Lynching was the practice of killing, usually by a hanging resulting from extrajudicial mob action . Lynchings in the United States occurred after the American Civil War in the late 1800s, the emancipation of slaves, and chiefly from the late 1800s through the 1960s. Lynchings took place most frequently against African American men and women in the Southern United States . Lynchings occurred most frequently from 1890 to the 1920s, a time of political suppression of blacks by whites, with a peak in 1892. Lynchings were also very common in the Old West , where the majority of victims were African American men. Some whites were also lynched.

Most of the South was dominated politically by conservative Democrats . Lynching was part of the informal system of enforcement of white supremacy in the late 19th century following Reconstruction . The number of lynchings in the South is also strongly associated with economic strains, although the causal nature of this link is unclear: low cotton prices, inflation, and economic stress are associated with higher frequencies of lynching.

The granting of U.S. Constitutional rights to freedmen after the American Civil War during the Reconstruction Era (1865–1877) aroused anxieties among white Southerners, who were unwilling to concede such social status to African Americans , especially in areas of black concentration. The whites blamed the freedmen for their own wartime hardship, economic losses, and loss of social and political privilege. During Reconstruction, freedmen and whites active in the pursuit of civil rights were sometimes lynched. In addition, blacks were intimidated and attacked physically to prevent them from voting, with violence increasing around elections from 1868 into the late 1870s to suppress the black, Republican vote. White Democrats regained control of state legislatures in 1876 and a national compromise on the presidential election resulted in the removal of federal troops and official end to Reconstruction in 1877. In later decades, there continued to be violence around elections to suppress black voting, particularly with the rise of the Populist Party and some victories by Populist- Republican Fusion candidates in the 1890s.

From 1885 to 1908, southern states passed new constitutions and electoral rules to disenfranchise most blacks and many poor whites, ending election violence by utterly excluding them from politics. The dominant whites enacted a series of segregation and Jim Crow laws to enforce blacks' second-class status. During this period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, lynchings reached a peak, reflecting the social repression and economic hard times. Florida led the nation in lynchings per capita from 1900-1930. Georgia led the nation in lynchings from 1900-1931 with 302 incidents, according to The Tuskegee Institute. Lynchings peaked in many areas when it was time for landowners to settle accounts with sharecroppers .

The Tuskegee Institute has recorded 3,446 blacks and 1,297 whites being lynched between 1882 and 1968, with the annual peak occurring in the 1890s, at a time of economic stress in the South and political suppression of blacks. A five-year study published in 2015 by the Equal Justice Initiative found that nearly 3,959 black men, women, and children were lynched in the twelve Southern states between 1877 and 1950.

African Americans mounted resistance to lynchings in numerous ways. Intellectuals and journalists encouraged public education, actively protesting and lobbying against lynch mob violence and government complicity in that violence. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), as well as numerous other organizations, organized support from white and black Americans alike and conducted a national campaign to get a federal anti-lynching law passed. African-American women's clubs raised funds to support the work of public campaigns, including anti-lynching plays. Their petition drives, letter campaigns, meetings and demonstrations helped to highlight the issues and combat lynching. In the Great Migration , particularly from 1910 to 1940, 1.5 million African Americans left the South, primarily for destinations in northern and mid-western cities, both to gain better jobs and education and to escape the high rate of violence. From 1910 to 1930 particularly, more blacks migrated from counties with high numbers of lynchings.

From 1882 to 1968, "nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress, and three passed the House. Seven presidents between 1890 and 1952 petitioned Congress to pass a federal law." In 1920 the Republican Party promised at its national convention to support passage of such a law. In 1921 Leonidas C. Dyer from St. Louis sponsored an anti-lynching bill ; it was passed in January 1922 in the United States House of Representatives , but a Senate filibuster by the Southern white Democratic block defeated it in December 1922. With the NAACP, Representative Dyer spoke across the country in support of his bill in 1923 and tried to gain passage that year and the next, but was defeated by the Solid South Democratic block.

Decades later, during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement , violence erupted again, with attacks and murders of black activists throughout the South, and bombings in Birmingham, Alabama of homes of aspirational African Americans. In 1964 three Mississippi civil rights workers were lynched – abducted, shot and killed by KKK members including Neshoba County law enforcement. These galvanized national public support for federal civil rights and Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ending segregation, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to enforce constitutional rights to vote.

Name origin

The term "Lynch's Law" – subsequently "lynch law" and "lynching" – apparently originated during the American Revolution when Charles Lynch , a Virginia justice of the peace, ordered extralegal punishment for Loyalists . In the South before the Civil War, members of the abolitionist movement and other people opposing slavery were also targets of lynch mob violence.

Social characteristics

During the Civil War , Southern Home Guard units sometimes lynched white Southerners whom they suspected of being Unionists or deserters . One example of this was the hanging of Methodist minister Bill Sketoe in the southern Alabama town of Newton in December 1864.

A major motive for lynchings, particularly in the South, was the white society's efforts to maintain white supremacy after emancipation of slaves following the American Civil War; they punished perceived violations of customs, later institutionalized as Jim Crow laws, which mandated racial segregation of whites and blacks, and second-class status for blacks. Economic competition was another major factor; independent black farmers or businessmen were sometimes lynched or suffered destruction of their property. In the Deep South, the number of lynchings was higher in areas with a concentration of blacks in an area (such as a county), dependent on cotton and at a time of low cotton prices, rising inflation, a predominance of Democrats, and competition among religious groups.

Whites sometimes lynched blacks for financial gain, and sometimes to establish political or economic dominance. In much of the Deep South , lynchings peaked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as white racists turned to terrorism to dissuade blacks from voting in a period of disfranchisement. In the Mississippi Delta , lynchings of blacks increased beginning in the late 19th century as white planters tried to control former slaves who had become landowners or sharecroppers . Lynchings had a seasonal pattern in the Mississippi Delta; they were frequent at the end of the year, when sharecroppers and tenant farmers tried to settle their accounts.

In the 1890s, African American journalist and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells conducted one of the first thorough investigations of lynching cases; she found that black lynching victims were accused of rape or attempted rape only about one-third of the time (although sexual infractions were widely cited as reasons for the crime). The most prevalent accusation was murder or attempted murder, followed by a list of infractions that included verbal and physical aggression, spirited business competition, and independence of mind among victims. White lynch mobs formed to restore the perceived social order. Lynch mob "policing" usually led to white mobs murdering persons suspected of crimes or more casual infractions. Lynchings also occurred in Western frontier areas where legal recourse was distant. In the West, cattle barons took the law into their own hands by hanging those whom they perceived as cattle and horse thieves. This was also related to a political and social struggle between these classes.

The West

Historians have debated over the history of lynchings on the western frontier, which has been obscured by the mythology of the American Old West . In unorganized territories or sparsely settled states, law enforcement was limited, often provided only by a U.S. Marshal who might, despite the appointment of deputies, be hours, or days, away by horseback.

People often carried out lynchings in the Old West against accused criminals in custody. Lynching did not so much substitute for an absent legal system as constitute an alternative system dominated by a particular social class or racial group. Historian Michael J. Pfeifer writes, "Contrary to the popular understanding, early territorial lynching did not flow from an absence or distance of law enforcement but rather from the social instability of early communities and their contest for property, status, and the definition of social order."

By the time of the California Gold Rush in 1848, at least 25,000 Mexicans had been longtime residents of California since the Spanish colonial period. The Treaty of 1848 expanded United States territory by one-third after the Mexican–American War . To settle the war, Mexico ceded all or parts of Arizona , California , Colorado , Kansas , New Mexico , Nevada , Oklahoma , Texas , Utah , and Wyoming to the United States. In September 1850, California became the 31st state of the United States.

