Lynching: A Dark Chapter in America's History

Updated on December 20, 2018
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

A wave of terrorism was visited upon ex-slaves and their children in America for 80 years. More than 4,000 men, women, and sometimes children were lynched by angry mobs. They didn’t want to bother with a trial where facts inconvenient to their prejudices might come out. The murders were intended to send a message from white people to African Americans: “Do as we say or we will kill you.”

On December 19, 2018, the United States Senate passed a bill to make lynching a federal crime. Similar bills had been proposed more than 200 times since 1918 and they had all be voted down.

A memorial to the victims of lynchings in Montgomery, Alabama.
A memorial to the victims of lynchings in Montgomery, Alabama. | Source

The Deep South

Three quarters of the lynchings took place in the southern states where slave owning was so deeply entrenched. Slavery might have been abolished but African Americans were not going to be allowed to forget that in the eyes of whites they were inferior people.

The 12 most active lynching states (what a hideous claim to fame) were Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

Indeed, some of the victims of the lawless gangs were guilty of heinous crimes others were murdered for such offences “as holding a photo of a white woman, trying to vote, or generally acting ‘uppity’ ” (Winston-Salem Chronicle).

New Hanover, a small county in North Carolina, can be picked out from 800 others for its brutality. It saw the lynching of 22 people which puts it up there as one of the most intolerant counties in the United States.

A 2018 editorial in the StarNews of Wilmington, North Carolina notes that “It is shocking, though, to be confronted by the raw, bare numbers.

“It is not enough, either, to claim these things all happened long, long ago. The after-effects of that terror still poison race relations in this region and hinder progress.

“They make a hollow lie of our preachments to other nations about the war on terror. Terror made a home here a long, long time ago.”

In a more elaborate affair than most, teenager Henry Smith is lynched in Paris, Texas in 1893. Plenty of God-fearing Christians want a good look.
In a more elaborate affair than most, teenager Henry Smith is lynched in Paris, Texas in 1893. Plenty of God-fearing Christians want a good look. | Source

The Lynching Process

Most lynchings followed similar pattern. Accusations would be leveled against a black man; bogus or true, it didn’t really matter. The purpose of the lynching was to spread terror among the black population more than it was to exact some crude form of justice.

In his 1988 book Blood Justice, historian Howard Smead wrote “The mob wanted the lynching to carry a significance that transcended the specific act of punishment.” The business of killing an African American turned “into a symbolic rite in which the black victim became the representative of his race and, as such, was being disciplined for more than a single crime … The deadly act was [a] warning [to] the black population not to challenge the supremacy of the white race.”

Then, as The Guardian reports, there would “an arrest, and the assembly of a ‘lynch mob’ intent on subverting the normal constitutional judicial process.”

The town sheriff could be relied upon to leave his prisoner unguarded so the mob could get at him. The victim would then be pulled from his cell and subjected to unspeakable physical violence before being strung up by the neck from a tree.

The north was not immune to the atrocities.
The north was not immune to the atrocities. | Source

Crowd-Pleasing Violence

For the thousands of white people who attended a lynching it was a moment of joyous celebration.

There they are, happy to be photographed beside the dangling corpse, secure in the knowledge they had no fear of being arrested for committing murder. The Equal Justice Initiative says that just one percent of the lynchings from 1900 resulted in a criminal conviction of any kind.

The official line was that the slayings occurred at the hands of “persons unknown.”

Fathers and mothers took along their sons and daughters ensuring the passage of bigotry from one generation to the next.

“You also had people that were very fine people,

on both sides.”

President Donald Trump reacts to white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia

Here’s a 1930 report of a lynching from The Raleigh News and Observer “Whole families came together, mothers and fathers, bringing even their youngest children. It was the show of the countryside – a very popular show. Men joked loudly at the sight of the bleeding body …”

Johnathon Kelso has studied lynching. He says he started out with the belief that it was the work of the Ku Klux Klan and associated fringe bigots. “But,” he says “I quickly realized through research … that these crimes were carried out by the entire community on Sunday after church.”

“ON SUNDAY AFTER CHURCH.”

Installation at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
Installation at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. | Source

Let’s Just Forget About it

There is a willful amnesia about the horrific events described above. After a lengthy study of the issue The Equal Justice Initiative noted that “We observed that there is an astonishing absence of any effort to acknowledge, discuss, or address lynching.”

To the contrary, the commemoration of the Confederacy and its fight to retain slavery is apparent all over America, but particularly in the southern states. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) points out that, as of summer 2018, 1,740 Confederate symbols remain in place.

