Robert A. Gibson
In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the lynching of Black people in the Southern and border states became an institutionalized method used by whites to terrorize Blacks and maintain white supremacy. In the South, during the period 1880 to 1940, there was deep-seated and all-pervading hatred and fear of the Negro which led white mobs to turn to “lynch law” as a means of social control. Lynchings—open public murders of individuals suspected of crime conceived and carried out more or less spontaneously by a mob—seem to have been an American invention. In
, the first scholarly investigation of lynching, written in 1905, author James E. Cutler stated that “lynching is a criminal practice which is peculiar to the United States.”
Most of the lynchings were by hanging or shooting, or both. However, many were of a more hideous nature—burning at the stake, maiming, dismemberment, castration, and other brutal methods of physical torture. Lynching therefore was a cruel combination of racism and sadism, which was utilized primarily to sustain the caste system in the South. Many white people believed that Negroes could only be controlled by fear. To them, lynching was seen as the most effective means of control.
There are three major sources of lynching statistics. None cover the complete history of lynching in America. Prior to 1882, no reliable statistics of lynchings were recorded. In that year, the
first began to take systematic account of lynchings. Shortly thereafter, in 1892, Tuskegee Institute began to make a systematic collection and tabulation of lynching statistics. Beginning in 1912, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People kept an independent record of lynchings.
These statistics were based primarily on newspaper reports. Because the South is so large and the rural districts had not always been in close contact with the city newspapers, it is certain that many lynchings escaped publicity in the press. Undoubtedly, therefore, there are errors and inaccuracies in the available lynching statistics.
The numbers of lynchings listed in each source varies slightly. The NAACP lynching statistics tend to be slightly higher than the Tuskegee Institute figures, which some historians consider “conservative.” For example, in 1914, Tuskegee Institute reported fifty-two lynchings for the year, the “Chicago Tribune” reported fifty-four, and
, the official organ of the NAACP,gave the number as seventy-four.
The reason for the discrepancies in these figures is due in part to different conceptions of what actually constituted a lynching, and errors in the figures. According to the Tuskegee Institute figures, between the years 1882 and 1951, 4,730 people were lynched in the United States: 3,437 Negro and 1,293 white.
The largest number of lynchings occurred in 1892. Of the 230 persons lynched that year, 161 were Negroes and sixty-nine whites.
Contrary to present-day popular conception, lynching was not a crime committed exclusively against Black people. During the nineteenth century a significant minority of the lynching victims were white. Between the 1830s and the 1850s the majority of those lynched in the United States were whites. Although a substantial number of white people were victims of this crime, the vast majority of those lynched, by the 1890s and after the turn of the century, were Black people. Actually, the pattern of almost exclusive lynching of Negroes was set during the Reconstruction period. According to the Tuskegee Institute statistics for the period covered in this study, the total number of Black lynching victims was more than two and one-half times as many as the number of whites put to death by lynching.
Lynchings occurred throughout the United States; it was not a sectional crime. However, the great majority of lynchings in the United States took place in the Southern and border states. According to social economist Gunnar Myrdal: “The Southern states account for nine-tenths of the lynchings. More than two-thirds of the remaining one-tenth occurred in the six states which immediately border the South: Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Kansas.”
Mississippi, Georgia, Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama were the leading lynching states. These five states furnished nearly half the total victims. Mississippi had the highest incidence of lynchings in the South as well as the highest for the nation, with Georgia and Texas taking second and third places, respectively. However, there were lynchings in the North and West. In fact, every state in the continental United States with the exception of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Vermont has had lynching casualties.
The causes assigned by whites in justification or explanation of lynching Black people include everything from major crimes to minor offenses. In many cases, Blacks were lynched for no reason at all other than race prejudice. Southern folk tradition has held that Negroes were lynched only for the crimes of raping white women—”the nameless crime”—and murder. However, the statistics do not sustain this impression.
The accusations against persons lynched, according to the Tuskegee Institute records for the years 1882 to 1951, were: in 41 per cent for felonious assault, 19.2 per cent for rape, 6.1 per cent for attempted rape, 4.9 per cent for robbery and theft, 1.8 per cent for insult to white persons, and 22.7 per cent for miscellaneous offenses or no offense at a 11.5 In the last category are all sorts of trivial “offenses” such as “disputing with a white man,” attempting to register to vote, “unpopularity”, self-defense, testifying against a white man, “asking a white woman in marriage”, and “peeping in a window.”
Being charged with a crime did not necessarily mean that the person charged was guilty of the crime. Mob victims ware often known to have been innocent of misdeeds. A special study by Arthur Raper of nearly one hundred lynchings convinced him that approximately one-third of the victims were falsely accused.
Occasionally mobs were mistaken in the identity of their victims.
The racist myth of Negroes’ uncontrollable desire to rape white women acquired a strategic position in the defense of the lynching practice. However, homicides and felonious assault, not rape, were most frequently cited in explanation of mob action. Next in importance, from the viewpoint of number of cases, is rape and attempted rape—25.3 per cent of the victims. Concerning this figure, Myrdal states: “There is much reason to believe that this figure has been inflated by the fact that a mob which makes the accusation of rape is secure from any further investigation; by the broad Southern definition of rape to include all sexual relations between Negro men and white women; and by the psychopathic fears of white women in their contacts with Negro men.”
