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Violent punishment or execution, without due process, for real or alleged crimes.
The concept of taking the law into one's own hands to punish a criminal almost certainly predates recorded history. Lynching (or "lynch law") is usually associated in the United States with punishment directed toward blacks, who made up a highly disproportionate number of its victims. (While the origins of the term "lynch" are somewhat unclear, many sources cite William Lynch, an eighteenth-century plantation owner in Virginia who helped to mete out vigilante justice.)
Lynching acquired its association with violence against blacks early in the nineteenth century. It was used as a punishment against slaves who tried to escape from their owners. Sometimes, whites who openly opposed Slavery were the victims of lynch mobs as well. Perhaps not surprisingly, lynching did not become a pervasive practice in the South until after the Civil War. The passage of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution granted blacks full rights of citizenship, including the right to Due Process of Law. Southern whites had been humiliated by their loss to the North, and many resented the thought that their former slaves were now on an equal footing with them (relatively speaking). Groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Knights of the White Camelia attracted white Southerners who had been left destitute by the war. These groups promoted violence (sometimes indirectly) as a means of regaining white supremacy.
Part of the appeal of groups such as the Ku Klux Klan was their white supremacy focus. But these groups also played on the fears of Southern whites—that blacks would be able to compete with them for jobs, that blacks could run for political office, and even that blacks could rebel against whites. Lynchings were carried out because of these fears. Whites believed that lynchings would terrorize blacks into remaining subservient while allowing whites to regain their sense of status.
Lynchings became even more widespread beginning in the 1880s and would remain common in the South until the 1930s. Between 1880 and 1930, an estimated 2,400 black men, women, and children were killed by lynch mobs. (During the same time period, roughly 300 whites were lynched.) Most lynchings occurred in the Deep South (i.e., Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama, and South Carolina). Border Southern states—Florida, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, and North Carolina also had a noteworthy number of lynchings.
A partial list of "crimes" that prompted lynch mobs during these years underscores a chilling disregard for life: gambling, quarreling, arguing with a white man, attempting to vote, unruly remarks, demanding respect, and "acting suspiciously." Lynchings were often carried out against those suspected of more serious crimes, but they were carried out without allowing a fair trial. It is no exaggeration to state that any black man, woman, or child in the South during these years was in danger of being lynched for any real or imagined improper behavior.
Often, the victim of a lynching would be dragged from his or her home; not infrequently, a lynch mob would drag a victim from a jail cell where supposedly he or she was to be awaiting a fair trial. The typical lynch mob would be made up of local citizens; a core group would actually carry out the crime, while many of the town's residents would look on. The spectators often included "respectable" men and women, and children were often brought to lynchings. A lynching victim might be shot, stabbed, beaten, or hanged; if he was not hanged to death, his body would often be hung up for display. Local police, and even members of the armed forces, either could not or would not intervene to stop a lynch mob from taking the law into its own hands. Not infrequently, a lynching would conclude with a loud, rowdy demonstration among the assembled crowd. The clear message in each lynching was that the mob was in control.
One of the most common crimes answered by lynch mobs was rape—particularly the rape of a white woman by a black man. Often, all that a black man had to do to be accused of rape was to speak to a white woman or ask her out. Lynchers justified their actions by saying that they needed to protect women from dangerous men. In response, a group of prominent women from seven Southern states met in 1930 to form the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching. This group deplored not only the act of lynching itself, but also the fact that lynchings were frequently witnessed by women and children. They were angered by claims that lynching was a means of protecting white women. During the 1930s, they worked to eliminate lynchings throughout the South.
Efforts by politicians to end lynchings were weak at best. Efforts to move anti-lynching legislation through Congress in the early 1900s and again in the 1930s proved futile, in part because Southern representatives and senators carried significant political weight. The first politician to take a visible stand against lynching was President Harry S. Truman, in 1946. Shocked by a lynching in Monroe, Georgia, in which four people—one a World War II veteran—were pulled off of a bus and shot dozens of times by a mob, Truman launched a campaign to guarantee Civil Rights for blacks, including a push for federal anti-lynching laws.
Truman was able to realize part of what he wanted, but the powerful Southern lobby managed to maintain much of the status quo. Although large-scale lynchings were no longer staged, blacks in the South still faced vigilante retribution. The murder of Emmett Till, in 1955, put enormous pressure on the South to condemn such barbarism. Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago, was visiting relatives in rural Mississippi, where he made suggestive remarks to a white woman. The woman's husband and brother-in-law tracked Till down, shot him, and threw his body in a river. Although (perhaps because) they were acquitted of the murder, the case added momentum to the growing Civil Rights Movement. People across the nation were genuinely shocked at the trial's outcome, and new civil rights legislation was introduced in Congress. By the time the civil rights act of 1965 was signed into law, there were still racial tensions—and elements of racial discord continue into the twenty-first century—but the era of the free-for-all lynch party in which entire communities participated had effectively come to a close.
Branch, Taylor, 1988. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Ginzburg, Ralph, ed., 1998. One Hundred Years of Lynchings. Baltimore: Black Classic Press.
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. 1969. Thirty Years of Lynching in the U.S. 1889–1918. New York: Arno Press.