“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

Maya Angelou

There’s Stone Mountain in Georgia where the world’s largest bas-relief carving in rock honours Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. The SPLC points out that “Stone Mountain is the Mount Rushmore of the Confederacy, only bigger.” It attracts four million visitors a year.

Until July 2015, the Confederate battle flag flew above the State House in Columbia, South Carolina.

In 2017, the Republican Governor of Alabama, Kay Ivey, signed into law a bill that makes it illegal to remove any Confederate monuments.

Jasper, Alabama.
Jasper, Alabama. | Source

A Memorial For Lynching Victims

As of April 2018, Americans have a place to pay their respects to the victims of one of the darkest chapters of their history.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama is monument to racial injustice. Jay Reeves and Kim Chandler (Associated Press) describe how the memorial evokes the hangings with “scores of dark metal columns suspended in the air from above. The rectangular structures, some of which lie flat on the ground and resemble graves, include the names of counties where lynchings occurred, plus dates and the names of the victims.”

Sadly, there is room for more metal slabs to be hoisted up as additional victims are identified.

Bonus Factoids

Captain William Lynch (1742-1820) is the most likely person to have given his name to the unlawful killing of suspects. In 1780, Capt. Lynch led a committee of vigilantes in Virginia that kept order during the Revolutionary War.

The Equal Justice Initiative comments that “The decline of lynching in the studied states relied heavily on the increased use of capital punishment imposed by court order following an often accelerated trial.” In other words, the state took over the work of the unruly mobs.

It was not a lynching in the traditional sense, but the murder of nine African Americans in a church in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015 echoes those dark events. The killer was a white supremacist who chose to commit his crime in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a place associated with the anti-slavery movement. In 1822, local officials learned that the church was being used as a secret location for planning a slave revolt, so they burned it down.

Sources

  • “We Must Never Forget History of Lynchings in N. C.” The Star News of Wilmington, May 17, 2018.
  • “How White Americans Used Lynchings to Terrorize and Control Black People.” Jamiles Lartey and Sam Morris, The Guardian, April 26, 2018.
  • “How the South Memorializes — and Forgets — Its History of Lynching.” Sherrilyn Ifill, Time, August 28, 2018.
  • “Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy” Southern Poverty Law Center, June 4, 2018.
  • “New Lynching Memorial Offers Chance to Remember, Heal.” Jay Reeves and Kim Chandler, Associated Press, April 21, 2018.

© 2018 Rupert Taylor

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    • Natalie Frank profile image

      Natalie Frank 

      14 months ago from Chicago, IL

      That just gives me chills. I wrote a play about the lynching of Leo Frank. Interestingly, that was the point in time when the KKK turned from hating black people the most to hating Jews the most. They actually let the black man who raped and murdered the girl off and he testified against Leo Frank. Leo Frank was dragged from his jail cell and hung. The pictures show families actually having a picnic under his body which is still hanging from the tree branch. Such a lovely family outing. And I think one of the worst things is that is exactly how such hate is transmitted from one generation to the next. It's time to break the cycle.

    • Rupert Taylor profile imageAUTHOR

      Rupert Taylor 

      14 months ago from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

      Thanks for your comments Natalie.

      Many of those grisly images were turned into postcards so those in attendance could mail them to their friends. "Had a good ole neck-tie party on Saturday. Duke and the kids were thrilled to bits when the n***** started dancing on the end of the rope. You would have loved it."

    • Natalie Frank profile image

      Natalie Frank 

      14 months ago from Chicago, IL

      Rupert - you did a masterful job of presenting the topic and giving the overall feel and sentiment of the horror that went on and continues to go on in the deep south and other areas of the country. Telling the story while striving to preserve the dignity of the victims families and friends is compassionate and right. It still boggles my mind to every so often see a photo of an actual lynching and recognize how many such photos exist, usually with people, even children, posing for a photo op with the body. The lynchings that I hear about, luckily not very often any more, are kept quiet and I don't think they are covered on the news - I think this has become policy in the South. Evidently to try to heal the nation from the terrors of slavery. Of course, hiding them is part of what enables them to go on - this atmosphere of secrecy is only conducive to protecting the guilty parties and for those who are made aware there is no sense of healing- only of further harm. Thanks again for writing this.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish MS 

      14 months ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Unfortunately, we have some chapters of the KKK in Ohio, especially in the Northwest quadrant. I pray they are not successful in their recruiting efforts.