Many of the Mexicans who were native to what would become a state within the United States were experienced miners, and they had great success mining gold in California. Their success aroused animosity by white prospectors, who intimidated Mexican miners with the threat of violence and committed violence against some. Between 1848 and 1860, European Americans lynched at least 163 Mexicans in California alone. On July 5, 1851, a mob in Downieville, California , lynched a Mexican woman named Josefa Segovia . She was accused of killing a white man who had attempted to assault her after breaking into her home.

The San Francisco Vigilance Movement has traditionally been portrayed as a positive response to government corruption and rampant crime. But, revisionist historians have argued that it created more lawlessness than it eliminated. Four men were executed by the the 1851 Committee of Vigilance before the Committee disbanded. When the second Committee of Vigilance was instituted in 1856 in response to the murder of publisher James King of William, it was responsible for the hanging of a total of four men, all accused of murder.

On October 24, 1871, a white mob rampaged through Old Chinatown in Los Angeles and killed at least 18 Chinese Americans , after a white businessman was inadvertently killed there in the crossfire of a tong battle within the Chinese community.

Another well-documented episode in the history of the American West is the Johnson County War , a dispute in the 1890s over land use in Wyoming . Large-scale ranchers hired mercenaries to lynch the small ranchers.

Reconstruction (1865–1877)

After the Civil War , nearly four million slaves were emancipated in the South. They constituted a majority in some states, and in numerous counties in several states. The first Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1866 by confederate veterans in Tennessee; it became associated with insurgent violence against freedmen and their allies that included lynchings but more often consisted of direct, isolated attacks by secret groups against individuals. The first severe period of violence in the South was between 1868 and 1871. White Democrats attacked black and white Republicans. To prevent ratification of new constitutions formed during Reconstruction, the opposition used various means to harass potential voters. Failed attacks led to a massacre during the 1868 elections, with the insurgents' murders of about 1,300 voters across various southern states ranging from South Carolina to Arkansas .

The lynchers sometimes murdered their victims, but sometimes whipped them to remind them of their former status as slaves. White terrorists often made nighttime raids of African-American homes in order to confiscate firearms. Lynchings to prevent freedmen and their allies from voting and bearing arms were extralegal ways of trying to enforce the previous system of social dominance and the Black Codes , which had been invalidated by the 14th and 15th Amendments in 1868 and 1870.

Although some states took action against the Klan, the South needed federal help. President Ulysses S. Grant and Congress passed the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and the Civil Rights Act of 1871 , also known as the Ku Klux Klan Act, intended to suppress the vigilante violence of the Klan. This authorized the government to prosecute crimes committed by groups such as the KKK, as well as the use of federal troops to control violence. The administration began holding grand juries and prosecuting Klan members. In addition, it used martial law in some counties in South Carolina, where the Klan was the strongest. Under attack, the Klan dissipated. Vigorous federal action and the disappearance of the Klan had a strong effect in temporarily reducing the numbers of murders.

From the mid-1870s onward, violence rose as insurgent paramilitary groups in the Deep South worked to suppress black voting and turn Republicans out of office. In Louisiana, the Carolinas and Florida especially, the Democratic Party relied on paramilitary "White Line" groups, such as the White Camelia , White League and Red Shirts to terrorize, intimidate and assassinate African American and white Republicans in an organized drive to regain power. In Mississippi and the Carolinas, paramilitary chapters of Red Shirts conducted overt violence and disruption of elections. In Louisiana, the White League had numerous chapters; they carried out goals of the Democratic Party to suppress black voting. Grant's desire to keep Ohio in the Republican aisle and his attorney general's maneuvers led to a failure to support the Mississippi governor with Federal troops. The campaign of terror worked. In Yazoo County , Mississippi, for instance, with an African American population of 12,000, only seven votes were cast for Republicans in 1874. In 1875, Democrats swept into power in the Mississippi state legislature.

Once Democrats regained power in Mississippi, Democrats in other states adopted the Mississippi Plan to control the election of 1876, using informal armed militias to assassinate political leaders, hunt down community members, intimidate and turn away voters, and effectively suppress African American suffrage and civil rights. In state after state, Democrats swept back to power. From 1868 to 1876, there were 50–100 lynchings annually.

Disfranchisement (1877–1917)

Following white Democrats' regaining political power in the late 1870s, legislators gradually increased restrictions on voting, chiefly through statute. From 1890 to 1908, most of the Southern states, starting with Mississippi, created new constitutions with further provisions: poll taxes , literacy and understanding tests, and increased residency requirements, that effectively disfranchised most blacks and many poor whites. Forcing them off voter registration lists also prevented them from serving on juries, whose members were limited to voters. Although challenges to such constitutions made their way to the Supreme Court in Williams v. Mississippi (1898) and Giles v. Harris (1903), the states' provisions were upheld.

Most lynchings from the late 19th through the early 20th century were of African Americans in the South. Other victims included white immigrants, and, in the Southwest, Latinos . Of the 468 lynching victims in Texas between 1885 and 1942, 339 were black, 77 white, 53 Hispanic, and 1 Indian.

The murders reflected the tensions of labor and social changes, as the whites imposed Jim Crow rules, legal segregation and white supremacy. The lynchings were also an indicator of long economic stress due to falling cotton prices through much of the 19th century, as well as financial depression in the 1890s. In the Mississippi bottomlands, for instance, lynchings rose when crops and accounts were supposed to be settled.

The late 1800s and early 1900s in the Mississippi Delta showed both frontier influence and actions directed at repressing African Americans. After the Civil War, 90% of the Delta was still undeveloped. Both whites and African Americans migrated there for a chance to buy land in the backcountry. It was frontier wilderness, heavily forested and without roads for years. Before the start of the 20th century, lynchings often took the form of frontier justice directed at transient workers as well as residents.

Thousands of workers were brought in by planters to do lumbering and work on levees. Whites were lynched at a rate 35.5% higher than their proportion in the population, most often accused of crimes against property (chiefly theft). During the Delta's frontier era, blacks were lynched at a rate lower than their proportion in the population, unlike the rest of the South. They were most often accused of murder or attempted murder in half the cases, and rape in 15%.

A clear seasonal pattern to lynchings existed with colder months being the deadliest. As noted, cotton prices fell during the 1880s and 1890s, increasing economic pressures. "From September through December, the cotton was picked, debts were revealed, and profits (or losses) realized... Whether concluding old contracts or discussing new arrangements, [landlords and tenants] frequently came into conflict in these months and sometimes fell to blows." During the winter, murder was most cited as a cause for lynching. After 1901, as economics shifted and more blacks became renters and sharecroppers in the Delta, with few exceptions, only African Americans were lynched. The frequency increased from 1901 to 1908 after African Americans were disfranchised. "In the twentieth century Delta vigilantism finally became predictably joined to white supremacy."

Conclusions of numerous studies since the mid-20th century have found the following variables affecting the rate of lynchings in the South: "lynchings were more numerous where the African American population was relatively large, the agricultural economy was based predominantly on cotton, the white population was economically stressed, the Democratic Party was stronger, and multiple religious organizations competed for congregants."

Other ethnicities

After their increased immigration to the U.S. in the late 19th century, Italian Americans in the South were recruited for laboring jobs. On March 14, 1891, 11 Italian immigrants were lynched in New Orleans, Louisiana for their alleged role in the murder of David Hennessy , an ethnic Irish New Orleans police chief. This incident was one of the largest mass lynchings in U.S. history. A total of twenty Italians were lynched during the 1890s. Although most lynchings of Italian Americans occurred in the South, Italians did not comprise a major portion of immigrants or of the population as a whole. Isolated lynchings of Italians also occurred in New York , Pennsylvania , and Colorado .

