A Brief History
On August 7, 1930, 2 African-American men were seized from jail in Indiana by an irate White mob, beaten, and hanged for the alleged crimes of robbery, rape, and murder. They were the last 2 African-Americans lynched in a Northern state A third Black male, only 16 years old, was rescued from the lynching by a White woman, though he was later convicted and imprisoned.
Defined as “extrajudicial punishment,” lynching can be any form of punishment without due process of law, usually by a mob or a vigilante, such as beating, tar and feathering, and other such maiming or humiliating treatment. For the most part, we are talking about the lynching of African-Americans and specifically the murder without a trial of African-Americans, usually by hanging. An exception was a Black man in custody named McIntosh that was burned alive while tied to a tree for the murder of a Deputy while the prisoner was trying to escape.
Americans did not invent lynching, as people have taken mob rule into their own hands as far back as history goes, but in the United States we date the term “lynching” to a Charles Lynch, who coined the phrase “Lynch’s Law” to mean punishment without trial. Charles Lynch applied his personal justice to “Tories for dealing with Negroes, &c.”
Although lynching took place in the United States from its very origins, the period mainly considered as a Lynching Era in America was after the Civil War until about 1968, during which time around 3500 African-Americans were lynched, and around 1300 European-Americans were lynched during this era. The lynching of American Blacks began as a punishment for runaway slaves and alleged crimes by African-Americans before the Civil War, but starting during Reconstruction after the War Blacks were often lynched for being presumptuous about exercising their rights, such as voting. Dating, kissing, marrying or untoward advances toward a White female could get a Black man lynched throughout this period, as could demanding to vote or defying segregation or other White Rules.
In the racially charged atmosphere of Jim Crow and Reconstruction, and the period before the Civil War, White people that were Abolitionists or proponents of Equal Rights for African-Americans were also lynched. A famous case during the Civil Rights era occurred in Mississippi during 1964 when 3 Civil Rights Activists (2 White and 1 Black) that were part of a movement to register African-Americans to vote were shot to death and buried in an incident known as “Mississippi Burning Murders.” Not until 41 years after the murders was one individual convicted of Manslaughter in the case. Another famous case was of a 14 year old African-American boy beaten to death in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at an attractive White woman. The victim, Emmett Till, was mutilated and so disfigured his mother insisted on an open casket viewing to show the world what had been done to her son. (His face and head were mangled.)
Of those African-Americans lynched (murdered), at least 159 were women. African-Americans and European Americans were not the only target of lynching, as various other ethnic groups suffered death and other “punishments” by lynching in undocumented numbers. Native Americans, Chinese, and Mexicans (or Mexican-Americans) were also the target of lynch mobs or vigilante groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Homosexuals have been targeted and other people have been attacked on religious grounds, especially Catholics, Mormons and Jews. Immigrants have also been attacked, including in modern times when Arab (or “Arab looking”) people are attacked as “terrorists.”
In 1915, the release of the film, Birth of a Nation, energized White supremacists and brought about a resurgence to the KKK, resulting in an increase in lynching incidents, an epidemic that was vigorously attacked by the US Federal Government, including the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill of 1918. The propensity of lynch mobs to photograph their handiwork has left us with a large volume of photographic documentation of these murders. The sight of Black bodies hanging from trees in the South inspired the 1939 Billie Holiday song, “Strange Fruit,” a song still covered by modern artists. (“Strange Fruit” was a poem written by Abel Meeropol, a White Jew, in 1937.) The novel (1960) and movie (1962) To Kill a Mockingbird has at its core a potential lynching of an African-American man accused (falsely) of raping a white girl, and the heroic stance the character Atticus Finch took to prevent the lynching.
Today we still get the occasional vigilante type murder, often race based, but also religion based, this time mainly against people perceived to be Muslim. The problem is not exclusive to the United States, and lynching is found all over the world in virtually all cultures, against perceived “enemies” due to political views, race, religion, sexual orientation, alleged crimes, and a myriad of other excuses. Dissatisfaction with or distrust of the “justice” system also leads to people taking the law into their own hands.
Question for students (and subscribers): Is it ever right for a mob to take the law and punishment into its own hands? Are vigilantes justified in lynching people they think are guilty? Please share your thoughts on this subject, and if you have any interesting stories or information to add, please include it in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Allen, James, John Lewis, et al. Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. Twin Palms Publishers, 2000.
Wood, Amy Louise. Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940 (New Directions in Southern Studies). University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Lawrence Beitler of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, August 7, 1930, is copyrighted (or assumed to be copyrighted) and unlicensed; however, it is believed that the use of this work:
- To illustrate the subject in question
- Where no free equivalent is available or could be created that would adequately give the same information
- On an educational website, hosted on servers in the United States,