Combating Racism – The Legacy of Lynching

For the past two weeks, I have written about lynchings in both Southern states and non-Southern states. Despite the slowdown in lynchings across the country, racial terrorism created a legacy of new forms of violence, a compromised criminal justice system, and long-term psychological impacts.

After the rate of lynchings slowed, violence against Black Americans took new forms. The racial animosity that made lynching a frequent occurrence and constant threat in the late 19th and early 20th centuries remained deeply rooted in American culture, and violent intimidation continued to be used to preserve White supremacy.

Blacks Americans faced violence, threats and intimidation in many areas of daily life with no protection from the justice system. Black demonstrators met with violent opposition from White police officers and members of the community. Black activists protesting racial segregation and disenfranchisement through boycotts, sit-ins, voter registration drives, and mass marches were met with physical attacks, riots and bombings by Whites.

According to the Equal Justice Initiative, America has never addressed the role that racial violence and the criminalization of Blacks have played in shaping the American criminal justice system, particularly in the South. The Civil Rights act of 1964, a signature legal achievement of the civil rights movement, contains provisions designed to eliminate discrimination in voting, education, and employment, but it does not address discrimination in criminal justice. Though the most insidious tool of racial subordination through the era of racial terror and its aftermath, the criminal justice system remains the institution in American life least impacted by the civil rights movement.

Lynching—and other forms of racial terrorism—inflicted deep traumatic and psychological wounds on survivors, witnesses, family members, and the entire African American community. Whites who participated in or witnessed gruesome lynchings and socialized their children in this culture of violence also were psychologically damaged. And state officials’ indifference to and complicity in lynchings created enduring national and institutional wounds that we have not yet confronted or begun to heal.



On December 1, 1955, after her shift as a seamstress for the Montgomery Fair department store, Rosa Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue city bus. As passengers boarded the bus, Parks and other Black riders were asked to give up their seats once the “Whites only” section had filled. Parks, an active member of Montgomery’s NAACP, refused. She was arrested and fined $14.

Within hours, the Women’s Political Council (WPC), which was formed in 1946 to address the grievances of Black bus patrons in Montgomery, sprang into action. The group printed flyers and brochures, phoned supporters and created carpools.

On December 5th, Black residents launched a 381-day bus boycott and elected Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. president of the newly-formed Montgomery Improvement Association. The boycott continued throughout 1956 and King gained national prominence for his role in the campaign.. On November 13, 1956, the U S Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s decision in Browder v. Gayle, and declared bus segregation unconstitutional and Montgomery buses were desegregated.

Black residents walking, Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955
Fair use image

The Montgomery Bus Boycott speech is one of the first major addresses of Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. King spoke to nearly 5,000 people at the Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery on December 5, 1955, just four days after Mrs. Rosa Parks was arrested. That arrest led to the first major civil rights campaign in the Deep South in half a century.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., between 1955 and his 1968 assassination, received death threats, physical assaults by law enforcement officials, and his home in Montgomery, Alabama was bombed while his wife and infant daughter were inside.


Lamar Smith
Public domain image

Lamar Smith, after serving in World War I, became politically active in his community in Lincoln County, Mississippi. He was one of few registered Black voters in the county and became passionate about Black participation in politics. He worked to educate his community on the political process, register voters and ensure they were able to cast a ballot. In 1951, at age 63, Smith associated himself with the newly-formed Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL). The group focused on the civic duty of Black American citizens to participate in the political process.

On August 13, Smith was on the steps of the Lincoln County Courthouse in Brookhaven. He was helping Black voters to fill out absentee ballots for a runoff election for the Lincoln County Board of Supervisors. Absentee ballots were encouraged to avoid the harassment and possible violence that would result from voting in person. At approximately 10:00 a.m., three supporters of the incumbent – Noah Smith, Charles Falvey and Mack Smith -- loudly objected to Smith’s actions. An altercation broke out, Noah Smith drew a pistol and shot Lamar Smith on the steps of the courthouse in front of a crowd of 30 to 40 people.

A state grand jury composed of 20 White men heard the testimonies of 50 to 75 witnesses a month later. All claimed they did not see any crime occur. The grand jury could make no indictment. Ultimately, none of the three suspects ever faced charges.


