whites’ fears of interracial sex extended to any action by a Black man that could be interpreted as seeking or desiring contact with a White woman. The mere accusation of rape even without an identification by the alleged victim, often aroused a mob, resulting in lynching.
In 1889, in Aberdeen, Mississippi, Keith Bowen allegedly tried to enter a room where three white women were sitting; though no further allegation was made against him, Mr. Bowen was lynched by the entire White neighborhood for his offense. General Lee, a Black man, was lynched by a White mob in 1904 for merely knocking on the door of a White woman’s house in Reevesville, South Carolina. In 1912, Thomas Miles was lynched in Shreveport, Louisiana, for allegedly writing letters to a White woman inviting her to have a cold drink with him. In 1934, after being accused of “associating with a White woman” in Newton, Texas, John Griggs was hanged and shot seventeen times and his body was dragged behind a car through the town for hours.
In 1906, Edward Johnson, a Black man, was convicted of raping a White woman and sentenced to death by an all-White jury in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His attorneys appealed the case and won a stay of execution from the U S Supreme Court. In response, a White mob seized him from jail, dragged him through the streets, hanged him and shot him hundreds of times. In his last words, he proclaimed his innocence. Nearly a century later, he was cleared of the rape.
In Thomasville, Georgia, in 1930, a Black man named William Kirkland was arrested for the alleged rape of a 9-year-old White girl. Before a trial could be held, a mob of between 50-75 White men seized him from the jail, hung his body from a tree, riddled it with bullets, and then dragged the corpse through town behind a truck before dumping it on the courthouse lawn.
Some lynching victims were demonstrably innocent of the alleged crimes. According to the Chicago Defender, March 30, 1918, after a White woman was raped in Lewiston, North Carolina, a Black man named Peter Bazemore was accused of the crime and lynched by a mob before it was discovered that the real perpetrator had been a White man wearing Black makeup.
Narratives of these lynchings reported in the sympathetic White press justified the violence and perpetuated the deadly stereotype of Black men as hypersexual threats to White womanhood. When Black Memphis journalist and anti-lynching activist, Ida B. Wells, published an editorial challenging the destructive myth of widespread Black-on-White sexual violence and insisted that consensual interracial sex did occur, White mobs burned her newspaper offices and threatened to lynch her.
Lynchings Based on Minor Social Transgressions
Some of the myriad “offenses” of which Blacks were accused included speaking disrespectfully, refusing to step off the sidewalk, using profane language, using an improper title for a White person, suing a White man, arguing with a White man, bumping into a White woman, insulting a White person, and so on.
White men lynched Jeff Brown in 1916 in Cedarbluff, Mississippi for accidentally bumping into a White girl as he ran to catch a train; in 1917, Sam Cates was lynched for “annoying White girls” in England, Arkansas. In 1918, Private Charles Lewis was lynched in Hickman, Kentucky after he refused to empty his pockets while wearing an Army uniform. Richard Wilkerson was lynched in Manchester, Tennessee, in 1934 for allegedly slapping a White man who had assaulted a Black woman at a dance. In 1940, Jesse Thornton was lynched in Luverne, Alabama for referring to a White police officer by his name without the title of “Mister.”
WARNING: The following section is extremely graphic and may be upsetting.
Lynchings Based on Allegations of Crime
According to Ida B. Wells and Tuskegee University, most lynching victims were accused of murder or attempted murder. Rape or attempted rape was the second most common accusation.
Suspicion was focused on Black communities after a crime was discovered, whether evidence supported that suspicion or not. In a strictly racial caste system, the mere suggestion of Black-on-White violence could spark outrage, mob violence, and murder before the judicial system could act.
Of the hundreds of Black people lynched under accusation of murder, nearly every one was brutally killed without being legally convicted of any offense. When Berry Noyse was accused of killing the local sheriff in Lexington, Tennessee in 1918, an angry mob lynched him in the courthouse square, then dragged his body through the streets of town, shot it dozens of times, and burned the body in the middle of the street below hung banners that read, “This is the way we do our bit.”
