The origin of “lynching” as a social phenomenon has several possibilities, but it seems to be primarily related to the practice of vigilante justice dating from colonial days up through the “Wild West.” Regardless of the term’s origins, the lynchings suffered by African Americans were crimes against humanity, yet these events were festive spectacles. Torture, mutilation, burning alive, and hanging—of African Americans, primarily—was entertainment for celebratory white crowds, often with children at their sides. These “festivals of violence” became commonplace during Reconstruction and continued until the 1950s.
The root of this violence, as a cultural practice, is white nationalism guided by its ideology of white supremacy. As such, the pre-Civil War majority ruling of the Supreme Court in Dred Scott that “the black man has no rights which whites are bound to respect,” continued as law well into the 20th century, except for the brief period of Reconstruction in which blacks were enfranchised. The lynching of Italians, the minority group second most often so executed, because of their dark hair, eyes, and complexion, further illustrated this racist mentality.
In slavery, blacks were chattel, property, and of value to most slaveowners. In freedom, though, blacks often experienced the vicious white supremacist tyrannical forces of debt peonage. Violence or “outrages” perpetrated against freed men and women were commonplace. These events were so much a part of the culture that photos of the hangings and burnings were made into picture postcards to be shared with friends and family. People kept mutilated body parts as “treasure” and sold them as memorabilia. Blacks could claim no rights as protection. For a long time, lynchings were an implicit part of the social contract governing black-white interaction.
With the history of lynching having its roots in mob “justice,” the prevailing justification for the savage brutality meted out was often retribution for alleged rapes of white women. In her Southern Horrors, Ida B. Wells-Barnett exposed these rape charges as mostly falsehoods. To the chagrin of the white supremacist South, Wells documented case after case of these claims against the lynch victims as fabrications. Many lynchings had more to do with resentment of black success. Wells started her anti-lynching campaign in response to the lynchings of some of her friends in Memphis by whites because their store was more successful than that of a white competitor. In 1921, a mass lynching occurred in Tulsa, Oklahoma—a case of “racial cleansing.” This mass lynching or riot in Tulsa occurred when the economically successful Greenwood district, with its “Black Wall Street,” was burned to the ground and more than 300 blacks killed at the hands of whites.
Although many of the lynchings occurred in the South, this was a national phenomenon. The “social contract” that normalized these atrocities up through much of the 20th century resulted in more than 3,000 African Americans suffering that fate. Even though the public spectacle waned, the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955 preceded other notable lynchings during the civil rights movement and into the 1990s with the dragging death of James Byrd.
- Allen, James, Jon Lewis, Leon F. Litwack, and Hilton Als. 2000. Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. Santa Fe, NM: Twin Palms.
- Freedmen’s Bureau. 2000. “Records Relating to Murders and Outrages.” Freedmen’s Bureau Online. Retrieved March 25, 2017 (http://www.freedmensbureau.com/outrages.htm).
- Tolnay, Stewart E. and E. M. Beck. 1995. A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois.
- Wells, Ida B. 1892. Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. Retrieved March 25, 2017 (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14975/14975-h/14975-h.htm).
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