On September 15, 1963, four young girls were killed, and 22 others were injured, mostly children, when the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed in a racially motivated attack by the Ku Klux Klan.

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church had been a rallying point for civil rights activists throughout the spring and summer leading up to the bombing. The activists had finally reached an agreement with local authorities to begin integrating schools, and segregationists were outraged. Four men -- Bobby Frank Cherry, Thomas Blanton, Robert Chambliss, and Herman Cash – who were members of the United Klans of America, planted nineteen sticks of dynamite outside the basement behind the church.

The attack was meant to disrupt Black community activists who had been demonstrating for weeks to end segregation in the city. But the bombing had the opposite effect.

16th Street Baptist Church bombing victims
Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair, and Carole Robertson
Fair use image

Because the four young girls were on their way to a basement assembly hall for closing prayers on a Sunday morning, the national public’s anger and revulsion at the slaughter of children in a place of worship helped build support in the Kennedy administration for civil rights legislation.

The public funeral for three of the girls attracted over 8,000 people, but not one city or state official attended. The Birmingham Post-Herald reported a month later that in the aftermath of the bombing no one had been arrested for the incident itself, but twenty-three Blacks had been arrested for charges ranging from disorderly conduct to “being drunk and loitering,” mostly in the vicinity of the church. One Black youth was gunned down by police after he threw rocks at passing cars with White passengers.

Of the four involved in the bombing, Robert Chambliss was tried for murder first. He was convicted in 1977 and died in prison in 1985. Cherry and Blanton were convicted of murder in in 2002 and 2001, respectively, and were both sentenced to life in prison. Cherry died in 2004. The fourth, Herman Cash, died in 1994 before charges could be brought against him.


Freedom Summer was a nonviolent effort by civil rights activists to integrate Mississippi’s segregated political system. It began in late 1963 when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, called “Snick”) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) recruited several hundred northern college students, mostly White, to work in Mississippi during the summer. They helped Black residents to register to vote, establish a new political party, and learn about history and politics in newly-formed Freedom Schools.

The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) was founded on April 26, 1964 as part of a voter registration project for Blacks in the state. The group, which welcomed both Whites and Blacks, was formed to run several candidates for the Senate and Congressional elections on June 2, 1964. The group angered most White Mississippians who responded with violence.

Three civil rights workers who were associated with the MFDP – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Henry Schwerner – were jailed for an alleged traffic violation on June 21, 1964. Police in Mississippi facilitated the murders of the three men, delivering them to a White mob of Ku Klux Klansmen that gathered during the hours that the young men were in jail. The mob was ready and waiting to seize and murder them upon release. The three were later found dead with fatal gunshot wounds near Philadelphia, Mississippi. James Chaney’s body was beaten so badly for attempting to register to vote that his bones had been crushed.

Between June 16 and September 30, 1964, in addition to six murders, there were also 29 shootings, 50 bombings, more than 60 beatings and over 400 arrests of project workers and local residents. These violent incidents were defended as necessary to maintain “law and order.”

Much of the violence, including murders, bombings, kidnappings and torture were aired on national television and focused the country’s attention on civil rights issues for the first time. Public outrage helped spur the U S Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.


Between 1961 and 1964, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) led a voting registration campaign in Selma, the seat of Dallas County, Alabama, a town with a record of consistent resistance to Black voting. When SNCC’s efforts were frustrated by stiff resistance from county law enforcement officials, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were persuaded by local activists to make Selma’s intransigence to Black voting a national concern. SCLC also hoped to use the momentum of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to win federal protection for a voting rights statute.

During January and February 1965, King and SCLC led a series of demonstrations to the Dallas County Courthouse. On February 18, protester Jimmy Lee Jackson was shot by an Alabama state trooper and died eight days later. In response, a protest march from Selma to Montgomery was scheduled for March 7.

Six hundred marchers assembled in Selma on Sunday, March 7, and led by John Lewis and other SNCC and SCLC activists, crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River en route to Montgomery. Just short of the bridge, they found their way blocked by Alabama State troopers and local police who ordered them to turn around. When the protesters refused, the officers shot teargas and waded into the crowd, beating the nonviolent protesters with billy clubs and ultimately hospitalizing over fifty people.

