“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it”
The burned and mutilated body of Jesse Washington (Library of Congress)
His name was Jesse Washington, a 17-year-old black youth who was born in rural Texas in 1897. He worked on a farm outside Waco which belonged to George and Lucy Fryer. In May, 1916, Washington was convicted in City Court of murdering Lucy Fryer. During the proceedings, he apologized and confessed to the crime. At the end of the trial, Washington was sentenced to death by hanging. Residents, however, were already in an uproar over the crime. A black man who attacked a white woman in any way whatsoever during that era in the South evoked little sympathy from the public. Within five minutes of the sentencing, dozens of court spectators jumped the railing, fought with officials and seized the terrified defendant. He was immediately set upon by a vicious gang using clubs, shovels and bricks. He was stripped naked and dragged kicking and screaming to the lawn directly in front of City Hall. Townspeople had already built a giant bonfire underneath a large tree. The crowd was later estimated to be as large as 15,000 people. Included in the cheering multitude was the Police Chief and the Mayor of Waco. Other police officers also stood by during the sickening ordeal which played out in the symbolic shadow of City Hall (Dallas Morning News, June 2, 1998). Washington was immersed in coal oil, hoisted up onto the tree and slowly lowered into the fire. Some of the spectators cut off fingers and toes from the corpse as souvenirs . His remains were dumped into a burlap bag and hung from a pole while many in the crowd cheered 
The Waco lynching focused national attention, once again, in 1916 on the problem of lynching: a systemic, persistent and horrifying practice that was rampant throughout the South for decades. These killings were often committed with the full knowledge, and sometimes with the active assistance, of law enforcement people. Lynchings were also treated as entertainment events and like the Waco incident, often attended by thousands of onlookers. Most took place in the Deep South but lynchings were common and recorded in over 26 states, including Illinois and North Dakota (Cleveland Gazette, January 8, 1898, p. 2). The problem became so widespread that it was addressed by several Presidents and eventually the Supreme Court. However, rather than condemn lynch law, the Supreme Court seemed to effect rulings that reaffirmed a segregated America. Court decisions during this era perpetuated the atmosphere of violence, fostered the notion of white supremacy and cultivated mistrust of Washington. But the origins of lynching do not rest in federal court, nor can it be blamed, as Southern newspapers often reported, on government’s failure to apply justice.
Lynching arose from the ashes of a ruthless and costly war that pitted brother against brother and father against son. The Civil War left a trail of blood and bitterness that twisted its way through successive generations and set the stage for a frenzy of so called mob justice that killed thousands of men, women and children, most of them black. And between the years 1880 and 1905, a period of twenty five years, not one person was ever convicted of any crime associated with these killings. Lynchings are, in effect, the most extensive series of unsolved murders in American history.
The History of Lynching
Lynching differs from ordinary murder or assault because it is a killing that is committed outside the boundaries of due process by a mob who enacts revenge for an offense. During the late 19th century, lynching frequently enjoyed the approval of the public. It is a practice that was committed, ostensibly, in the name of justice. But the motivations for these killings were alien to the themes of justice and honor.
Lynching became almost a necessary practice “that served to give dramatic warning to all black inhabitants that the iron clad system of white supremacy was not to be challenged by deed, word or even thought” (Friedman, p. 191) For all their suffering though, it would be incorrect to say that lynching was only used against blacks. Whites, too, suffered the rope, at times in greater numbers than blacks. Who became a victim had a lot more to do with where the lynching took place than the victim’s offense. In the Deep South, most often the victim was black. In the West, the victim was most often white. However, lynching, when used against African Americans, was utilized for reasons other than a form of substitute justice. That was just an excuse. As the noted psychologist William James (1842-1910) once wrote: “for all sorts of cruelty, piety is the mask” (Myers, p. 208).
The burning corpse of George Meadows, lynched on January 15, 1889 in Alabama
Lynching is a derivative term that was taken from the name of Col. Charles Lynch who was a landowner in Virginia in 1790. Lynch had a habit of holding illegal trials of local lawbreakers in his front yard. Upon conviction of the accused, which was usually the case, Lynch took to whipping the suspects while they were tied to a tree in front of his house.
