• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

An American Pastime


As I write this review, the extraordinary collection of lynching photographs that transfixed crowds at the New-York Historical Society in the summer of 2001, Without Sanctuary, is now on exhibit in Atlanta, a metropolis much publicized during the civil rights struggle of the late twentieth century as “too busy to hate.”1 In image-conscious Atlanta, initial worries by some among the city’s business and civic establishment that such an exhibit might do more harm than good (as Southerners, white, black, and now brown, are wont to say about race) quickly dissipated once it became clear that the general public was capable of absorbing the stupefaction, vicarious guilt, remorse, or reflective anger evoked by what can only be described as one of the most spectacular displays of unrelieved gruesomeness ever assembled in the history of photography. As the Georgia congressman John Lewis said, “Many people today, despite the evidence, will not believe—don’t want to believe—that such atrocities happened in America not so very long ago.”2

The strong public response to this gallery of horrors, organized more than a year ago by James Allen, attests to its salutary effect both upon those in a state of denial and those in a state of ignorance, North, South, and beyond. Even so, it is only realistic to anticipate that the recent attention being paid to what was once a popular regional outdoor pastime will eventually fall victim to the characteristic American proclivity for amnesia. Yet it may not, perhaps, be overly optimistic to hope that exhibits such as Without Sanctuary, along with the recent appearance of such solid books as the two titles under review, will begin to make professions of ignorance about lynching increasingly rare.

There is much to learn about a tradition older than the Constitution, a tradition so deeply embedded in the national experience that, by the close of the eighteenth century, it was known by its uniquely American neologism. Charles Lynch of Chestnut Hill, Virginia, the justice of the peace whose summary, extralegal punishment of Tories during the Revolution gave the practice its name, believed, as have most lynchers before and since, that his actions were impelled not only by the ultimate need to safeguard the community’s welfare physically but by a desire to validate its highest moral and social values. Originally, lynching was neither confined to the South nor racially circumscribed. Until well after the Civil War, most alleged malefactors who were summarily dispatched were white and as likely to depart this life from the Midwest or California (although rarely from New England) as from Mississippi. Protected by masters whose community standing generally could not be challenged, slaves had been virtually immune to the sanctions of avenging mobs in the Old South. If Americans generally deplored the practice in principle, lynching was, nevertheless, also widely condoned as a healthy communal escape valve, a vital corollary, as it were, of Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, whose supreme values were rugged individualism and impatience with government. It was only to be expected, then, that honest folk in outlying places seldom visited by the marshal would, when preyed upon by cattle rustlers, bank robbers, and horse thieves, often exact retribution at the end of an unlawful rope.

It remained for the white South after Reconstruction to transform lynching into a festival of racist violence. With the exception of polyglot, historically unique Louisiana, where a New Orleans mob distinguished itself in 1891 by murdering eleven Sicilians, the lynch mobs in states of the former Confederacy specialized almost exclusively in depriving black people of life after 1880. Much recent research by lynching scholars Edward Ayers, Fitzhugh Brundage, E.M. Beck, Stephen Tolnay, Roberta Seneschal de la Roche, and several others has yielded a degree of precision in a field where exact statistics are notoriously difficult to arrive at.3 Between 1880 and 1930, the number of black men, women, and children who died in ten Southern states “at the hands of persons unknown” (the phrase universally employed, Philip Dray tells us, by complicitous coroners) almost certainly exceeded 2,500, to which another three hundred whites must be added for a total regional lynching of slightly under three thousand.

During that half-century, a black person was murdered by a white mob nearly every week in every year. According to Dray and Madison, research at Tuskegee Institute estimated that the total number of all Americans deprived of life without due process after 1880 was approximately 3,400 blacks and 1,300 whites by the close of World War II. Thanks to the diligence white Southerners devoted to the task, the national toll of lynched blacks soared far beyond that of whites by 1890, and would stay there until 1964, the last year of a recorded lynching.4

It is the story told behind the statistics that makes Philip Dray’s At the Hands of Persons Unknown the most comprehensive social history of this shameful subject in almost seventy years. In the early 1930s, two books pioneered in assembling the political, racial, cultural, and sexual elements of lynching—Walter White’s Rope and Faggot and Arthur Raper’s The Tragedy of Lynching (both were much indebted to Ida B. Wells’s 1892 Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all its Phases). Dray’s book goes beyond these earlier works and succeeds remarkably well in setting its account of Southern lynching within the sweep of American history.

Lynching was race relations by means of a rope, a sanguinary pageant reenacted by community leaders for whom the untruthfulness of accusations was not merely irrelevant but even an essential element in what was but the everlasting apotheosis of white supremacy. For all its violence, mindless solidarity, and unspeakable bestiality, standard Southern lynching was an objectively rational spectacle with a prescribed emotional rhythm and scripted ritual, whose purposes were ultimately political and economic. Allegations of rape, displays of impermissible cheek, or even legal formalities in trying a defendant could ignite the firestorm of lynching, setting avenging mobs and baying hounds raging through the countryside. If the victim were already in custody, church members from miles around streamed into the courthouse square howling for summary execution.

