Lynching: A Dark Chapter in America's History
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
- “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