Particularly in the West, minorities such as Chinese and East Indian immigrants, Native Americans , and Mexicans were also lynching victims. The lynching of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the Southwest was long overlooked in American history, when attention was focused on treatment of African Americans in the South. The Tuskegee Institute , which kept the most complete records, noted the victims as simply black or white. Mexican, Chinese, and Native American lynching victims were recorded as white.

Researchers estimate 597 Mexicans were lynched between 1848 and 1928. Mexicans were lynched at a rate of 27.4 per 100,000 of population between 1880 and 1930. This statistic was second only to that of the African American community, which endured an average of 37.1 per 100,000 of population during that period. Between 1848 and 1879, Mexicans were lynched at an unprecedented rate of 473 per 100,000 of population.

Enforcing Jim Crow

After 1876, the frequency of lynching decreased somewhat until the later 19th century. White Democrats had regained political control of the state legislatures. Lynching was extrajudicial punishment, used by the society to terrorize freedmen and whites alike. Southern Republicans in Congress sought to protect black voting rights by using Federal troops for enforcement. But, a congressional deal to elect Ohio Republican Rutherford B. Hayes as President in 1876 (in spite of his losing the popular vote to New York Democrat Samuel J. Tilden ) included a pledge to end Reconstruction in the South. The Redeemers , many of whom had been members of such paramilitary groups as the White Cappers, the Knights of the White Camellia, the White League , and the Red Shirts , which supported white Democrats, had used terrorist violence and assassinations to suppress black and Republican voting and regain control of the state legislatures.

Lynchings were public demonstrations of white power and a means to exert social control. Racial tensions had an economic base. In attempting to reconstruct the plantation economy, planters were anxious to control labor. In addition, agricultural depression was widespread, and the price of cotton kept falling after the Civil War into the 1890s. A labor shortage occurred in many parts of the Deep South, most especially in the Mississippi Delta , which was being rapidly developed for agriculture. Southern attempts to recruit immigrant labor were unsuccessful, as immigrants would quickly leave field labor. Lynchings erupted when farmers tried to terrorize the laborers, especially when time came to settle and they were unable to pay wages, but tried to keep laborers from leaving.

More than 85 percent of the estimated 5,000 lynchings in the post-Civil War period occurred in the Southern states. With economic strains across the Deep South and a low price for cotton, 1892 was a peak year when 161 African Americans were lynched. The passage of Jim Crow laws, beginning in the 1890s, completed the revival of white supremacy in the South. Terror and lynching were believed to be used to enforce both these formal laws and a variety of unwritten rules of conduct meant to assert white domination. In most years from 1889 to 1923, 50 to 100 lynchings occurred annually across the South. They were at a peak in the last decade of the 19th century, but remained high for years.

The frequency of lynchings rose during years of poor economy and low prices for cotton, demonstrating that more than social tensions generated the catalysts for mob action against the underclass. Researchers have studied various models to determine what motivated lynchings. One study of lynching rates of blacks in southern counties between 1889 and 1931 found a relation to the concentration of blacks in parts of the Deep South; where black population was concentrated, lynching rates were higher. Such areas also had a particular mix of socioeconomic conditions, with a high dependence on cotton cultivation.

The stated ideology of whites about lynching was directly connected with denial of political and social equality, and sexual fears of white men; it was expressed by Benjamin Tillman , a South Carolina governor and senator , speaking on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1900:

We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be the equal of the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.

Henry Smith, an alcoholic African-American handyman accused of murdering a policeman's daughter, was a noted lynching victim, because of the ferocity of the attack against him and the huge crowd that gathered. He was lynched at Paris, Texas , in 1893 for killing Myrtle Vance, the three-year-old daughter of a Texas policeman, after the policeman had assaulted Smith. Smith was not tried in a court of law. A large crowd followed the lynching, as was common then in the style of public executions. Henry Smith was fastened to a wooden platform, tortured for 50 minutes by red-hot iron brands, and burned alive while more than 10,000 spectators cheered.

Fewer than one percent of lynch mob participants were ever convicted by local courts and they were seldom prosecuted or brought to trial. By the late 19th century, trial juries in most of the southern United States were all white because African Americans had been disenfranchised, and only registered voters could serve as jurors. Often juries never let the matter go past the inquest.

Such cases happened in the North as well. In 1892, a police officer in Port Jervis, New York , tried to stop the lynching of a black man who had been wrongfully accused of assaulting a white woman. The mob responded by putting the noose around the officer's neck as a way of scaring him, and completed killing the other man. Although at the inquest the officer identified eight people who had participated in the lynching, including the former chief of police, the jury determined that the murder had been carried out "by person or persons unknown."

In Duluth, Minnesota , on June 15, 1920, three young African-American traveling circus workers were lynched after having been accused of having raped a white woman and jailed pending a grand jury hearing. A physician's subsequent examination of the woman found no evidence of rape or assault. The alleged "motive" and action by a mob were consistent with the "community policing" model. The book, The Lynchings in Duluth (2000) by Michael Fedo has documented the events.

Although the rhetoric surrounding lynchings frequently suggested they were to protect the virtue and safety of white women, the actions basically arose out of white attempts to maintain domination in a rapidly changing society and their fears of social change. Victims were the scapegoats for peoples' attempts to control agriculture, labor and education, as well as a reaction to economic stresses during downturns when cotton prices dropped, and larger disasters such as the boll weevil .

According to a Time magazine article, April 2, 2002:

"There were lynchings in the Midwestern and Western states, mostly of Asians, Mexicans, and Native Americans. But it was in the South that lynching evolved into a semiofficial institution of racial terror against blacks. All across the former Confederacy , blacks who were suspected of crimes against whites—or even "offenses" no greater than failing to step aside for a white man's car or protesting a lynching—were tortured, hanged and burned to death by the thousands. In a prefatory essay in Without Sanctuary , historian Leon F. Litwack writes that between 1882 and 1968, at least 4,742 African Americans were murdered that way.

Photographic records and postcards

At the start of the 20th century in the United States, lynching was photographic sport. People sent picture postcards of lynchings they had witnessed. A writer for Time magazine noted in 2000,

Even the Nazis did not stoop to selling souvenirs of Auschwitz , but lynching scenes became a burgeoning subdepartment of the postcard industry. By 1908, the trade had grown so large, and the practice of sending postcards featuring the victims of mob murderers had become so repugnant, that the U.S. Postmaster General banned the cards from the mails.

In the post-Reconstruction era South, lynching photographs were printed for various purposes, including postcards, newspapers and event mementos. Typically these images depicted an African-American lynching victim and all or part of the crowd in attendance. Spectators often included women and children. The perpetrators of lynchings were not identified. At one particular lynching, it is said that nearly 15,000 people were in attendance. Often lynchings were advertised in newspapers prior to the event in order to give photographers time to arrive early and prepare their camera equipment. After the lynching, photographers would sell their pictures as-is or as postcards, sometimes costing as much as fifty cents a piece.

Though some photographs were sold as plain prints, others contained captions. These captions were either straightforward details—such as the time, date and reasons for the lynching—while others contained polemics or poems with racist or otherwise threatening remarks. An example of this is a photographic postcard attached to the poem "Dogwood Tree," which says: "The negro now/By eternal grace/Must learn to stay in the negro's place/In the Sunny South, the land of the Free/Let the WHITE SUPREME forever be." Such postcards with explicit rhetoric such as "Dogwood Tree" were typically circulated privately or mailed in a sealed envelope. Other times these pictures simply included the word "WARNING,".

