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Lynching, the practice of killing people by extrajudicial mob action, occurred in the United States chiefly from the late 18th century through the 1960s. Lynchings took place most frequently against African American men in the Southern US from 1890 to the 1920s with a peak in 1892. Lynchings were also very common in the Old West, although victims were of various races.
Lynching in the South is associated with the reimposition of white supremacy by whites after the American Civil War. The granting of U.S. Constitutional rights to freedmen in the Reconstruction era (1865–1877) aroused anxieties among white Southerners, who were not ready to concede social status to African Americans, blaming the freedmen for their own wartime hardship, economic loss, and forfeiture of social and political privilege. During Reconstruction, Black Americans, and Whites active in the pursuit of integration rights, were sometimes lynched in the South. In addition, blacks were intimidated and attacked to prevent their voting. Lynchings reached a peak in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, following the withdrawal of federal troops, and the Democrats taking back control of state legislatures: they passed new constitutions and electoral rules to disfranchise most blacks and many poor whites. They enacted a series of segregation and Jim Crow laws to reestablish White supremacy. During the Civil Rights Movement, violence erupted again; notable lynchings of integration rights workers during the 1960s in Mississippi resulted in the galvanizing of national public support for federal civil rights legislation.
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, extending in two waves from 1910 to 1970, 6.5 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 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 Saint 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 Southern Democratic block.
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.
One motive for lynchings, particularly in the South, was the enforcement of social conventions by dominant white parties, who 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.
Financial gain and the ability to establish political and economic control were other motives. For example, after the lynching of an African American farmer or an immigrant merchant, the victim's property would often become available to whites. 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 were more frequent at the end of the year, when accounts with sharecroppers and tenant farmers had to be settled.
In the 1890s, African American journalist and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells investigated lynching cases; she revealed 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. White lynch mobs formed to restore the perceived social order. Lynch mob "policing" usually led to murder of the victims by white mobs. Law-enforcement authorities sometimes participated directly or held suspects in jail until a mob formed to carry out the murder.
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.
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.
Historians have debated over the history of lynchings on the western frontier, 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.
Men 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. It had a strongly nativist tinge.[page needed] Its members initially targeted activities by the Irish and later mounted mob violence against Chinese immigrants and Mexicans.. In 1871, a 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.
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, with the complicity of local and federal Republican politicians, hired mercenaries and assassins to lynch the small ranchers, who were mostly Democrats. The latter were also their economic competitors, characterized by the large-scale ranchers as "cattle rustlers".
The first heavy period of violence in the South was between 1868 and 1871. White Democrats attacked black and white Republicans. This was less the result of mob violence characteristic of later lynchings, however, than insurgent secret vigilante actions by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. To prevent ratification of new constitutions formed during Reconstruction, the opposition used various means to harass potential voters. Failed terrorist attacks led to a massacre during the 1868 elections, with the systematic insurgents' murders of about 1,300 voters across various southern states ranging from South Carolina to Arkansas.
After this partisan political violence had ended, lynchings in the South focused more on race than on partisan politics. They could be seen as a latter-day expression of the slave patrols, the bands of poor whites who policed the slaves and pursued escapees. 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 can be seen as extralegal ways of enforcing 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 to deal with the escalating violence. President Ulysses S. Grant and Congress passed the Force Acts of 1870 and the Civil Rights Act of 1871, also known as the Ku Klux Klan Act, because it was passed to suppress the vigilante violence of the Klan. This enabled federal prosecution of crimes committed by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, as well as 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 reducing the numbers of murders.
From the mid-1870s on in the Deep South, violence rose. In Mississippi, Louisiana, the Carolinas and Florida especially, the Democratic Party relied on paramilitary "White Line" groups such as the White Camelia to terrorize, intimidate and assassinate African American and white Republicans in an organized drive to regain power. In Mississippi, it was the Red Shirts; in Louisiana, the White League that were paramilitary groups carrying out goals of the Democratic Party to suppress black voting. Insurgents targeted politically active African Americans and unleashed violence in general community intimidation. Grant's desire to keep Ohio in the Republican aisle and his attorney general's maneuvering led to a failure to support the Mississippi governor with Federal troops. The campaign of terror worked. In Yazoo County, for instance, with a Negro population of 12,000, only seven votes were cast for Republicans. In 1875, Democrats swept into power in the 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, effectively suppressing African American suffrage and civil rights. In state after state, Democrats swept back to power. From 1868 to 1876, most years had 50–100 lynchings.