“Bloody Sunday” was televised around the world.

Alabama State Troopers attack SNCC leader John Lewis
Edmund Pettus Bridge, Montgomery, Alabama, March 7, 1965
U.S. Library of Congress


According to author James Clark, “Perhaps the most important reason that lynching declined is that it was replaced by a more palatable form of violence.” [James W. Clarke, "Without Fear or Shame: Lynching, Capital Punishment and the Subculture of Violence in the American South", 28 BRITISH J. OF POL. SCI. 269, 284 (Apr. 1998).]

In the early 1920’s lynchings fell under disfavor in Southern states because of the “bad press” they generated. Southern legislatures shifted instead to capital punishment (so-called legal executions). These ostensibly unbiased court proceedings began to serve the same purpose as vigilante violence. Legal executions, like extrajudicial mob violence, were a similar means of exercising lethal social control over the Black population. Neither lynchings nor “legal executions” required any evidence of guilt; complicit law enforcement officers handed over prisoners to lynch mobs.

Further, although the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and Supreme Court rulings banned racial discrimination in jury selection, local officials barred Blacks from serving on juries. Even in counties where they constituted an overwhelming majority of the local population, Blacks were excluded from jury duty, which reinforced the impunity under which lynching flourished. The fairness of the judicial system was wholly compromised for Black Americans, and the courts operated as tools of their subjugation.

The most famous attempted “legal lynching” is that of the so-called Scottsboro Boys – nine young Black men who were falsely accused of raping two White women on board a train near Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931. On March 25, 1931, the nine unemployed young black men, illegally riding the rails and looking for work, were taken off a freight train at Scottsboro, Alabama and held on a minor charge. The Scottsboro deputies found two White women, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, and pressured them into accusing the nine youths of raping them on board the train.

White mobs converged outside the courtroom during the trial to demand that the accused be executed. Represented by incompetent lawyers, the nine were convicted by an all-White, all-male jury within 2 days and all but the youngest, 13-year-old Leroy Wright, were sentenced to death. When the NAACP challenged the proceedings, according to author Stephen B. Bright, [Stephen B. Bright, "Discrimination, Death and Denial: The Tolerance of Racial Discrimination in Infliction of the Death Penalty", 35 SANTA CLARA L. REV. 433, 440 (1995)] the White people of Scottsdale reportedly did not understand the reaction, saying “After all, they did not lynch the accused; they gave them a trial.”

The Scottsboro Boys, with attorney Samuel Leibowitz (seated, left), 1932
Courtesy Morgan County Archives, Used under Fair Use

Convicted and facing execution, the case of Charlie Weems, Ozie Powell, Clarence Norris, Olen Montgomery, Willie Roberson, Haywood Patterson, Eugene Williams, and Andrew and Leroy Wright sparked international demonstrations and succeeded in both highlighting the racism of the American legal system and in overturning the conviction. The NAACP joined with the other civil rights organizations to form the Scottsboro Defense Committee. Eventually, Ruby Bates repudiated her testimony and acknowledged that she and Price had been pressured into falsely accusing the boys. The case went to the U S Supreme Court in 1937, and the lives of the nine were saved, though it was almost 20 years before the last defendant was freed from prison.

Decades of racial terror in the American South reflected and reinforced a view that Blacks were dangerous criminals who posed a threat to innocent White citizens. Although the Constitution’s presumption of innocence is a bedrock principle of American criminal justice, Blacks were presumed guilty despite evidence to the contrary.

The system’s endorsement of racist myths of Black criminality has never been meaningfully confronted. The unprecedented level of mass incarceration in America today is a contemporary manifestation of these past distortions and abuses that continues to limit the opportunities of our nation’s Black Americans.

