TW: violence, hate crimes, lynching
Day 6 of White History Month: Lynching
Is it possible for white America to really understand Blacks’ distrust of the legal system, their fears of racial profiling and the police, without understanding how cheap a Black life was for so long a time in our nation’s history? - Philip Dray, At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America
Lynching - extrajudicial killing - is depicted as an isolated event in US history books (when it is depicted at all). In reality, thousands of people of color - particularly Black people were lynched.. Lynching was not an isolated event, but rather a form of terrorism meant to strike fear in the hearts of Black Americans (primarily in the South) as well as other people of color (on the West Coast) and to a lesser extent, poor white people. It was a savage and dehumanizing act that was meant to control Black Americans, yet with no representation in the government, the tradition of lynching was impossible to stop.
The Tuskegee Institute has documented 3,446 lynchings of Black Americans between 1882 and 1968. From 1882 until 1952, at least one lynching of a Black American was recorded per year. From 1882 until 1901, 150 Black Americans were lynched per year on average - peaking with 231 Black Americans being lynched in 1892.
Many Southerners argued that lynching prevented rape; in reality, most of these cases were simply violations of the “racial etiquette” that Black Americans had to observe. Most lynchings were actually solely caused by disruption of this “racial etiquette”, and lynching was doled out to Black Americans who did not “stay in their place”.
Lynching was rarely prosecuted, with police officers and courts often claiming that they could not prove who was there - when in reality they were often there in the crowd themselves. Coroner’s reports often listed “death at the hands of persons unknown”.
Occasionally, Black Americans were lynched during riots and violent outbreaks, such as the New York City draft riots of 1863, where at least eleven Black men were lynched.
Usually, however, lynching was an ordinary event. Entire families would attend lynchings and have a picnic. Concessions stands would set up shop and serve food. Postcards were made of lynched Black Americans. If you look at photos from lynchings, you can see jubilant onlookers revelling not despite, but because of the horror in front of them (TRIGGER WARNING for lynching and violence - photos can be seen here ).
Though not as common, Black women, Mexican Americans, Chinese Americans, and Native Americans were also victims of lynching, though in lesser numbers. It is difficult to get exact numbers of those who were not Black nor white since their lynchings were generally coded as “white” anyway.
The NAACP worked hard to advocate for anti-lynching laws. Ida B. Wells, Walter F. White, and W.E.B. DuBois are among the many leaders who worked to document and dismantle this practice. Republican Senator Leonidas Dyer pushed an anti-lynching bill which passed the house and which President Warren G. Harding promised to sign if it passed the senate. The Senate’s Southern Democrats - voted in office during a time where most Black people could not vote - were able to effectively kill the bill.
Sadly, no legislation was ever passed during the peak of lynching. In 2005, the Senate formally apologized for not passing anti-lynching laws when they were needed - a sentiment which unfortunately was much too late.