A year earlier, in Dyersburg, Tennessee, Lation Scott was subjected to a brutal and prolonged lynching after being accused of “criminal assault.” A mob tortured Mr. Scott with a hot poker iron, gouging out his eyes, shoving the hot poker down his throat, and pressing it all over his body before castrating him and burning him alive over a slow fire. His torturous killing lasted more than three hours.
Public Spectacle Lynchings
Those of you who know how much I abhor violence, may be surprised that I am actually able to recount the following examples of public spectacle lynchings. But understanding the ways that Whites kept Black communities terrorized and in a perpetual state of fear helps us grasp the ongoing manifestations of racism in our current society.
Public spectacle lynchings were those in which large crowds of White people, often numbering in the thousands, gathered to watch pre-planned, heinous killings that featured prolonged torture, mutilation, dismemberment and/or burning of the victim. Many were carnival-like events, with printers producing postcards featuring photographs of the lynching and corpse and with the victim’s body parts collected as souvenirs. And many were advertised in leaflets and newspapers in advance, such as the example below.
According to reports in Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance Movements in Sunflower County, Mississippi and Lynchings in Mississippi: A History 1865-1965, “In 1904, after Luther Holbert allegedly killed a local White landowner, he and a Black woman believed to be his wife were captured by a mob and taken to Doddsville, Mississippi to be lynched before hundreds of White spectators. Both victims were tied to a tree and forced to hold out their hands while mob members chopped off their fingers and distributed them as souvenirs. Next their ears were cut off. Mr. Holbert was then beaten so severely that his skull was fractured. Members of the mob used a large corkscrew to bore holds into the victims’ bodies and pull out large chucks of flesh, after which both victims were thrown into a raging fire and burned. The White men, women, and children present watched the horrific murders while enjoying deviled eggs, lemonade and whiskey in a picnic-like atmosphere.”
According to an article in the Montgomery Advertiser on May 23, 1917, “In Memphis, Tennessee, a mob of 25 men seized Ell Persons from a train that was transporting him to stand trial for rape and murder. The mob had announced the lynching time and location in advance, and thousands of people attended. Mr. Persons was set on fire while a 10-year-old Black child was forced to sit next to the fire and watch him die. When the crowd complained that Mr. Persons would die too quickly if burned, the fire was extinguished and members of the crowd fought over his clothes and remnants of the rope to keep as mementoes. Two men cut off his ears for souvenirs, after which the head of his corpse was thrown into a crowd in Memphis’s Black commercial district.”
In other lynchings, pieces of victims’ internal organs were sold after the lynching and flesh, teeth, fingers and toes were taken from the corpse of Richard Coleman in Maysville, Kentucky after his death.
In all these and other incidents, those who carried out lynchings never faced legal repercussions.
Hayes and Mary Turner worked for plantation owner Hampton Smith in Brooks County, Georgia, in 1918. Smith was known for abusing and beating his workers, and for bailing people out of jail and having them work off their debt in his fields. Mary Turner was once severely beaten by Smith and when her husband threatened him, local authorities sentenced him to time on a chain gang.
On the evening of May 16, 1918, Smith was shot and killed by one of his workers. The following week Brooks County saw a mob driven manhunt which resulted in the lynching of 13 people including some who were in the local jail.
Nineteen years old and eight months pregnant, Mary Turner publicly denied that her husband had anything to do with the murder of Hampton Smith. He had been arrested among others on the farm. Her remarks enraged the locals, and the mob turned on her, determined to “teach her a lesson.”
On May 19, a mob of several hundred people dragged her to Folsom Bridge, over the Little River. The mob tied her ankles, strung her upside down, doused her clothes in gasoline and set her on fire. While she was still alive, someone split open her stomach and her unborn baby slid out and fell to the ground. The mob stomped and crushed the baby to death. Turner’s body was riddled with hundreds of bullets. Later that night, the remains of Turner and her baby were buried a few feet away from where they were murdered.