Cleveland Advocate, May 17, 1919
Over time, this practice became known as simply “lynching”. Although mistreatment of slaves was common throughout the early part of the 19th century, lynching was a separate practice apart from slavery. The term “lynching” refers only to the concept of vigilantism, in which citizens would assume the role of judge, jury and executioner. Vigilante groups were common during the last half of the 19th century and were fed by a strong notion that the existing laws were not functioning properly resulting in criminals, especially black criminals, being set free at the expense of the public.
Many newspaper editorials of the day echoed those sentiments and contributed to the passions aroused by the practice of lynching. Consider this editorial published on June 19, 1897: “The people of Ohio have seen murderers tried and convicted of murder in the 1st degree two or three times over and finally set free. They have known many desperate and dangerous criminals to be sent to the penitentiary for long terms and released soon enough to make the whole costly process of the courts seem little better than a farce…That is the real reason why, once in a while, the passion and indignation of the masses break through all restraints and some particularly wicked crime is avenged…” (The Cleveland Leader). This editorial was published after a black rape suspect was forcibly taken from a county jail and lynched in front of a crowd of 9,000 people.
The actual process of lynching was morbid and incredibly violent. Lynching does not necessarily mean hanging. It often included humiliation, torture, burning, dismemberment and castration. Victims were beaten and whipped, many times in front of large crowds that sometimes numbered in the thousands. Coal tar was frequently used to douse the unfortunate victim prior to setting him afire.
Onlookers sometimes fired rifles and handguns hundreds of times into the corpse while people cheered and children played during the festivities. Pieces of the corpse were taken by onlookers as souvenirs of the event . Such was the case when James Irwin was lynched on January 31, 1930. Irwin was accused of the murder of a white girl in the town of Ocilla, Georgia. Taken into custody by a rampaging mob, his fingers and toes were cut off, his teeth pulled out by pliers and finally he was castrated. It still wasn’t enough. Irwin was then burned alive in front of hundreds of onlookers (Brundage, p. 42). No one was ever punished for this barbaric killing. Black victims were hacked to death, dragged behind cars , burned, beaten, whipped, sometimes shot thousands of times, mutilated; the savagery was astonishing. How could ordinary people participate in such brutality?
The answer lies in the psychological processes of persuasion and propaganda. For generations, whites in the South regarded blacks as inferiors, both intellectually and biologically. Of course, this may have been a necessary process in order for whites to justify the enslavement of others. These imbedded feelings were visible on every level of society, even in the most trivial circumstances. In the South, a black man was expected to remove his hat when speaking with a white. A black was always addressed by his first name or some derogatory term and he had almost no legal rights. States like Mississippi and Tennessee effected legislation that specifically omitted or targeted African Americans, depending on their purpose. All this had a demoralizing effect on blacks and made them seem less than human to white society. And worse, this condescension seemed to be officially endorsed by the state. It was easy to mistreat blacks if it could be agreed upon that African Americans were vastly different than whites and not deserving of the same respect. This was a result of a disorganized, yet powerful, campaign of propaganda carried on by white plantation owners and others who had an economic stake in the retention of cheap black labor. It was to their advantage to keep African Americans in their “place”. In many photos of lynchings at the turn of the century, onlookers and members of the mob can be seen smiling and grinning for the camera. They demonstrate no fear of prosecution or reprisal. They had none. For no white man was ever punished for a lynching until 1915. By then, there had been thousands of lynchings in the South alone with certainly hundreds of thousands of spectators. Some lynchings were even announced in the newspapers beforehand, indicating a strong and undeniable alliance with local law enforcement
Statistics compiled by the N.A.A.C.P. in 1921 tell the gruesome toll of murder committed in the name of justice. Between the years 1889 through 1918, at least 3,224 people were lynched in America. Of that number 2,522 were black. The figures vary depending on the source. The Cleveland Gazette reported in 1903 that “There were 3,233 lynchings, in one form or another, in this country in the twenty-one years ending January 1, 1903” (May 16, 1903). The Tuskegee Institute chronicled over 4,000 lynchings during a similar period. In any account though, African Americans suffered the brunt of mob violence. The driving force for this unprecedented level of mob violence was mostly racism.