    • Rupert Taylor profile imageAUTHOR

      Rupert Taylor 

      14 months ago from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

      Natalie. Your comments leave me feeling profoundly saddened but I cannot say I'm surprised to learn that the vile sentiments that fuelled lynching are still lurking in rural undergrowth.

      The topic is deeply troubling but must be faced up to and confronted in the same way most civilized people acknowledge the Holocaust.

      I writing the article I wanted to avoid egregious descriptions of what went on to preserve a little bit of the dignity of the victims. Likewise, I avoided graphic images as much as possible. Those people suffered enough without having their torn and abused bodies paraded around.

    • Rupert Taylor profile imageAUTHOR

      Rupert Taylor 

      14 months ago from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

      Paula. From what I've read the perpetrators of these hideous crimes wren't satisfied just killing their victims; they wanted them to suffer maximum pain and humiliation before the blessed release of death. I cannot put my own head in that space in my present consciousness, but I do wonder if I'm capable of such cruelty in some extreme circumstances. There are psychiatrists around who say it's in us all.

      Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom says in an article in Vox "A lot of people blame cruelty on dehumanization. They say that when you fail to appreciate the humanity of other people, that’s where genocide and slavery and all sorts of evils come from. I don’t think that’s entirely wrong. I think a lot of real awful things we do to other people arise from the fact that we don't see them as people."

    • Natalie Frank profile image

      Natalie Frank 

      14 months ago from Chicago, IL

      Rupert- In important article but I am afraid to say it is not a matter of history. I am from Georgia and in the rural areas of the deep south lynchings are not entirely a thing of the past. Stone Mountain is the heart of the KKK and still not somewhere anyone I know would want to be caught after dark. As a Jew, there are areas that neither I nor my black friends would think to drive through even in broad daylight. It wouldn't be as bad for me as you can't tell I'm Jewish just by looking at me but for them it's obviously not the same. I remember driving into the mountains with my then boyfriend when I was in college. The only way to get there was to drive through Forsyth County - where Oprah Winfrey interviewed some of the all white supremacist population who repeated called her the n word - and my boyfriend made me take my Jewish start off and put it in my shoe in case we were stopped by the police - you couldn't even have trusted them back then. Unfortunately there is still prejudice and discrimination that remains in our country that is based on a foundation of terror. Thank you for writing this article.

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 

      14 months ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      Rupert, It is good to see you again. However, this topic has moved me to feel many a negative and painful emotion. It is vital that all people, from every corner, every age and every belief, see the truth of an egregious history that should bring us nothing but shame & remorse.

      What took place must be remembered in all it's horror, death and disgust, until a complete awakening occurs in the hearts and minds of humanity. An awakening that stirs us and carries us forward on the road to penance, reparation, true amends and the complete rejection of such despicable acts by man against man.

      Thank you for the dedication, honesty and the grit it required to bring the truth of man's atrocities to light in your powerful story.

      I can see it had to be very difficult for you to write this. Peace, Paula

    • Miebakagh57 profile image

      Miebakagh Fiberesima 

      14 months ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

      Hello, Rupert, this is too horrific a crime of injustice to persons created in the image and likeness of God of the black and white race, etc. All men are equal before God. In reality, it is a crime against God. He clearly states in the very Bible being read on Sundays and other worship days:"yOU SHALL NOT MURDER."

      Why the minister that preach on Sundays allow this to go on for long? Then, it implicate them as criminals along the mobs.

      And the police? There are almost part of the mobs. A lawless persons snaching a poor soul from police and killing them? Where in ancient civilization such can happen? The law is there toprotect the life and property of persons.

      But thank God. He let justice runs its course like water. It does not matter how long it start to manifest. That is the character of God. He was patient with Americans sin. Otherwise, American could have been destroyed immediately.

      I am glad something is being done at present to redressed the situation. All the wrongs should be corrected. Those killed has relations and family. Let adequate compesation be paid to them, even if it is in monetary form. Does these equate a life? No, but let it be done.

      I cherished your articles. I will continued to read them. Than you.

    • Rupert Taylor profile imageAUTHOR

      Rupert Taylor 

      14 months ago from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

      Patty. This was a difficult piece to write. I had to break away from it a few times because I became emotionally involved. I wanted to deal with the horrific events without describing the gratuitous violence that I discovered during the research. Sadly, I cannot unsee and unlearn what I found. It's going to haunt me for a while and so is the fact that some people still think the lynchings were a good idea. The veneer of civilization, it seems, is very thin.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish MS 

      14 months ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Thank you for this riveting article. Parts of the US have not always been "great." My heart breaks for these tragedies.

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