Although local officials were given names of instigators and 15 specific participants, no one was ever charged or convicted of the murders. A historical marker memorializing Turner was placed near the lynching site and dedicated on May 15, 2010.
Lynchings Targeting the Entire Black Community
Most lynchings involved the killing of one or more specific individuals, but some lynch mobs targeted entire Black communities by forcing Black people to witness lynchings and demanding that they leave the area or face a similar fate. After a lynching in Forsyth County, Georgia in 1912, White vigilantes distributed leaflets demanding that all Black people leave the county or suffer deadly consequences. So many Black families fled that, by 1920, the county’s Black population had gone from 1100 to just 30.
To maximize lynching as a terrorizing symbol of power and control over the Black community, White mobs frequently chose to lynch victims in a prominent place inside the town’s Black district. In 1918, in rural Unicoi County, Tennessee, a group of White men shot Thomas Devert in the head. To ensure that the entire Black community witnessed his fate, the mob dragged his body to the town railyard, built a funeral pyre, and then rounded up all 60 Black residents and forced the men, women and children to watch his corpse burn. These Blacks and 80 other Blacks who worked at a local quarry were then told the leave the county within 24 hours.
In 1927, John Carter was accused of striking two White women in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was seized by a mob and shot 200 times. The mob then threw his mangled body across an automobile and lead a 26-block procession past city hall, through Little Rock’s Black neighborhoods and to the Black community’s downtown center. That night, between the Black community’s most significant landmarks – Bethel African American Episcopal Church and the Mosaic Templars Building – the mob seized pews from the church to ignite a bonfire on the trolley tracks. They then threw Mr. Carter’s body into the fire, which burned for 3 hours.
Lynchings of Blacks Resisting Mistreatment
From 1915-1940, lynch mobs targeted Blacks who protested being treated as second-class citizens. Blacks throughout the South, individually and in organized groups, were demanding the economic and civil rights to which they were entitled. Many became political activists or labor organizers – Black men and women who violated White expectations of Black deference and were deemed “uppity” or “insolent”.
According to an article in the Chicago Defender, dated June 22, 1918, when Elton Mitchell of Earle, Arkansas refused to work on a White-owned farm without pay, “prominent” White citizens of the city cut him into pieces with butcher knives and hung his remains from a tree.
In Hernando, Mississippi, in 1935, Reverend T. A. Allen tried to start a sharecropper’s union among local impoverished and exploited Black laborers. When White landowners learned of Reverend Allen’s preaching about unionization, they formed a mob, seized him, shot him many times and threw him into the Coldwater River.
These lynchings were designed for broad impact – to send a message of racial subordination, to instill fear, and sometimes to drive Blacks from the community altogether.
Blacks’ efforts to fight for economic power and equal rights in the early 20th century – a prelude to the civil rights movement – were violently repressed by Whites who acted with impunity. Whites used terrorism to relegate Blacks to a state of second-class citizenship and economic disadvantage that has lasted for generations after emancipation and created far-reaching consequences.
In his 1945 memoir, Black Boy, Richard Wright wrote: “The things that influenced my conduct as a Negro did not have to happen to me directly; I needed but to hear of them to feel their full effects in the deepest layers of my consciousness. Indeed, the white brutality that I had not seen was a more effective control of my behavior than that which I knew.”
It’s sad to think that we look at other countries and deem them immoral for killing their own people. But we overlook what happened in this country between 1830 and 1955. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, “America’s legacy of racial terror must be more fully addressed if racial justice is to be achieved.” We cannot and should not overlook these atrocities any longer.
Next week I will share the history of lynchings in Northern and Western States.
Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror published by the Equal Justice Initiative
History of Lynchings, NAACP
Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror published by the Equal Justice Initiative
On Lynchings by Ida B. Wells-Barnett
Jacqueline Jones Royster
Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, Ida B. Wells-Barnett
To listen to audio stories from generations affected by the history of lynching in America, click here.