Tue, May 01, 2018 - Page 9 News List

How US used lynchings to control black people

The US’ first memorial to lynching victims has opened, but the legacy of such brutal, racist murders is still largely ignored

By Jamiles Lartey and Sam Morris  /  The Guardian, MONTGOMERY, Alabama

Illustration: Yusha

What were lynchings?

Historians broadly agree that lynchings were a method of social and racial control meant to terrorize black Americans into submission, and into an inferior racial caste position. They became widely practiced in the US south from roughly 1877, the end of post-Civil War reconstruction, through 1950.

A typical lynching would involve criminal accusations, often dubious, against a black American, an arrest and the assembly of a “lynch mob” intent on subverting the normal constitutional judicial process.

Victims would be seized and subjected to every imaginable manner of physical torment, with the torture usually ending with being hung from a tree and set on fire.

More often than not, victims would be dismembered and mob members would take pieces of their flesh and bone as souvenirs.

In a great many cases, the mobs were aided and abetted by law enforcement — indeed, they often were the same people. Officers would routinely leave a black inmate’s jail cell unguarded after rumors of a lynching began to circulate to allow for a mob to kill them before any trial or legal defense could take place.

What would trigger a lynching?

One chief among the trespasses — occasionally real, but usually imagined — was any claim of sexual contact between black men and white women. The trope of the hypersexual and lascivious black male, especially vis-a-vis the inviolable chastity of white women, was and remains one of the most durable tropes of white supremacy.

According to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), nearly 25 percent of lynching victims were accused of sexual assault. Nearly 30 percent were accused of murder.

“The mob wanted the lynching to carry a significance that transcended the specific act of punishment,” wrote historian Howard Smead in Blood Justice: The Lynching of Mack Charles Parker.

The mob “turned the act into a symbolic rite in which the black victim became the representative of his race and, as such, was being disciplined for more than a single crime... The deadly act was [a] warning [to] the black population not to challenge the supremacy of the white race,” he wrote.

How many took place in America?

Because of the nature of lynchings — summary executions that occurred outside the constraints of court documentation — there was no formal, centralized tracking of the phenomenon. Most historians believe this has left the true number of lynchings dramatically underreported.

For decades, the most comprehensive total belonged to the archives at the Tuskegee Institute, which tabulated 4,743 people who died at the hands of US lynch mobs between 1881 and 1968.

According to the Tuskegee numbers, 3,446, or nearly three-quarters, of those lynched were black Americans.

The EJI, which relied on the Tuskegee numbers in building its own count, integrated other sources, such as newspaper archives and other historical records, to arrive at a total of 4,084 racial terror lynchings in 12 southern states between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and 1950, and another 300 in other states.

Unlike the Tuskegee data, EJI’s numbers attempt to exclude incidents it considered acts of “mob violence” that followed a legitimate criminal trial process or that “were committed against non-minorities without the threat of terror.”

Where did most lynchings take place?

Unsurprisingly, lynching was most concentrated in the former Confederate states, and especially in those with large black populations.

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