The atmosphere of a racist caste system, perpetrated by the traditions and culture of the South, provided the background for lynch mobs. Although slaves were freed in 1863 by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, white domination of blacks, on every social, economic and legal level, continued. Undoubtedly, the battles of the Civil War still burned in the hearts of many people in the late 19th century. Confederate veterans of that war were still alive and their children, tutored well in the ways of racism and entitlement, continued the prejudices of that era. Lynching became a vital tactic that was utilized by whites to intimidate and control African Americans. In order to justify the practice, justice was used as an excuse for vigilantism. The mythology at that time was that blacks were lynched for the crime of raping white women. Although this was the case at times, there was a wide variety of other offenses for a which a black man could be lynched. And rape was not the most frequent excuse. Some of these reasons were petty, insignificant and seem incredible to us today. People were lynched for “crimes” such as registering to vote, arguing with a white man, disrespect to a white woman, shoplifting, drunkenness, elopement, insults and refusing to give evidence. Authors Tolnay and Beck list 75 recorded reasons why blacks were lynched in the years 1882-1930 including “being obnoxious, disorderly conduct, indolence, suing white man, trying to vote, vagrancy and unpopularity” (p. 47).
In 1931, Dennis Hubert, the son of a minister and a student at Moorehouse College, was in a park in Atlanta, Georgia. He saw three white women in the park who were drinking. One of them fell to the ground and Hubert remarked: “You better take the drunk lady home.” The very next day, a young white man shot and killed Hubert for the “crime” of insulting a white woman. Later, the killer was acquitted by an Atlanta jury (Wade, p. 258). Any reason, no matter how trivial, seemed to be a valid one if the target of the mob was black and the victim of the “offense” was white. Newspapers of the day sometimes echoed those sentiments with editorials that, though short of actually supporting the violence, appeased mob mentality by suggesting that lynching was somewhat understandable.
Cleveland Advocate, September 13, 1919
The press, in fact, added to the sense of lawlessness by suggesting that all things considered, most civilized men recognized that the races are divided as this Mobile Register editorial did on June 19, 1897: “There is a feeling in the white man’s mind that whoever of the race not his own who attempts to defy this race instinct, and violently upset the physical line which nature has established, does by that act take his life in hand”. Of course, the editorial neglected to mention that African Americans were being murdered by blood thirsty mobs who killed for transgressions like “demanding respect” (Tolnay and Beck, p. 47) and in doing so, share at least part of the blame for the frenzy of lynching that took place in the South during those decades.
Lynching as Reported by the Press
On July 28, 1917, Will Woods, a white contractor who lived in Texarkana, Arkansas was beaten and shot over a livestock dispute with a black man, one Andrew Avery. Woods, though badly wounded, lay in the brush for 36 hours before he was found. He told his rescuers that Avery attacked him without warning and shot him in an attempt to steal the livestock. Avery was captured by local deputies in Shepherd, Arkansas about 16 miles north of Texarkana. The police were taking Avery to the local jail when they were intercepted by a mob of 40 men in cars who seized him at gunpoint. Avery was beaten, tortured and later hung from a tree in the center of Garland City. No one was ever identified or arrested. The Arkansas Gazette reported the incident as follows:
NEGRO IS LYNCHED AT GARLAND CITY
Brutally attacked a White Man Saturday
“Special to the Gazette, Garland City, July 30. Andrew Avery the Negro who shot and fatally wounded Will Woods, a white man, near here Saturday morning, was hanged by a mob in the heart of town tonight at 9:45. About 40 men were in the party. The Lynching was conducted in a quiet fashion” (The Arkansas Gazette, July 31, 1917)
Such was the treatment that lynching received in some publications. The press was always quick to identify the race of offender and victim. Guilt of the offender was assumed and the word “alleged” rarely appeared in the story. This was a practice that was repeated in many newspapers and was not simply indigenous to the South at all. This pandering to the mob is significant because the manner in which lynching was reported tended to support or at least condone the practice of vigilante justice. Due process of law was rarely mentioned in lynching accounts. Of course, it could be said that the press coverage was simply a reflection of society’s values and beliefs and therefore devoid of any conspiratorial nature. But the print media, then the major and almost the only source of news during the late 19th century, set the tone and molded public understanding of the issues.