According to James Clark, by 1915, court-ordered executions outpaced lynchings in the former slave states for the first time. Two-thirds of those executed in the 1930s were Black. As Blacks fell to just 22 percent of the South’s population between 1910 and 1950, they constituted 75 percent of those executed in the South during that period.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund (LDF) began a multi-decade litigation strategy to challenge the American death penalty — which was most active in the South — as racially-biased and unconstitutional. They won in Furman v. Georgia in 1972 when the United States Supreme Court struck down Georgia’s death penalty statute, holding that capital punishment too closely resembled “vigilante justice, and lynch law” and that “if any basis can be discerned for the selection of these few to be sentenced to die, it is the constitutionally impermissible basis of race.” Cruel and unusual punishment violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution.

Following Furman, Mississippi Senator James O. Eastland accused the Court of “legislating” and “destroying our system of government,” while Georgia’s White supremacist lieutenant governor, Lester Maddox, called the decision “a license for anarchy, rape, and murder.” In December 1972, Florida became the first state to enact a new death penalty statute post-Furman, and within two years, thirty-five states had followed suit. Proponents of Georgia’s new death penalty bill unapologetically borrowed the rhetoric of lynching, insisting: “There should be more hangings. Put more nooses on the gallows. We’ve got to make it safe on the street again."

In 1976, in Gregg v. Georgia, the Supreme Court upheld Georgia’s new death penalty statute and reinstated the American death penalty, rejecting the argument that capital punishment in and of itself constituted “cruel and unusual punishment” and thus violated the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. The new death penalty statutes continued to result in racial imbalance, and constitutional challenges persisted.

In the 1987 case of McCleskey v. Kemp, Warren McCleskey, a Black man, convicted of murdering a White police officer during a store robbery, claimed that the Georgia capital sentencing process was administered in a racially discriminatory manner in violation of the Eight and Fourteenth Amendments. To support his claim, he offered a statistical study (the Baldus study) demonstrating that the imposition of the death penalty in Georgia depended on the race of the victim and the accused. The study found that Black defendants who kill White victims were four times more likely to receive death sentences than Whites in the state. The Supreme Court ruled that there was no constitutional violation and upheld Warren McCleskey’s death sentence.

Race remains a significant factor in capital sentencing. Blacks make up less than 13 percent of the nation’s population, but nearly 42 percent of those currently on death row in America are Black. In 96 percent of states where researchers have completed studies examining the relationship between race and the death penalty, results reveal a pattern of discrimination based on the race of the victim, the race of the defendant, or both. Capital trials today remain proceedings with little racial diversity; the accused is often the only person of color in the courtroom and illegal racial discrimination in jury selection is widespread, especially in the South and in capital cases. In Houston County, Alabama, prosecutors have excluded 80 percent of qualified Blacks from juries in death penalty cases.

More than eight in ten of the nearly 1400 legal executions carried out in this country since 1976 have been in the South. Modern death sentences are disproportionately meted out to Blacks accused of crimes against White victims; efforts to combat racial bias and create federal protection against racial bias in the administration of the death penalty remain thwarted by familiar appeals to the rhetoric of states’ rights; and regional data demonstrates that the modern death penalty in America mirrors racial violence of the past. Capital punishment remains rooted in racial terror — “a direct descendant of lynching.”

Doug Marlette, Atlanta Constitution, 1987



I’ve written extensively, in my past four newsletters, on the impacts of racial violence on our Black population. Each lynching or near-lynching instilled an overwhelming sense of fear and terror in Blacks to the point that many Blacks left their homes, jobs, and families to escape the racial terror of the South. Lynching reflected the degree to which so many Whites by the early twentieth century had come to think of Black men and women as inherently and permanently inferior. In the aftermath of a lynching, Blacks became circumspect in their dealings with Whites; survivors bore the burden of being indebted to “their ‘White friends’ for saving their lives.” In her study of lynching, lawyer and scholar Sherrilyn Ifill explains that the killings created a “deep well of suspicion” among Blacks, who became hypervigilant around White people and taught their young children to do the same.

A TIME magazine article written by Isaac J. Bailey poignantly conveys the Black experience:

"What must it have been like growing up in a country that hated you for possessing the wrong skin? That forced you to bow down to white boys and girls who routinely called you “nigger”? That legislated you out of an equal education and into the worst jobs and neighborhoods? All of it enforced by nooses and the backing of white neighbors and white businessmen and white pastors and white judges and juries and prosecutors and sheriffs and policemen. What must it be like to see that, to this day, those people still face no justice?"