In 1873, the Comstock Act was passed, which banned the publication of "obscene matter as well as its circulation in the mails". In 1908, Section 3893 was added to the Comstock Act, stating that the ban included material "tending to incite arson, murder, or assassination". Although this act did not explicitly ban lynching photographs or postcards, it banned the explicit racist texts and poems inscribed on certain prints. According to some, these texts were deemed "more incriminating" and caused their removal from the mail instead of the photograph itself because the text made "too explicit what was always implicit in lynchings,". Some towns imposed "self-censorship" on lynching photographs, but section 3893 was the first steps towards a national censorship. Despite the amendment, the distribution of lynching photographs and postcards continued. Though they were not sold openly, the censorship was bypassed when people sent the material in envelopes or mail wrappers.

In Without Sanctuary (2000), a book of lynching postcards collected by James Allen , Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Leon F. Litwack wrote:

"The photographs stretch our credulity, even numb our minds and senses to the full extent of the horror, but they must be examined if we are to understand how normal men and women could live with, participate in, and defend such atrocities, even reinterpret them so they would not see themselves or be perceived as less than civilized. The men and women who tortured, dismembered, and murdered in this fashion understood perfectly well what they were doing and thought of themselves as perfectly normal human beings. Few had any ethical qualms about their actions. This was not the outburst of crazed men or uncontrolled barbarians but the triumph of a belief system that defined one people as less human than another. For the men and women who composed these mobs, as for those who remained silent and indifferent or who provided scholarly or scientific explanations, this was the highest idealism in the service of their race. One has only to view the self-satisfied expressions on their faces as they posed beneath black people hanging from a rope or next to the charred remains of a Negro who had been burned to death. What is most disturbing about these scenes is the discovery that the perpetrators of the crimes were ordinary people, not so different from ourselves – merchants, farmers, laborers, machine operators, teachers, doctors, lawyers, policemen, students; they were family men and women, good churchgoing folk who came to believe that keeping black people in their place was nothing less than pest control, a way of combating an epidemic or virus that if not checked would be detrimental to the health and security of the community."


African Americans emerged from the Civil War with the political experience and stature to resist attacks, but disfranchisement and imposition of Jim Crow in the South at the turn of the 20th century closed them out of the political system and judicial system in many ways. Advocacy organizations compiled statistics and publicized the atrocities, as well as working for enforcement of civil rights and a federal anti-lynching law. From the early 1880s, the Chicago Tribune reprinted accounts of lynchings from other newspapers, and published annual statistics. These provided the main source for the compilations by the Tuskegee Institute to document lynchings, a practice it continued until 1968.

In 1892, journalist Ida B. Wells -Barnett was shocked when three friends in Memphis, Tennessee were lynched . She learned it was because their grocery store had competed successfully against a white-owned store. Outraged, Wells-Barnett began a global anti-lynching campaign that raised awareness of these murders. She also investigated lynchings and overturned the common idea that they were based on black sexual crimes, as was popularly discussed; she found lynchings were more an effort to suppress blacks who competed economically with whites, especially if they were successful. As a result of her efforts at education, black women in the U.S. became active in the anti-lynching crusade, often in the form of clubs that raised money to publicize the abuses. When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was formed in 1909, Wells became part of its multi-racial leadership and continued to be active against lynching. The NAACP began to publish lynching statistics at their office in New York City.

In 1898 Alex Manly of Wilmington, North Carolina , directly challenged popular ideas about lynching in an editorial in his newspaper The Daily Record, believed to be the only black-owned newspaper in the nation. He noted that consensual relationships took place between white women and black men, and said that many of the latter had white fathers (as he did). His references to miscegenation lifted the veil of denial. Whites were outraged. A mob destroyed his printing press and business, ran black leaders out of town and killed many others, and overturned the biracial Populist-Republican city government , headed by a white mayor and majority-white council. Manly escaped, eventually settling in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania .

In 1903, leading writer Charles Waddell Chesnutt of Ohio published his article, "The Disfranchisement of the Negro," detailing civil rights abuses as southern states passed laws and constitutions that essentially disenfranchised African Americans , excluding them wholesale from the political system. He publicized the need for change in the South. Numerous writers appealed to the literate public.

In 1904, Mary Church Terrell , the first president of the National Association of Colored Women , published an article in the influential magazine North American Review to respond to Southerner Thomas Nelson Page . She analyzed and refuted with data his attempted justification of lynching as a response to assaults by black men on white women. Terrell showed how apologists like Page had tried to rationalize what were violent mob actions that were seldom based on assaults.

In January 1912, the lynching of a woman and three men in Hamilton , county seat of Harris County, Georgia , attracted national attention from the press and widespread outrage. Dusky Crutchfield, Eugene Harrington, Burrell Hardaway, and Johnie Moore had been held for questioning in the death of a white landowner, and were later shown to have been utterly innocent. They had never even been arrested. Coverage by local white newspapers at the time suggested the four were guilty. The Montgomery Advertiser did not report their names correctly.

Great Migration

In what has been viewed as multiple acts of resistance, tens of thousands of African Americans left the South annually – especially from 1910 to 1940 – seeking jobs and better lives in industrial cities of the North and Midwest in a movement that was called the Great Migration . More than 1.5 million people went North during this phase of the Great Migration. They refused to live under the rules of segregation and continual threat of violence, and many secured better educations and futures for themselves and their children, while adapting to the drastically different requirements of industrial cities. Northern industries such as the Pennsylvania Railroad and others, and stockyards and meatpacking plants in Chicago and Omaha , vigorously recruited southern workers. For instance, by 1923, the Pennsylvania Railroad had hired 10,000 black men from Florida and Georgia to work at their expanding yards and tracks.

Federal action limited by the Solid South

In 1900, as the 56th Congress considered proposals for apportioning its seats among the 45 states following the 1900 Federal Census , Representative Edgar D. Crumpacker (R-IN) filed an independent report urging that the Southern states be stripped of seats due to the large numbers of voters they had disfranchised. He noted this was provided for in Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment , which provided for stripping representation from states that reduced suffrage due to race. However, concerted opposition of the Southern Democratic bloc was aroused, and the effort failed.

From 1896–1900, the House of Representatives with a Republican majority had acted in more than 30 cases to set aside election results from Southern states where the House Elections Committee had concluded that "black voters had been excluded due to fraud, violence, or intimidation." But, in the early 1900s, it began to back off, after Democrats won the majority, which included Southern delegations that were solidly in Democratic hands.

President Theodore Roosevelt made public statements against lynching in 1903, following George White's murder in Delaware , and in his sixth annual State of the Union message on December 4, 1906. When Roosevelt suggested that lynching was taking place in the Philippines, southern senators (all white Democrats) demonstrated their power by a filibuster in 1902 during review of the "Philippines Bill". In 1903 Roosevelt refrained from commenting on lynching during his Southern political campaigns.

Roosevelt published a letter he wrote to Governor Winfield T. Durbin of Indiana in August 1903, saying:

My Dear Governor Durbin...permit me to thank you as an American citizen for the admirable way in which you have vindicated the majesty of the law by your recent action in reference to lynching...All thoughtful men...must feel the gravest alarm over the growth of lynching in this country, and especially over the peculiarly hideous forms so often taken by mob violence when colored men are the victims – on which occasions the mob seems to lay more weight, not on the crime but on the color of the criminal...There are certain hideous sights which when once seen can never be wholly erased from the mental retina. The mere fact of having seen them implies degradation...Whoever in any part of our country has ever taken part in lawlessly putting to death a criminal by the dreadful torture of fire must forever after have the awful spectacle of his own handiwork seared into his brain and soul. He can never again be the same man.