Sensational journalism, then the standard of American news reporting , spared the public no detail no matter how horrible. “The Negro was deprived of his ears, fingers and genital parts of his body. He pleaded pitifully for his life while the mutilation was going on…before the body was cool, it was cut to pieces, the bones crushed into small bits…the Negro’s heart was cut into several pieces, as was also his liver…small pieces of bones went for 25 cents…” (The Springfield Weekly Republican, April 28, 1899). This was an actual description of the lynching of one Sam Holt, accused murderer, who was burned at the stake in Newman, Georgia in April, 1899. Graphic accounts like this were in abundance throughout the South. They served both white and black purposes by adding to the psychological suffering of the African American and empowered the white man to do more.
Newspapers were at least consistent at assessing the guilt of the accused . Of course it mattered less that a legal trial never took place. Reporters wrote inflammatory comments such as “well known as a criminal character to the officers of Clarke County” (The Atlanta Constitution, Feb. 16, 1921), “A Negro Desperado Lynched” (Boston Evening Transcript, July 21, 1886), “The Negro was killed irregularly, but justifiably” (The Chicago Chronicle, June 19, 1897), “unspeakable wretch…no more thought need be given to his death than to that of a dog” (The Indianapolis News, June 19, 1897), “help lynch the brute” (The Intelligencer, October 12, 1911). In this last example, a lynching that took place on October 11, 1911 in Anderson County, South Carolina, the mob was led by State Legislator Joshua Ashley and the editor of the local newspaper. The target of that mob was one Willis Jackson who was accused of attacking a white child. He was hung from a tree upside down and shot numerous times (Tolnay and Beck, p. 26).
Cleveland Gazette, July 6 1915
Descriptions such as these were routine in many newspapers of the time. The Library of Congress has hundreds of examples of this type of sensationalized and biased reporting. But not all of America’s press endorsed mob rule and the breakdown of law and order it represented. In spite of many editorials in Southern newspapers of that era which seemed to defend mob justice, it would be inaccurate to say that lynching was supported by the nation’s press. Many other papers, such as the New York Times, The New York Herald and The Chicago Tribune, bravely led the voice of criticism against lynching. “It’s time that somebody in authority fought one of thee mobs to the death” (The Springfield Republic, June 19, 1897, “The Grand Old State Again Disgraced- this time an educated Afro-American and a good citizen is the victim” (The Cleveland Advocate, September, 20, 1916) are some of the examples of articles that sought to tell the truth about these vicious murders. But it wasn’t enough. Passions were deep, the Civil War had decimated an entire culture in the South, destroyed families, made paupers out of the rich and freed the slaves. As a result, there were those who felt an intense hatred for the North and all of its ideals. Those who would never let the traditions, values and beliefs of Southern society perish. And so, from the ruins of a bitter war, an organization grew, slowly at first, in rural Tennessee. But soon it spread all across the South and became the most powerful machine of racism, violence and murder our nation has ever seen before or since.
The Ku Klux Klan
Founded in the town of Pulaski, Tennessee in early 1866 by six Confederate Army veterans, the name “Ku Klux Klan” was a distortion of the Greek word for circle: kuklos. It was formed because a group of young men were bored with post war Tennessee and, by their own admission, the club had no real purpose or goals. James Crowe, one of the founding fathers, said the Klan had no political significance and existed only “to have fun, make mischief and play pranks on the public” (Wade, p. 34). The group frequently rode through rural areas dressed in outlandish costumes and word soon spread that the white robed riders were actually ghosts of Confederate soldiers killed during the Civil War. Rumors said the ghosts had returned to extract vengeance on certain people (Wade, p. 35). Soon, the Klan began to harass black residents by breaking up church meetings and other gatherings where blacks were present. White southerners deeply resented former slaves who imagined they had the same rights as whites.