Another fact which refutes the fallacy of rape as being the primary cause of Negro lynchings is that between 1882 and 1927, 92 women were victims of lynch mobs: 76 Negro and 16 white.
Certainly they could not have been rapists.
The lynching of Negroes, Cutler states, “can only be justified on no other ground than that the law as formulated and administered has proved inadequate to deal with the situation—that there has been governmental inefficiency...”
Lynchings occurred most commonly in the smaller towns and isolated rural communities of the South where people were poor, mostly illiterate, and where there was a noticeable lack of wholesome community recreation. The people who composed mobs in such neighborhoods were usually small land holders, tenant farmers and common laborers, whose economic status was very similar to that of the Negro. They frequently found Black men economic competitors and bitterly resented any Negro progress. Their starved emotions made the raising of a mob a quick and simple process, and racial antagonism made the killing of Negroes a type of local amusement which broke the monotony of rural life. Although most participants in the lynching mobs were from the lower strata of Southern white society, occasionally middle and upper class whites took part, and generally condoned the illegal activity. Many Southern politicians and officials supported “lynch-law”, and came to power on a platform of race prejudice.
Lynching was a local community affair. When the sentiment of a community favored lynching the laws were difficult or impossible to enforce. State authorities often attempted to prevent lynchings, but seldom punished the mob participants. Because of the tight hold on the courts by local public opinion, lynchers were rarely ever indicted by a grand jury or sentenced. The judge, prosecutor, jurors and witnesses—all white—were usually in sympathy with the lynchers. If sentenced, the participants in the lynch mobs were usually pardoned. Local police and sheriffs rarely did anything to defend Negro citizens and often supported lynchings. Arthur Raper estimated, from his study of one hundred lynchings, that “at least one-half of the lynchings are carried out with police officers participating, and that in nine-tenths of the others the officers either condone or wink at the mob action.”
Myrdal suggests several background factors and underlying causes for the prevalence of lynching in rural areas by lower class whites: poverty, economic and social fear of the Negro, low level of education, and the “isolation, the dullness of every day life and the general boredom of rural and small town life.”
However, the fundamental cause of lynching was fear of the Negro—the basis of racism and discrimination. Many whites, after Reconstruction and during the first four decades of the twentieth century, feared that the Negro was “getting out of his place” and that the white man’s social status was threatened and was in need of protection. Lynching was seen as the method to defend white domination and keep the Negroes from becoming “uppity”. Therefore, lynching was more the expression of white American fear of Black social and economic advancement than of Negro crime. W. E. B. DuBois was correct when he stated: “...the white South feared more than Negro dishonesty, ignorance and incompetency, Negro honesty, knowledge, and efficiency.”
After 1892, lynchings declined quite steadily until about 1905, when there were sixty-two. No material change occurred for nearly twenty years. There was an annual average of sixty-two lynchings for the years 1910 to 1919. However, beginning in 1923 lynchings began to grow markedly fewer, and in the late 1930s and 1940s trailed off and became rarer. During these two decades, the annual rate of lynchings dropped to about ten and three respectively. Although the actual number of lynchings declined after 1892, the percentage of Black victims increased.
This decline has never been fully explained. There has been much speculation about this matter, but several logical reasons have been considered responsible for this steady decline in lynchings. Some have suggested the growing distaste of Southern elites for anti-Negro violence, particularly Southern women and businessmen. Others mention the increasing urbanization of the South during the 1930s and 1940s. Moreover, statewide police systems were developed which were willing to oppose local mobs, and the National Guard was increasingly called to stop lynchings. Also, Southern newspapers began frequently to denounce lynchings.
The work of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was tremendously effective in awakening the nation to the urgency of stopping lynching. The NAACP, an interracial civil rights protest organization founded in 1909, made thorough investigations of lynchings and other crimes committed against Negroes, and informed the public concerning them. In 1919 the NAACP published
Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889-1918,
which was a revelation of the causes of lynching and the circumstances under which the crimes occurred. Beginning in 1921, the NAACP sponsored antilynching legislation such as the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill and numerous other proposals to make lynching a federal crime.
The sharp decline in lynchings since 1922 undoubtedly had something to do with the fact that early in that year the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill was passed in the House of Representatives. The Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill provided fines and imprisonment for persons convicted of lynching in federal courts, and fines and penalties against states, counties, and towns which failed to use reasonable efforts to protect citizens from mob violence. It was killed in the Senate by the filibuster of the Southern senators who claimed that anti-lynching legislation would be unconstitutional and an infringement upon states’ rights. However, the long discussion of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill was of great importance to the decline.
Southern white organizations also began to condemn lynchings during the two decades before World War II. Among them were the Commission for Interracial Cooperation, which did research and issued publications which provided additional facts on lynchings, and the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, which was founded in Atlanta in 1930. Various other women’s organizations in the South were also active in the struggle against lynching.