Durbin had successfully used the National Guard to disperse lynchers. Durbin publicly declared that an African-American man accused of murder was entitled to a fair trial. Roosevelt's efforts cost him political support among white people, especially in the South. Threats against him increased so that the Secret Service added to the size of his bodyguard detail.

World War I to World War II


African-American writers used their talents in numerous ways to publicize and protest against lynching. In 1914, Angelina Weld Grimké had already written her play Rachel to address racial violence. It was produced in 1916. In 1915, W. E. B. Du Bois , noted scholar and head of the recently formed NAACP, called for more black-authored plays.

African-American women playwrights were strong in responding. They wrote ten of the 14 anti-lynching plays produced between 1916 and 1935. The NAACP set up a Drama Committee to encourage such work. In addition, Howard University , the leading historically black college, established a theater department in 1920 to encourage African-American dramatists. Starting in 1924, the NAACP's major publications Crisis and Opportunity sponsored contests to encourage black literary production.

New Klan

In 1915, three events highlighted racial and social tensions: distribution of D.W. Griffith's film, The Birth of a Nation ; the lynching of Leo Frank , a Jewish factory manager, in Atlanta, Georgia; and the revival of the Ku Klux Klan near Atlanta.

D. W. Griffith 's 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation , glorified the original Klan as protecting southern women during Reconstruction, which he portrayed as a time of violence and corruption, following the Dunning School interpretation of history. The film aroused great controversy; it was popular among whites in the South, was protested by the NAACP and other civil rights groups, who achieved banning it in some cities; and it garnered much national publicity.

In 1915, Leo Frank , an American Jew , was lynched near Atlanta, Georgia . Frank was convicted in 1913 for the murder of Mary Phagan, a thirteen-year-old girl employed by his pencil factory. There were a series of appeals, but all failed. The final appeal, was a 7-2 decision by the US Supreme Court . After Governor John Slaton commuted Frank's sentence to life imprisonment , a group of men, calling themselves the Knights of Mary Phagan, kidnapped Frank from a prison farm in Milledgeville in a planned event that included cutting the prison's telephone wires. They transported him 175 miles back to Marietta , near Atlanta, where they lynched him in front of a mob.

On November 25, 1915, two months after Frank was lynched, a group led by William J. Simmons burned a cross on top of Stone Mountain , inaugurating a revival of the Ku Klux Klan. The event was attended by 15 charter members and a few aging survivors of the original Klan.

The Klan grew after that due to white peoples' anxieties and fears over the rapid pace of change, economic and social competition; it promoted itself as a fraternal organization for whites in new urban environments. Both white and black rural migrants were moving into rapidly industrializing cities of the South. In addition, many Southern white and African American migrants moved north in the Great Migration . This change resulted in labor shortages in some of the South and added to rapid population change in major northern and midwestern industrial cities. They were also receiving greatly increased immigration from southern and eastern Europe. The Klan grew rapidly and became most successful and strongest in those cities that had a rapid pace of growth from 1910 to 1930, such as Atlanta, Georgia ; Birmingham, Alabama ; Dallas, Texas ; Detroit, Michigan ; Indianapolis, Indiana ; Chicago, Illinois ; Portland, Oregon ; and Denver, Colorado . It reached a peak of membership and influence about 1925. In some cities, leaders' actions to publish names of Klan members and override its secrecy provided enough publicity to sharply reduce membership.

Continuing resistance

The NAACP mounted a strong nationwide campaign of protests and public education against the movie, The Birth of a Nation . As a result, some city governments prohibited release of the film. In addition, the NAACP publicized production and helped create audiences for the 1919 releases, The Birth of a Race and Within Our Gates , African American directed films that presented more positive images of blacks.

On April 1, 1918, U.S. Representative Leonidas C. Dyer of St. Louis, Missouri , introduced the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill in the U.S. House of Representatives . Rep. Dyer was concerned over increased lynching and mob violence disregard for the "rule of law" in the South. The bill made lynching a federal crime, and those who participated in lynching would be prosecuted by the federal government.

In 1920, the black community succeeded in getting its most important priority in the Republican Party's platform at the National Convention: support for an anti-lynching bill. The black community supported Warren G. Harding in that election, but were disappointed as his administration moved slowly on a bill.

Dyer revised his bill and re-introduced it to the House in 1921. It passed the House on January 22, 1922, due to "insistent country-wide demand", and was favorably reported out by the Senate Judiciary Committee . Action in the Senate was delayed, and ultimately the Democratic Solid South filibuster defeated the bill in the Senate in December. In 1923, Dyer went on a midwestern and western state tour promoting the anti-lynching bill; he praised the NAACP's work for continuing to publicize lynching in the South and for supporting the federal bill. Dyer's anti-lynching motto was "We have just begun to fight," and he helped generate additional national support. His bill was defeated twice more in the Senate by Southern Democratic filibuster. The Republicans were unable to pass a bill in the 1920s.

African-American resistance to lynching carried substantial risks. In 1921, in Tulsa, Oklahoma , a group of African-American citizens attempted to stop a lynch mob from taking 19-year-old assault suspect Dick Rowland out of jail. In a scuffle between a white man and an armed African-American veteran, the white man was killed. Whites retaliated by rioting, during which they burned 1,256 homes and as many as 200 businesses in the segregated Greenwood district, destroying what had been a thriving area. Confirmed dead were 39 people: 26 African Americans and 13 whites. Recent investigations suggest the number of African-American deaths may have been much higher. Rowland was saved, however, and was later exonerated.

The growing networks of African-American women's club groups were instrumental in raising funds to support the NAACP public education and lobbying campaigns. They also built community organizations. In 1922, Mary Talbert headed the anti-lynching crusade to create an integrated women's movement against lynching. It was affiliated with the NAACP, which mounted a multi-faceted campaign. For years the NAACP used petition drives, letters to newspapers, articles, posters, lobbying Congress, and marches to protest the abuses in the South and keep the issue before the public.

While the second KKK grew rapidly in cities undergoing major change and achieved some political power, many state and city leaders, including white religious leaders such as Reinhold Niebuhr in Detroit , acted strongly and spoke out publicly against the organization. Some anti-Klan groups published members' names and quickly reduced the energy in their efforts. As a result, in most areas, after 1925 KKK membership and organizations rapidly declined. Cities passed laws against wearing of masks, and otherwise acted against the KKK.

In 1930, Southern white women responded in large numbers to the leadership of Jessie Daniel Ames in forming the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching . She and her co-founders obtained the signatures of 40,000 women to their pledge against lynching and for a change in the South. The pledge included the statement:

In light of the facts we dare no longer to... allow those bent upon personal revenge and savagery to commit acts of violence and lawlessness in the name of women.

Despite physical threats and hostile opposition, the women leaders persisted with petition drives, letter campaigns, meetings and demonstrations to highlight the issues. By the 1930s, the number of lynchings had dropped to about ten per year in Southern states.

In the 1930s, communist organizations, including a legal defense organization called the International Labor Defense (ILD), organized support to stop lynching (see The Communist Party USA and African Americans ). The ILD defended the Scottsboro Boys , as well as three black men accused of rape in Tuscaloosa in 1933. In the Tuscaloosa case, two defendants were lynched under circumstances that suggested police complicity. The ILD lawyers narrowly escaped lynching. Many Southerners resented them for their perceived "interference" in local affairs. In a remark to an investigator, a white Tuscaloosan said, "For New York Jews to butt in and spread communistic ideas is too much."