An early gathering of the Klan
A former Confederate General named Nathan Forest  became the Grand Wizard, commander in chief of the KKK, in 1867. Forest, a wealthy plantation and slave owner before the war, was left ruined and penniless when the fighting ended. He used his wartime experiences to militarize the Klan and give it direction. Soon, the Klan appeared at parades in Pulaski and elsewhere. Announcements of meetings were published in newspapers along with Klan directives that contained ominous warnings to the public. And it became very clear who was at risk: “unholy blacks, cursed by God, take warning and fly” (Wade, p. 42). By 1868, the Ku Klux Klan was fully dedicated to the oppression of the black man. There were already numerous acts of violence committed by the Klan against African Americans and these incidents were well known to local law enforcement agents. However, rarely was legal action ever taken against the Klan. For under the white robes, in a pattern that would be repeated many times over the next 100 years, were often the police themselves. Mob justice became common and the entire state of South Carolina in 1871 was thought to be “firmly in control of the Ku Klux Klan, especially York County” (Tonlay and Beck, p. 11). The situation deteriorated to such depths, that in 1871 Governor Robert Scott requested President Grant to send in federal troops to suppress the violence and regain control (Tolnay and Beck, p. 11). But the worst was yet to come.
The Klan in Washington, DC 1990 (AP)
In Watkinsville, Oconee County, Georgia in 1905, two brothers, Lewis and Rich Robinson were arrested and charged with the murder of a white man. They were brought to the local jail and held pending trial. In the same jail were seven other prisoners charged with a variety of crimes including theft. On the night of June 29, 1905, a mob of approximately 100 men wearing robes and masks showed up at the jail. The sheriff had been kidnapped and brought along to open the cell doors. At gunpoint, the deputies were forced to turn over all the prisoners, including the Robinson brothers. The prisoners were tied up and marched to the center of town where they were beaten and tied to a fence. The leader of the mob gave a command to shoot the men. Hundreds of shots were fired at the helpless prisoners. Eight prisoners lay dead on the ground. One man, Joe Patterson, escaped with two bullet wounds in his chest. It was one of the worst lynching incidents ever recorded and like all the others, not one person was ever charged or even arrested for these killings. Fear of the Klan, which had a strong presence in Oconee County for decades, was solidified for another generation.
A KKK ceremony in the rural South
As a result, the Klan grew quickly and spread to other states like Alabama, Louisiana and especially Mississippi. Resentment towards blacks, who were all considered former slaves, was a reality in the South. Racism, born out of a Southern culture that required the enslavement of blacks in order to survive, flourished. Violence and intimidation became the sword of the Ku Klux Klan but the exact toll in human lives will surely never be known. Throughout the following decades, the Klan’s influence increased dramatically, fueled by a sense of arrogant righteousness that seemed ingrained in southern culture. Then in 1915 an event occurred that would forever alter the public’s perception of the Klan. It would transform the nature of race relations in the South for decades to come and do irreparable harm to the African American in his quest for equality. That event was the release of the Hollywood film The Birth of a Nation (1915) and no study of race relations in America during the 20th century can ever ignore its presence.