The psychological harm inflicted by the era of terror lynching extends to the millions of White men, women, and children who instigated, attended, celebrated, and internalized these horrific spectacles of collective violence. As numerous social science studies have documented, participation in collective violence leaves perpetrators with their own dangerous and persistent damage, including harmful defense mechanisms such as “diminished empathy for victims” that can lead to intensified violent behaviors that target victims outside the original group. In addition, perpetrators and bystanders may continue to devalue the group they victimized for years afterward and remain unable to acknowledge their actions.

The role that lynching played in the socialization of White children during this era illustrates racial violence’s deep cultural impact. As attendees and participants in lynchings, Southern White children were taught to accept and embrace traumatic violence and the racist narratives underlying it. At one Kentucky lynching, young White children between six and ten years old brought wood and tended to the fire in which the victim was burned. Playing “lynching” was so popular a pastime for Southern White children that the game was named “Salisbury” after a series of lynching in Salisbury, North Carolina in 1902 and 1906 that included a 15-year-old Black child among the victims.

In the lynchings committed in reaction to rape accusations, White adolescent girls accounted for more than half of the accusers. Even when rape accusations were disproved or directly contradicted, the White women and girls responsible for the claims did not suffer any social stigma nor criminal prosecution for their role in instigating the murders of innocent Black men and boys. Socializing girls in such an amoral framework communicated a devaluation of Black life and inflicted psychological damage on them.


The United States government compounded the psychological harm experienced by Blacks by permitting the torture and murder of Black citizens. Federal and state officials’ inaction communicated that no democratic institution valued Black citizens’ lives enough to protect them against terrorism by local officials and private citizens alike. Today, public and private institutions in the South memorialize the Confederacy and celebrate the architects of White supremacy while remaining conspicuously silent about the terror, violence, and loss of life inflicted on Black Americans during the same historical period. This selective public memory compounds the harm of officials’ complicity in lynching and maintains the otherness of Black people who have lived in these communities for generations.

Generations of White people were raised in communities where myths of racial superiority dominated and went largely unchallenged. Many of those people hold powerful positions today. There has been no significant effort to confront White Southerners with the damage done by lynching or to facilitate recovery, and we live with the lingering legacies of that inaction.


Johnathon Kelso in his series, A Song Without Words, wrote that the history of racial violence lies just beneath the surface of the present and the ways that many contemporary Americans fail to grapple with their history. Kelso calls lynching a “huge, gaping wound” in the South that is rarely discussed in the open. While more Americans are beginning to understand the truth about lynchings, there are still many who prefer not to talk about what happened in hundreds of communities for the better part of a century.

In her TIME magazine article entitled “How the South Memorializes – and Forgets – Its History of Lynching,” Sherrilyn Ifill notes that lynching sites rarely have markers to explain what happened there. She writes:

"The public square is where we tell the story of ourselves. The statues and monuments we place there suggest who we are and who we wish to be. But what we choose not to put there is equally revealing. It is time to erect memorials to those victims of lynchings in our public spaces.  The lack of lynching memorials . . . speaks volumes about our paralysis in the face our past’s darkest chapters. . . . re-imagining a more inclusive narrative of who we are in our public spaces, [and] an honest engagement with the truth — with, for example, the paradox that countless lynchings took place on the lawns of courthouses in towns across the South — offers us a chance to reckon with the inequities that continue to plague our society today."

Local populations must do the hard work of identifying how to repair the damage that remains locked in the DNA of the countless hometowns where these horrifying events took place.

According to the Equal Justice Initiative, lynching’s terrorism has contributed to a legacy of racial inequality that our nation must address more directly and concretely than we have to date. The trauma and anguish that lynching and racial violence created in this country continues to haunt us and to contaminate race relations and our criminal justice system in too many places across this country. Important work can and must be done to speak truthfully about this difficult history so that recovery and reconciliation can be achieved. We can address our painful past by acknowledging it and embracing monuments, memorials, and markers that are designed to facilitate important conversations. Education must be accompanied by acts of reconciliation, which are needed to create communities where devastating acts of racial bigotry and legacies of racial injustice can be overcome.

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