Federal action and southern resistance

Anti-lynching advocates such as Mary McLeod Bethune and Walter Francis White campaigned for presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. They hoped he would lend public support to their efforts against lynching. Senators Robert F. Wagner and Edward P. Costigan drafted the Costigan-Wagner bill in 1934 to require local authorities to protect prisoners from lynch mobs. Like the Dyer bill, it made lynching a Federal crime in order to take it out of state administration.

Southern Senators continued to hold a hammerlock on Congress. Because of the Southern Democrats' disfranchisement of African Americans in Southern states at the start of the 20th century, Southern whites for decades had nearly double the representation in Congress beyond their own population. Southern states had Congressional representation based on total population, but essentially only whites could vote and only their issues were supported. Due to seniority achieved through one-party Democratic rule in their region, Southern Democrats controlled many important committees in both houses. Southern Democrats consistently opposed any legislation related to putting lynching under Federal oversight. As a result, Southern white Democrats were a formidable power in Congress until the 1960s.

In the 1930s, virtually all Southern senators blocked the proposed Wagner-Costigan bill. Southern senators used a filibuster to prevent a vote on the bill. Some Republican senators, such as the conservative William Borah from Idaho , opposed the bill for constitutional reasons {he had also opposed the Dyer Bill}. He felt it encroached on state sovereignty and, by the 1930s, thought that social conditions had changed so that the bill was less needed. He spoke at length in opposition to the bill in 1935 and 1938. 1934 saw 15 lynchings of African Americans with 21 lynchings in 1935, 8 in 1936, and 2 in 1939.

A lynching in Fort Lauderdale, Florida , changed the political climate in Washington. On July 19, 1935, Rubin Stacy, a homeless African-American tenant farmer, knocked on doors begging for food. After resident complaints, deputies took Stacy into custody. While he was in custody, a lynch mob took Stacy from the deputies and murdered him. Although the faces of his murderers could be seen in a photo taken at the lynching site, the state did not prosecute the murder.

Stacy's murder galvanized anti-lynching activists, but President Roosevelt did not support the federal anti-lynching bill. He feared that support would cost him Southern votes in the 1936 election . He believed that he could accomplish more for more people by getting re-elected.

In 1939, Roosevelt created the Civil Rights Section of the Justice Department . It started prosecutions to combat lynching, but failed to win any convictions until 1946.

World War II to present

Second Great Migration

The industrial buildup to World War II acted as a "pull" factor in the second phase of the Second Great Migration starting in 1940 and lasting until 1970. Altogether in the first half of the 20th century, 6.5 million African Americans migrated from the South to leave lynchings and segregation behind. Unlike the first round, composed chiefly of rural farm workers, the second wave included more educated workers and their families who were already living in southern cities and towns. In this migration, many migrated west from Louisiana , Mississippi , and Texas to California in addition to northern and midwestern cities, as defense industries recruited thousands to higher-paying, skilled jobs. They settled in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland .

Federal action

In 1946, the Civil Rights Section of the Justice Department gained its first conviction under federal civil rights laws against a lyncher. Florida constable Tom Crews was sentenced to a $1,000 fine and one year in prison for civil rights violations in the killing of an African-American farm worker.

In 1946, a mob of white men shot and killed two young African-American couples near Moore's Ford Bridge in Walton County, Georgia 60 miles east of Atlanta . This lynching of four young sharecroppers, one a World War II veteran, shocked the nation. The attack was a key factor in President Harry S. Truman 's making civil rights a priority of his administration. Although the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigated the crime, they were unable to prosecute. It was the last documented lynching of so many people in one incident.

In 1947, the Truman Administration published a report entitled To Secure These Rights which advocated making lynching a federal crime, abolishing poll taxes, and other civil rights reforms. The Southern Democratic bloc of senators and congressmen continued to obstruct attempts at federal legislation.

In the 1940s, the Klan openly criticized Truman for his efforts to promote civil rights. Later historians documented that Truman had briefly made an attempt to join the Klan as a young man in 1924, when it was near its peak of social influence in promoting itself as a fraternal organization. When a Klan officer demanded that Truman pledge not to hire any Catholics if he was reelected as county judge, Truman refused. He personally knew their worth from his World War I experience. His membership fee was returned and he never joined the KKK.

Lynching and the Cold War

With the beginning of the Cold War after World War II, the Soviet Union criticized the United States for the frequency of lynchings of black people. In a meeting with President Harry Truman in 1946, Paul Robeson urged him to take action against lynching. In 1951, Robeson and the Civil Rights Congress made a presentation entitled " We Charge Genocide " to the United Nations . They argued that the U.S. government was guilty of genocide under Article II of the United Nations Genocide Convention because it failed to act against lynchings. The United Nations took no action.

In the post-Cold War years, the FBI was worried more about possible Communist connections among anti-lynching groups than about the lynching crimes. For instance, the FBI branded Albert Einstein a communist sympathizer for joining Robeson's American Crusade Against Lynching . J. Edgar Hoover , head of the FBI for decades, was particularly fearful of the effects of Communism in the United States. He directed more attention to investigations of civil rights groups for communist connections than to Ku Klux Klan activities against the groups' members and other innocent blacks.

Civil Rights Movement

By the 1950s, the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum. Membership in the NAACP increased in states across the country. The NAACP achieved a significant U.S. Supreme Court victory in 1954 ruling that segregated education was unconstitutional. A 1955 lynching that sparked public outrage about injustice was that of Emmett Till , a 14-year-old boy from Chicago. Spending the summer with relatives in Money, Mississippi , Till was killed for allegedly having wolf-whistled at a white woman. Till had been badly beaten, one of his eyes was gouged out, and he was shot in the head before being thrown into the Tallahatchie River , his body weighed down with a 70-pound (32 kg) cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. His mother insisted on a public funeral with an open casket, to show people how badly Till's body had been disfigured. News photographs circulated around the country, and drew intense public reaction. People in the nation were horrified that a boy could have been killed for such an incident. The state of Mississippi tried two defendants, but they were speedily acquitted.

In the 1960s the Civil Rights Movement attracted students to the South from all over the country to work on voter registration and integration. The intervention of people from outside the communities and threat of social change aroused fear and resentment among many whites. In June 1964, three civil rights workers disappeared in Neshoba County, Mississippi . They had been investigating the arson of a black church being used as a " Freedom School ". Six weeks later, their bodies were found in a partially constructed dam near Philadelphia, Mississippi . James Chaney of Meridian, Mississippi , and Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman of New York had been members of the Congress of Racial Equality . They had been dedicated to non-violent direct action against racial discrimination . The investigation also unearthed the bodies of numerous anonymous victims of past lynchings and murders.

The United States prosecuted 18 men for a Ku Klux Klan conspiracy to deprive the victims of their civil rights under 19th-century Federal law, in order to prosecute the crime in Federal court. Seven men were convicted but received light sentences, two men were released because of a deadlocked jury, and the remainder were acquitted. In 2005, 80-year-old Edgar Ray Killen , one of the men who had earlier gone free, was retried by the state of Mississippi, convicted of three counts of manslaughter in a new trial, and sentenced to 60 years in prison .

Because of J. Edgar Hoover's and others' hostility to the Civil Rights Movement , agents of the FBI resorted to outright lying to smear civil rights workers and other opponents of lynching. For example, the FBI leaked false information in the press about the lynching victim Viola Liuzzo , who was murdered in 1965 in Alabama. The FBI said Liuzzo had been a member of the Communist Party USA , had abandoned her five children, and was involved in sexual relationships with African Americans in the movement.