Birth of a Nation poster
Birth of a Nation was directed by legendary filmmaker D. W. Griffith (1875-1948) and released in 1915. It became an immediate sensation. No film made up until that time could compare to it. Over 3 hours long and filled with graphic, powerful images that made a lasting impression on its audience, Birth of a Nation grossed a mind-boggling $18,000,000, an astronomical sum for its time . But the film contained many negative images of the black man and catered to the lowest element of white and black fears alike. Its stereotypical portrayal of blacks, as tribal, lazy and violent criminals who crave white women would become indelible on the collective mind and inflict a profound, cultural wound on the consciousness of the nation. A review of the film in Cinebooks is even more emphatic: “Jim Crow is explicitly endorsed, slavery is romanticized; the Ku Klux Klan is glorified; lynching is condoned; and blacks are represented as simple minded beasts driven primarily by lust and envy” (Cinebooks, Cinemania, ’96). Many people became angered over its interpretation of black/white relations while others accepted its version of the Reconstruction Era as truth. Southern whites were elated: “On Thanksgiving night in 1915, 25,000 Klansmen paraded through the streets of Atlanta, Georgia, to celebrate the opening of the movie. And when Griffith, the son of a Confederate soldier, presented his work to President Woodrow Wilson (reportedly the first screening of a feature film in the White House), the President allegedly declared, “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” (www.africana.com/article/birthofanation). Birth of a Nation and its distorted version of history was idolized by the Ku Klux Klan. It was interpreted as an endorsement of Klan values because “in its presentation of the KKK as heroes and Southern blacks as villains, it appealed to white Americans and its mythic view of the Old South, and its thematic exploration of two great American issues: inter-racial sex and the empowerment of blacks” (Dirks, p.1). The film had convinced a large portion of America of a history that had never happened. Or as author Wyn Wade writes: “for many people below the mason Dixon Line, The Birth of a Nation was a near religious experience” (p. 138). But the damage was done and the Ku Klux Klan, whose power was fading in 1915, became rejuvenated and found a new sense of purpose to continue their campaign of murder and mayhem against America’s blacks.
The Beginning of the End
On January 23, 1906 a rape was committed on a white woman in Chattanooga, Tennessee. A few days later the local police arrested a black man, one Ed Johnson for the crime. He was kept in custody for the next few weeks away from Chattanooga for the fear of being lynched. From the time he was arrested to the day Johnson went on trial, there were two organized attempts made to lynch him. Both attempts failed because the prisoner could not be located. On February 6 Johnson went on trial for the sexual assault, was quickly convicted, and as was the custom for this type of crime, sentenced to death. The date of execution was set as March 13, later changed to March 20. His lawyers, fearful of mob violence, were reluctant to make an appeal. They felt “that the life of the defendant, even if the wrong man, could not be saved; that an appeal would so inflame the public that the jail would be attacked and perhaps other prisoners executed by violence” (U.S. v. Shipp, 214 U.S. 386 ,1909). However, on March 19, 1906 the Supreme Court allowed an appeal in the Johnson case and directed all proceedings against Johnson be stayed. That same night, a large crowd appeared at the city jail. They forcibly broke into Johnson’s cell and abducted him. The jail was guarded by one deputy who offered no resistance. Johnson was beaten mercilessly and dragged into the city street where he was tortured by dozens of others. He was taken to a nearby bridge where hundreds of spectators had gathered. A rope was tied around his neck and he was thrown off the bridge. The rope broke however and Johnson fell to the ground. He was tied up again and tossed off the bridge as some in the crowd began firing shots. He fell again and was repeatedly shot while lying on the ground. Johnson was strung up again and shot dozens of times while he hung dead from the bridge. 
The United States Supreme Court became enraged. Since Johnson was considered a federal prisoner when granted an appeal, it was a clear and contemptuous challenge to the authority of the Court. For the one and only time in its history, the Supreme Court held a criminal trial. It decided Chattanooga Sheriff Shipp and two of his deputies were in contempt of court for allowing Johnson to be lynched (U.S. v. Shipp, 214 U.S. 386, 1909). It found all parties guilty and sentenced them to 60 days in jail. After 35 years of systematic murder, it was the first time a law enforcement official was held responsible for a lynching in their jurisdiction. The public attitude toward mob justice began to change, but ever so slowly. It would take the courageous voice of a black woman, the daughter of slaves, to awaken much of America to the horrors of lynching.
