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The William Lynch speech is an address purportedly delivered by a certain William Lynch (or Willie Lynch) to an audience on the bank of the James River in Virginia in 1712 regarding control of slaves within the colony. The letter purports to be a verbatim account of a short speech given by a slave owner, in which he tells other slave masters that he has discovered the "secret" to controlling black slaves by setting them against one another. The document has been in print since at least 1970, but first gained widespread notice in the 1990s, when it appeared on the Internet. Since then, it has often been promoted as an authentic account of slavery during the 18th century, though its inaccuracies and anachronisms have led historians to conclude that it is a hoax.
The reputed narrator, William Lynch, identifies himself as the master of a "modest plantation" in the British West Indies who has been summoned to the Virginia Colony by local slaveowners to advise them on problems they have been having in managing their slaves. He briefly notes that their current violent method of handling unruly slaves – lynching, though the term is not used – is inefficient and counterproductive. Instead, he suggests that they adopt his method, which consists of exploiting differences such as age and skin color in order to pit slaves against each other. This method, he assures his hosts, will "control the slaves for at least 300 hundred [sic] years." Some online versions of the text attach introductions, such as a foreword attributed to Frederick Douglass, or citations falsely giving Lynch's name as the source of the word "lynching".
The text of the speech has been published since at least 1970. It appeared on the internet as early as 1993, when a reference librarian at the University of Missouri–St. Louis posted the document on the library's Gopher server. The librarian later revealed that she had obtained the document from the publisher of a local newspaper, The St. Louis Black Pages, in which the narrative had recently appeared. Though eventually convinced the document was a forgery, the librarian elected to leave it on the Gopher server, as she believed that "even as an inauthentic document, it says something about the former and current state of African America", but added a warning about its provenance.
The text contains numerous anachronisms, including words and phrases such as "refueling" and "fool proof" which were not in use until the early 20th century. Additionally, historian Roy Rosenzweig notes that the divisions emphasized in the text – skin color, age, and gender – are distinctly 20th-century in nature, and make little sense in an 18th-century context. As such, historians such as Rosenzweig and William Jelani Cobb of Spelman College regard the William Lynch speech as a hoax.
Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan quoted the speech at the Million Man March in October 1995, making the speech better known in the process. He later cited Willie Lynch's scheme as an obstacle to unite African Americans in his open letter regarding the Millions More Movement in 2005. The speech was also quoted during the protests surrounding the 2001 presidential inauguration.
Forewords attached to some online versions of the speech credit the narrator's name as the source of the terms "lynching" and "Lynch law", despite the narrator specifically advocating against lynching. A man named William Lynch did indeed claim to have originated the term during the American Revolutionary War, but he was born in 1742, thirty years after the alleged delivery of the speech. A document published in the Southern Literary Messenger in 1836 that proposed William Lynch as the originator of "lynch law" may have been a hoax perpetrated by Edgar Allan Poe. A better documented early use of the term "Lynch law" comes from Charles Lynch, a Virginia justice of the peace and militia officer during the American Revolution.