After the Civil Rights Movement

From 1882 to 1968, "...nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress, and three passed the House. Seven presidents between 1890 and 1952 petitioned Congress to pass a federal law." No bill was approved by the Senate because of the powerful opposition of the Southern Democratic voting bloc.

Although lynchings have become rare following the civil rights movement and changing social mores, some have occurred. In 1981, two KKK members in Alabama randomly selected a 19-year-old black man, Michael Donald , and murdered him, to retaliate for a jury's acquittal of a black man accused of murdering a police officer. The Klansmen were caught, prosecuted, and convicted. A $7 million judgment in a civil suit against the Klan bankrupted the local subgroup, the United Klans of America .

In 1998, Shawn Allen Berry , Lawrence Russel Brewer , and ex-convict John William King murdered James Byrd, Jr. in Jasper, Texas . Byrd was a 49-year-old father of three, who had accepted an early-morning ride home with the three men. They attacked him and dragged him to his death behind their truck. The three men dumped their victim's mutilated remains in the town's segregated African American cemetery and then went to a barbecue. Local authorities immediately treated the murder as a hate crime and requested FBI assistance. The murderers (two of whom turned out to be members of a white supremacist prison gang) were caught and stood trial. Brewer and King were sentenced to death; Berry was sentenced to life in prison.

On June 13, 2005, the U.S. Senate formally apologized for its failure to enact a federal anti-lynching law in the early 20th century, "when it was most needed." Before the vote, Louisianan senator Mary Landrieu noted, "There may be no other injustice in American history for which the Senate so uniquely bears responsibility." The resolution was passed on a voice vote with 80 senators cosponsoring, with Mississippians Thad Cochran and Trent Lott being among the twenty U.S. senators excepted. The resolution expressed "the deepest sympathies and most solemn regrets of the Senate to the descendants of victims of lynching, the ancestors of whom were deprived of life, human dignity and the constitutional protections accorded all citizens of the United States".


Statistics for lynchings have three primary sources, none of which cover the entire time period of lynching in the United States. Before 1882, no reliable statistics are available. In 1882, the Chicago Tribune began to systematically record lynchings. Then, in 1892, Tuskegee Institute began a systematic collection and tabulation of lynching statistics, primarily from newspaper reports. Finally, in 1912, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People started an independent record of lynchings. The numbers of lynchings from each source vary slightly, with the Tuskegee Institute's figures being considered "conservative" by some historians.

Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University , has defined conditions that constitute a recognized lynching:

"There must be legal evidence that a person was killed . That person must have met death illegally . A group of three or more persons must have participated in the killing. The group must have acted under the pretext of service to Justice, Race, or Tradition ."

Tuskegee remains the single most complete source of statistics and records on this crime since 1882. As of 1959, which was the last time that their annual Lynch Report was published, a total of 4,733 persons had died as a result of lynching since 1882. To quote the report,

"Except for 1955, when three lynchings were reported in Mississippi, none has been recorded at Tuskegee since 1951. In 1945, 1947, and 1951, only one case per year was reported. The most recent case reported by the institute as a lynching was that of Emmett Till, 14, a Negro who was beaten, shot to death, and thrown into a river at Greenwood, Mississippi on August 28, 1955...For a period of 65 years ending in 1947, at least one lynching was reported each year. The most for any year was 231 in 1892. From 1882 to 1901, lynchings averaged more than 150 a year. Since 1924, lynchings have been in a marked decline, never more than 30 cases, which occurred in 1926..."

Opponents of legislation often said lynchings prevented murder and rape. As documented by Ida B. Wells , rape charges or rumors were present in less than one-third of the lynchings; such charges were often pretexts for lynching blacks who violated Jim Crow etiquette or engaged in economic competition with whites. Other common reasons given included arson, theft, assault, and robbery; sexual transgressions ( miscegenation , adultery, cohabitation); "race prejudice", "race hatred", "racial disturbance;" informing on others; "threats against whites;" and violations of the color line ("attending white girl", "proposals to white woman").

Tuskegee's method of categorizing most lynching victims as either black or white in publications and data summaries meant that the murders of some minority and immigrant groups were obscured. In the West, for instance, Mexican, Native Americans, and Chinese were more frequent targets of lynchings than were African Americans, but their deaths were included among those of whites. Similarly, although Italian immigrants were the focus of violence in Louisiana when they started arriving in greater numbers, their deaths were not identified separately from whites. In earlier years, whites who were subject to lynching were often targeted because of suspected political activities or support of freedmen, but they were generally considered members of the community in a way new immigrants were not.

Literature and film

  • Owen Wister 's The Virginian , a 1902 seminal novel in the genre of Western novels in the United States dealt with a fictional treatment of the Johnson County War and frontier lynchings in the West.
  • Angelina Weld Grimké 's Rachel (1914) was the first play about the toll of racial violence directed at African American families; it was produced in 1916.
  • Following the commercial and critical success of D.W. Griffith 's film, Birth of a Nation (1915), which glorified the Ku Klux Klan for its violence during Reconstruction , African American director and writer Oscar Micheaux responded in 1919 with the film Within Our Gates . The climax of the film is the lynching of a black family after one member of the family is wrongly accused of murder. A commercial failure, the film is considered historically significant and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry .
  • Regina M. Anderson 's play, Climbing Jacob's Ladder, was about a lynching; it was performed by the Krigwa Players (later called the Negro Experimental Theater), a Harlem theatre company.
  • William Faulkner 's short story " Dry September " (1931) tells the story of a lynch mob forming in response to an alleged offense against a white woman.
  • Lynd Ward 's 1932 book Wild Pilgrimage (printed in woodblock prints, with no text) includes three prints of the lynching of several black men.
  • In Irving Berlin 's 1933 musical, As Thousands Cheer , Ethel Waters sang a ballad about lynching, " Supper Time ." She wrote in her 1951 autobiography, His Eye Was on the Sparrow , "if one song could tell the story of an entire race, that was it."
  • Murder in Harlem (1935), by director Oscar Micheaux , was one of three films he made based on events in the controversial trial of Leo Frank , a northern Jewish man convicted of murder of a Georgia factory girl. He portrayed the character analogous to Frank as guilty and set the film in New York, removing sectional conflict as one of the cultural forces in the trial. Micheaux's first version was a silent film, The Gunsaulus Mystery (1921). Lem Hawkins Confession (1935) was also related to the Leo Frank trial.
  • John Steinbeck 's short story "The Vigilante" (1936) is retrospectively concerned with a lynching as seen by one of the chief participants in it. The story is based on historical events, namely the 1933 lynchings of John Maurice Holmes and Thomas Harold Thurmond in San Jose, California, on November 16, 1933.
  • The film They Won't Forget (1937) was inspired by the Frank case; it featured the Leo Frank character portrayed as a Christian .
  • In Fury (1936), the German expatriate Fritz Lang depicts a lynch mob burning down a jail in which Joe Wilson (played by Spencer Tracy) was held as a suspect in a kidnapping, a crime for which Wilson was soon after cleared. Lang had left Germany after the Nazis came to power. The story was based on a 1933 lynching in San Jose, California . This had been recorded on newsreel footage and was an event in which Governor of California James Rolph refused to intervene.
  • In Walter Van Tilburg Clark 's 1940 novel, The Ox-Bow Incident , two drifters are drawn into a Western posse formed to find the murderer of a local man. After suspicion centered on three innocent cattle rustlers , they were lynched, an injustice that deeply affected the drifters. The novel was adapted as a 1943 film by the same name . It symbolized a wartime defense of United States' values, seen to be based on law, versus the characterization of Nazi Germany as mob rule.
  • Harper Lee 's novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), featured a black man, Tom Robinson, who is wrongfully accused of rape and narrowly escapes lynching. After having been wrongfully convicted by an all-white jury, Robinson is later killed while attempting to escape from prison. The novel was adapted as a 1962 film of the same name starring Gregory Peck .
  • " Going to Meet the Man " (1965) is a short story by James Baldwin that includes an account of a particularly horrific lynching.
  • The 1968 film Hang 'Em High , set on the Western frontier, stars Clint Eastwood .
  • The 1988 film Mississippi Burning includes a depiction of a black man being lynched.
  • Peter Matthiessen depicted several lynchings in his Killing Mr. Watson trilogy (first volume published in 1990), set in Florida of the late 19th century.
  • " A Party Down at the Square " (first published in 1997) is a short story by Ralph Ellison that describes a lynching from the point of view of a white boy from Cincinnati.
  • Vendetta , a 1999 HBO film starring Christopher Walken and directed by Nicholas Meyer , is based on events that took place in New Orleans in 1891. After the acquittal of 18 Italian American men falsely accused of the murder of police chief David Hennessy , a lynch mob attacked them, killing 11 by shooting or hanging in one of the largest mass lynchings in United States history.
  • Jason Robert Brown 's musical Parade tells the story of Leo Frank , a Jewish man lynched near Atlanta, Georgia in the early 1900s after being convicted of murder of a young factory girl in a highly biased trial.
  • Quentin Tarantino 's film The Hateful Eight (2015) set in the Reconstruction Era features a finale with a detailed depiction of the lynching of a white woman identified as a working class racist Southerner, with graphic focus on her suffering, prompting some debate among critics about whether it is a political commentary on racism and hate in America or simply sensational and sexist exploitation.