White Democrats passed laws and constitutional amendments making voter registration more complicated, to further exclude black voters from the polls.
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, with other victims including white immigrants, and, in the southwest, Latinos. Of the 468 victims in Texas between 1885 and 1942, 339 were black, 77 white, 53 Hispanic, and 1 Indian. They 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 whom?] 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 disenfranchised. "In the twentieth century Delta vigilantism finally became predictably joined to white supremacy."
After their increased immigration to the U.S. in the late 19th century, Italian Americans also became lynching targets, chiefly in the South, where they were recruited for laboring jobs. On March 14, 1891, 11 Italian immigrants were lynched in New Orleans, Louisiana, after a jury acquitted them in the murder of David Hennessy, an ethnic Irish New Orleans police chief. The 11 Sicilians were falsely accused of being associated with the Mafia. This incident was one of the largest mass lynchings in U.S. history. A total of twenty Italians were lynched in the 1890s. Although most lynchings of Italian Americans occurred in the South, Italians had not immigrated there in great numbers. Isolated lynchings of Italians also occurred in New York, Pennsylvania, and Colorado.
Particularly in the West, Chinese immigrants, East Indians, Native Americans and Mexicans were also lynching victims. The lynching of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the Southwest was long overlooked in American history, attention being chiefly focused on 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.
Henry Smith, a troubled ex-slave accused of murdering a policeman's daughter, was one of the most famous lynched African Americans. 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, then finally burned alive while over 10,000 spectators cheered.
After 1876, the frequency of lynching decreased somewhat as white Democrats had regained political power throughout the South. The threat of lynching was used to terrorize freedmen and whites alike to maintain re-asserted dominance by whites.. Southern Republicans in Congress sought to protect black voting rights by using Federal troops for enforcement. 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 ‒ who were often members of such paramilitary groups like the White Cappers, the Knights of the White Camellia, the White League, and the Red Shirts ‒ had used terrorist violence and assassinations to reduce the political power that African American and white Republicans had gained during Reconstruction.
Lynchings both supported the power reversal and were public demonstrations of white power. 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 developing Mississippi Delta. Southern attempts to encourage 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. 1892 was a peak year when 161 African Americans were lynched. The creation of the Jim Crow laws, beginning in the 1890s, completed the revival of white supremacy in the South. Terror and lynching were 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.
The ideology behind lynching, directly connected with denial of political and social equality, was stated forthrightly 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.
Victims were often lynched by a small group of white vigilantes late at night. Occasionally, however, lynchings became mass spectacles with a circus-like atmosphere intended to emphasize majority power. Lynchings were often announced beforehand in newspapers and were known to have been timed so that newspaper reporters could make their deadlines. Even photographers profited by selling photos to newspapers and postcard publishers. Lynchings were often publicized as a veiled threat to African Americans and others who might challenge societal norms.
Fewer than one percent of lynch mob participants were ever convicted by local courts. By the late 19th century, trial juries in most of the southern United States were all white because African Americans had been disfranchised, 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. 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 jailed and accused of having raped a white woman. A physician's examination subsequently found no evidence of rape or assault. The alleged "motive" and action by a mob were consistent with the "community policing" model. A book titled The Lynchings in Duluth documented the events.
Although the rhetoric surrounding lynchings included justifications about protecting white women, the actions basically erupted out of attempts to maintain domination in a rapidly changing society and fears of social change. Victims were the scapegoats for peoples' attempts to control agriculture, labor and education as well as disasters such as the boll weevil.