The remarkable Ida Wells was a journalist who became known for her outspoken political opinions and a strong commitment to human rights, especially as it applied to African Americans. Alone, she conducted an investigation into the practice of lynching and published the results in local newspapers. She discovered that out of 728 black men who were lynched by white mobs, almost seventy percent were killed for minor offenses. Wells later established her own newspaper and championed the cause of justice for blacks. Her life was threatened many times. Her office was demolished by unknown persons and eventually, she was forced out of the South. But she continued her work against Southern mob justice. In 1898 she wrote a letter to President McKinley appealing for federal intervention in the South to stop the illegal practice of lynching. She wrote “Nowhere in the civilized worlds save the United States of America do men, possessing all civil and political power, go out in bands of 50 to 5,000 to hunt down, shoot, hang or burn to death an individual, unarmed and absolutely powerless”. In 1901, she published a book titled Lynching and the Excuse, which became widely circulated and well known for its articulate and passionate denunciation of lynching.
Then in 1909, on Lincoln’s Birthday, in an event that would alter the path of social and cultural history in America, Ida Wells, W. E. B. DuBois and dozens of other prominent American blacks and whites formed an organization, partly in response to lynchings of blacks, and called it the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). After their first conference, the NAACP launched an anti-lynching campaign that would span thirty years. The group pressured local and federal politicians to recognize the racial nature and foundational injustice of lynching. They lobbied Washington to state publicly that lynching was a clear violation of constitutional guarantees. In 1915, the NAACP, recognizing the vast psychological damage of The Birth of a Nation, organized a nation-wide boycott of D.W. Griffith’s racist film. Slowly, the tide began to turn.
The NAACP placed full page advertisements in the New York Times, The Atlanta Constitution and other newspapers denouncing the practice of lynching and calling it the “Shame of America” (November 23, 1922). People like Ida Wells and W.E.B. Dubois campaigned tirelessly against the violence. And the statistics were appalling. By 1918, at least 3,224 people were murdered by lynching (Library of Congress, Manuscript Collection). Undoubtedly, the real numbers were much higher for lynchings were often unreported by local authorities.
In New York City, the NAACP hung a large banner outside its headquarters announcing every time a man was lynched. Public outrage grew. As time passed, the lynchings steadily decreased with little help from Washington. The Supreme Court, as always, procrastinated and preferred to let the individual states handle the lynching crisis, which the court interpreted as a local problem. By 1932, lynchings had decreased to a new low of ten incidents and during the entire decade only 88 blacks were lynched (Tolnay and Beck, p. 202). In the early 1930s, members of Congress proposed a new bill, The Costigan-Wagner Act which attacked one of the main aspects of lynching. The legislation proposed federal trials for any law enforcement officers who failed to exercise their responsibilities during a lynching incident. Again, the bill was not passed despite overwhelming public support. A national poll that was taken in 1937 that “found 65 per cent of all southerners supported legislation that would have made lynching a federal crime” (Tolnay and Beck, p. 202).
And so with little or no help from Washington, the barbaric practice of lynching subsided. Over the next few decades there would be individual incidents that would shock the consciousness and remind the nation once again of the bitter racism that still existed in some areas of the country. One such incident, the Mississippi lynching of Emmett Till, a 14 year old boy in Mississippi in 1955, would help ignite the fires of social change that would sweep across the country during the 1960s. Till, on vacation in Mississippi from Chicago, was brutally beaten, mutilated and killed for the “offense” of insulting a white woman. He was unaccustomed to the ways and culture of rural Mississippi. But for the most part, lynching would fade unassisted into the shadows of history, an almost forgotten remnant of a distant past when terror reigned and justice was truly an illusion. An era when men could be murdered on a whim, mobs would kill with impunity and those in power would simply turn away, or in some cases, help toss the rope over the tree limb.
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Brundage, W.Fitzhugh (1959) Lynching in the New South Chicago, Ill: University of Illinois Press
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The Boston Evening Transcript July 21, 1886
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The Indiananapolis News June 19, 1897
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The New York Times
The Springfield Weekly Republican April 28, 1899
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“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it”