"Strange Fruit"

Among artistic works that grappled with lynching was the song " Strange Fruit " written as a poem by Abel Meeropol in 1939 and recorded by Billie Holiday .

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
scent of magnolia
sweet and fresh
then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is a fruit
for the crows to pluck
for the rain to gather
for the wind to suck
for the sun to rot
for the tree to drop
Here is a strange
and bitter crop

Although Holiday's regular label of Columbia declined, Holiday recorded it with Commodore. The song became identified with her and was one of her most popular ones. The song became an anthem for the anti-lynching movement. It also contributed to activism of the American civil rights movement . A documentary about a lynching, and the effects of protest songs and art, entitled Strange Fruit (2002) and produced by Public Broadcasting Service, was aired on U.S. television.


For most of the history of the United States, lynching was rarely prosecuted, as the same people who would have had to prosecute and sit on juries were generally on the side of the action or related to the perpetrators in the small communities where many lived. When the crime was prosecuted, it was under state murder statutes. In one example in 1907–09, the U.S. Supreme Court tried its only criminal case in history, 203 U.S. ( U.S. v. Sheriff Shipp ). Shipp was found guilty of criminal contempt for doing nothing to stop the mob in Chattanooga, Tennessee that lynched Ed Johnson , who was in jail for rape. In the South, blacks generally were not able to serve on juries, as they could not vote, having been disfranchised by discriminatory voter registration and electoral rules passed by majority-white legislatures in the late 19th century, who also imposed Jim Crow laws.

Starting in 1909, federal legislators introduced more than 200 bills in Congress to make lynching a Federal crime, but they failed to pass, chiefly because of Southern legislators' opposition. Because Southern states had effectively disfranchised African Americans at the start of the 20th century, the white Southern Democrats controlled all the apportioned seats of the South, nearly double the Congressional representation that white residents alone would have been entitled to. They were a powerful voting bloc for decades and controlled important committee chairmanships. The Senate Democrats formed a bloc that filibustered for a week in December 1922, holding up all national business, to defeat the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill . It had passed the House in January 1922 with broad support except for the South. Representative Leonidas C. Dyer of St. Louis , the chief sponsor, undertook a national speaking tour in support of the bill in 1923, but the Southern Senators defeated it twice more in the next two sessions.

Under the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration , the Civil Rights Section of the Justice Department tried, but failed, to prosecute lynchers under Reconstruction-era civil rights laws. The first successful federal prosecution of a lyncher for a civil rights violation was in 1946. By that time, the era of lynchings as a common occurrence had ended. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. succeeded in gaining House passage of an anti-lynching bill, but it was defeated in the Senate, still dominated by the Southern Democratic bloc, supported by its disfranchisement of blacks.

From 1882 to 1968, "...nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress, and three passed the House. Seven presidents between 1890 and 1952 petitioned Congress to pass a federal law." The Southern Democratic block in the Senate prevented the passage of any anti-lynching bill during this period. In 2005, by a resolution sponsored by senators Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and George Allen of Virginia, and passed by voice vote, the Senate made a formal apology for its failure to pass an anti-lynching law "when it was most needed."

State laws

In 1933, California defined lynching, punishable by 2–4 years in prison, as "the taking by means of a riot of any person from the lawful custody of any peace officer", with the crime of "riot" defined as two or more people using violence or the threat of violence. It does not actually refer to actual lynching and has been used to charge individuals who have tried to free someone in police custody. There have been several notable cases in the twenty-first century, some controversial, when a black person has attempted to free another black person from custody. In 2015, Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation by Senator Holly Mitchell removing the word "lynching" from the state's criminal code without comment after it received unanimous approval in a vote by state lawmakers. Mitchell stated, "It's been said that strong words should be reserved for strong concepts, and 'lynching' has such a painful history for African Americans that the law should only use it for what it is - murder by mob." The law was otherwise unchanged.

In 1899, Indiana passed anti-lynching legislation. It was enforced by Governor Winfield T. Durbin , who forced investigation into a 1902 lynching and removed the sheriff responsible. In 1903 he sent militia to bring order to a race riot which had broken out on Independence Day (United States) in Evansville, Indiana . In 1920, 600 men attempted to remove a black prisoner from Marion County Jail, but were prevented by the city's police. One of the most iconic lynching images, which inspired Abel Meeropol to write the song Strange Fruit was taken by Lawrence Beitler of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in 1930 in Marion, Indiana . The lynching was the impetus for Flossie Bailey to push for passage of the 1931 Indiana anti-lynching law. The law allowed for the immediate dismissal of any sheriff who allowed a jailed person to be lynched, and allowed the victim's family to sue for $10,000. However, local authorities failed to persecute mob leaders, and, when they were indicted by Indiana's attorney general James Ogden, the jury refused to convict.

In 1951, South Carolina law defined second-degree lynching as "any act of violence inflicted by a mob upon the body of another person and from which death does not result shall constitute the crime of lynching in the second degree and shall be a felony. Any person found guilty of lynching in the second degree shall be confined at hard labor in the State Penitentiary for a term not exceeding twenty years nor less than three years, at the discretion of the presiding judge." In 1994 Kevin Garnett was charged with second-degree lynching when a fight resulted in a white student received a fractured ankle. All accounts indicated he was present but not involved, and his record was later expunged through pre-trial intervention. In 2003, all but two of the state's 46 counties charged blacks with lynching out of proportion to their representation in the population. In the prior 5 years, 4,000 adults had been charged, 136 had been convicted. Black suspects were convicted at twice the rate of white suspects. 1,400 juvenile lynching charges were filed, and, in 2002, 231 black youths were convicted, ten times as many as white youths. In 2006, five white teenagers were given various sentences for second-degree lynching in a non-lethal attack of a young black man in South Carolina. In 2010, The South Carolina Sentencing Reform Commission voted to rename the law "assault and battery by a mob" and to soften consequences for situations in which no one was killed or seriously injured in an attack by two or more people on a single victim.