The Black American community responded to white mob violence in several ways. Black people resisted this oppression. This resistance was expressed in three ways: retaliatory violence, Northward migration, and organized non-violent protest.
There are records of numerous instances of individual and collective acts of Black retaliatory violence. Although retaliatory violence seemed unreasonable, and often led to more lynching and violence, Blacks frequently armed themselves and fought back in self-defense.
Several Black leaders advocated self-defense against mob attack. Through the pages of
, W. E. B. DuBois occasionally encouraged Blacks to fight back. “If we are to die,” he angrily wrote after a Pennsylvania mob lynched a Negro in 1911 “in God’s name let us not perish like bales of hay.” Lynching, said DuBois, would stop in the South “when the cowardly mob is faced with effective guns in the hands of the people determined to sell their souls dearly,” (Oct. 1916). A. Phillip Randolph, editor of the militant Socialist monthly,
, also advocated physical resistance to white mobs: “The black man has no rights which will be respected unless the black man enforces that respect...We are consequently urging Negroes and other oppressed groups concerned with lynching and mob violence to act upon the recognized and accepted law of self-defense.”
The NAACP, considered moderate by Randolph, also defended the legality of Black retaliatory self-defense from mob attack.
Poet Claude McKay, in 1921, captured the sentiment of many militant Negroes in his poem, “If We Must Die”: “If we must die/let it not be like hogs: hunted and penned in an accursed spot!/...If we must die; oh let us nobly die/ dying but fighting back.”
By the First World War, Blacks were increasingly armed and prepared to defend themselves from mob violence in many parts of the country, even in the deep South. In one case, the mayor of Memphis, Tennessee was advised, “The Negroes would not make trouble unless they were attacked, but in that event they were prepared to defend themselves.” Most of the race riots were the result of Negro retaliation to white acts of persecution and violence. However, in most cases, because of the overwhelming white numerical superiority, Negro armed resistance was futile.
Another response of disillusioned Black people to the southern reign of terror was the “Great Migration” which began shortly before World War I. In the decade between 1910 and 1920, more than five hundred thousand Blacks fled from the social and political oppression of the South to the overcrowded industrial centers of the North. The number of Blacks in Northern cities increased substantially. Despite southern efforts to halt the Black exodus, the annual rate of Black northward migration reached seventy-five thousand by the 1920s.
Organized non-violent protest, educating public opinion about the barbarity of lynching, and the passage of federal anti-lynching legislation were seen by many Black leaders to be the most effective weapons against antiBlack mob violence. The pioneer organizer of the crusade against lynching was a Black woman named Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Mrs. Barnett, editor of the Memphis
had more to do with originating and carrying forward the anti-lynching crusade than any other person. Almost single-handedly, she rallied anti-lynching sentiment in the United states and England. She served as chairman of the Anti-Lynching Bureau of the Afro-American Council. Mrs. Wells published several pamphlets exposing the barbarity of lynching, including
A Red Record
written in 1894.
The struggle of Black leaders and organizations to make lynchings a federal crime was long and futile. At the beginning of the twentieth century, such organizations as the Afro-American Council and the Niagara Movement, precursors of the NAACP, demanded investigation of lynchings and legislation to enforce the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. In 1900, Negro Congressman George White introduced America’s first anti-lynching bill, only to see it die in the House Judiciary Committee.
In the first year of its existence, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People launched a vigorous campaign against lynching and all forms of racism and discrimination. By 1918,
, the NAACP organ, was alerting one hundred thousand people each month to the horrors of mob violence and the demands of Black America. The NAACP’s Legal Redress Committee attacked segregation and discrimination in the courts. The NAACP’s attempts to secure federal anti-lynching legislation, such as the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, were unsuccessful. However, the Association’s nationwide and interracial fight against lynching eventually helped reduce the annual number of lynchings in the United States.