According to an article, April 2, 2002, in Time:
At the start of the 20th century in the United States, lynching was photographic sport. People sent picture postcards of lynchings they had witnessed. The practice was so base, a writer for Time 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."
African Americans emerged from the Civil War with the political experience and stature to resist attacks, but disfranchisement and the decrease in their civil rights in the late 19th 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 because their grocery store competed successfully with a white-owned store. Outraged, Wells-Barnett began a global anti-lynching campaign that raised awareness of these murders. As a result of her efforts, black women in the U.S. became active in the anti-lynching crusade, often in the form of clubs which 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 1903, leading writer Charles Waddell Chesnutt published his article, "The Disfranchisement of the Negro", detailing civil rights abuses and 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 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.
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.
Despite concerns expressed by some northern Congressmen, Congress did not act to strip the South of seats as the states disfranchised black voters. The result was a "Solid South:" as the number of representatives (apportionment) was based on its total population, the power of white southern Democrats was nearly doubled, as blacks were disfranchised. They gained seniority and control of important committees.
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 the accused murderer—an African American man—was entitled to a fair trial. Roosevelt's efforts cost him political support among white people, especially in the South. In addition, threats against him increased so that the Secret Service added to the size of his bodyguard detail.
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.
The Klan revived and grew because of white peoples' anxieties and fear over the rapid pace of change. Both white and black rural migrants were moving into rapidly industrializing cities of the South. Many Southern white and African American migrants also moved north in the Great Migration, adding to greatly increased immigration from southern and eastern Europe in major industrial cities of the Midwest and West. 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 provided enough publicity to sharply reduce membership.
The 1915 murder near Atlanta, Georgia, of factory manager Leo Frank, an American Jew, was a notorious lynching of a Jewish man. Initially sensationalist newspaper accounts stirred up anger about Frank, found guilty in the murder of Mary Phagan, a girl employed by his factory. He was convicted of murder after a flawed trial in Georgia. His appeals failed. Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes's dissent condemned the intimidation of the jury as failing to provide due process of law. After the governor commuted Frank's sentence to life imprisonment, a mob calling itself the Knights of Mary Phagan kidnapped Frank from the prison farm at Milledgeville, and lynched him.
Georgia politician and publisher Tom Watson used sensational coverage of the Frank trial to create power for himself. By playing on people's anxieties, he also built support for revival of the Ku Klux Klan. The new Klan was inaugurated in 1915 at a mountaintop meeting near Atlanta, and was composed mostly of members of the Knights of Mary Phagan. D. W. Griffith's 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, glorified the original Klan and garnered much publicity.
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 twice more defeated 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."
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 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 of Rubin Stacy.
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.
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, improve their lives and get better educations for their children. 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.
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 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.
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, Paul 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 US. 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.
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 other issues. 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 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 disseminated 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.
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. Some today will argue that lynching continues as a practice veiled under the mask of police brutality and less publicized vigilantisms. 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 United States Senate formally apologized for its failure in the early 20th century, "when it was most needed", to enact a Federal anti-lynching law. Anti-lynching bills that passed the House were defeated by filibusters by powerful Southern Democratic senators. Prior to the vote, Louisiana 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. 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 3 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:
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,
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. 
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,
Pastoral scene of the gallant souththen the sudden smell of burning flesh
the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
scent of magnolia
sweet and fresh
Here is a fruitand bitter crop
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
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. 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. 563 (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, a time coinciding with the imposition of 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 block for decades and controlled important committee chairmanships. The Senate Democrats formed a block 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. Rep. Leonidas C. Dyer from Saint 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 block, 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."
Since the late 20th century, many states have passed anti-lynching statutes. California defines 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. A lyncher could thus be prosecuted for several crimes arising from the same action, e.g., riot, lynching, and murder. Although lynching in the historic sense is virtually nonexistent today, prosecutors sometimes use the lynching statutes in cases where several people try to wrest a suspect from the hands of police in order to help him escape, as alleged in a July 9, 2005, violent attack on a police officer in San Francisco.
South Carolina law defines 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 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.
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