No doubt the psychology of Southern violence—the reality that some white men and women truly believed themselves menaced by black lust, crime, hatred, and deceit—counts for something. The growing fears white people felt were not groundless, Dray concedes, as a new generation of black men and women behaved in nontraditional ways at the turn of the century, many of them wandering, unattached, in search of work or often in flight from unfair labor contracts. “Strangers” (i.e., strange Negroes), as discussed in the work of historians of the South such as Joel Williamson, Ayers, and Brundage, could be deeply disconcerting.5

But the line separating reasonable suspicions from group-induced manias was always a thin one that was much too easily and frequently crossed. The Mississippi journalist and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells exposed the darkest of Southern secrets in 1892, by writing that often white women’s cries of rape were meant to conceal interracial sex. To be sure, some who perished at the hands of persons unknown were guilty of heinous crimes. The facts are that black men did rape white women, although in numbers that pale against those of white men who raped black women. The cardinal fact, however, is that sex was in the marrow of racial politics in the South, there to be continually tapped for mobilizing one race and subjugating another. It was axiomatic that rape deserved pitiless sanction, for, as Dray quotes the exquisitely perverse rationale observed by Joel Williamson, “If black men were, in essence, having sex with angels while white men abstained, then the punishment of black men must be as awful as the white man’s guilt in contemplating himself in the same act.”6

Thirty percent of all those lynched were accused of sexual assault. The alleged rapist would be brought face to face with his victim, who would not jeopardize her family’s honor by denial or uncertainty. In the preliminary rituals of mutilation, the condemned would be struck, slashed, whipped, and spat upon by the mob as women and children, encouraged by the ringleaders, worked themselves into a frenzy. Before reaching the execution spot through a homicidal gauntlet, the lynchee’s ears, nose, fingers, and sometimes genitals would be slashed or cut away. Immolation, timed for maximizing community participation and sadistic satiety, was seldom hurried. His flesh whipped into welts or else blow-torched, the victim would often be kept alive so as not to disappoint spectators arriving late from nearby counties. Dray describes the typical denouement of a double lynching in the Mississippi Delta in 1937:

Both men continued to swear their innocence, but McDaniels ultimately broke down, his screams sending children scurrying to their mothers’ sides. Once he’d confessed to the crime he was shot to death. Townes had his eyes gouged out with an ice pick and then was slowly roasted with the torch until he, too, agreed to confess. When he finally uttered the words the mob wanted to hear, he was doused with gasoline and set afire.

Souvenir hunters would fight over severed testicles and strips of barbecued flesh.

Northern acquiescence in Southern racial excesses was indispensable, of course, but the familiar story of Northern attitudes assumes a singularly horrific aspect in Dray’s account. Reflecting the disenchantment with the Negro “problem” that was already spreading throughout the North in the early 1870s, Thomas Nast caricatured black officeholders as drunken simians in Harper’s Weekly, while E.L. Godkin haughtily editorialized about freeloading former slaves in the Nation. A single book by Lincoln’s former ambassador to the Netherlands, James Pike’s The Prostrate South: South Carolina under Negro Government (1874), did more for the former Confederacy than any propaganda served up in its cause until The Birth of a Nation.

The “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy came to be seen as a lovely cause, for, “as life in the North became more complex, the simple charms of Southern life, its dominant Anglo-Saxon nature, its ruralness, its traditions of genteel aristocracy, came to possess a new allure,” Dray writes in a passage that is reinforced by the historian David Blight’s recent, definitive book on the post-Reconstruction entente of North and South, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.7 By the end of the nineteenth century, as new European immigrants who seemed strange and dangerous filled the cities of the Northeast and served as fodder for corrupt political machines, old-stock Americans came to lament the vanishing Protestant republic and commiserated with the white South. The descendants of abolitionists deplored lynching as uncivilized, but they would come to deplore far more the people the white South assured them were the reason for its unseemly necessity.

The reestablishment of white supremacy in the South after 1877 (“redemption,” as it was called) proceeded somewhat cautiously in imposing naked racial repression until the South’s leaders could be confident about the North’s disengagement. The political situation remained fluid for a time after Reconstruction as the protections afforded under the amended federal Constitution and by the Civil Rights Act of 1875 had yet to be fully pared away and nullified. Mississippi’s constitutional convention would point the way in 1890; in the years that followed barely a trace of a once robust black Southern franchise remained.

  1. 1

    For a review of the book that accompanied the exhibit, see Larry McMurtry, “Hometown America’s Black Book,” The New York Review, December 21, 2000.

  2. 2

    John Lewis, “Foreword” to James Allen, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Twin Palms Publishers, 2000), p. 7.

  3. 3

    Recent lynching scholarship includes Edward L. Ayers, Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the Nineteenth-Century American South (Oxford University Press, 1984); E.M. Beck and Stewart E. Tolnay, A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882–1930 (University of Illinois Press, 1995); Fitzhugh Brundage, Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880–1930 (University of Illinois Press, 1993); Brundage, editor, Under Sentence of Death: Lynching in the South (University of North Carolina Press, 1997); Nancy MacLean, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan (Oxford University Press, 1994); Roberta Seneschal de la Roche, The Sociogenesis of a Race Riot: Springfield, Illinois, in 1908 (University of Illinois Press, 1991).

  4. 4

    One could add the killing of a black man, James Byrd Jr., in 1998 by three white men in Jasper, Texas, who chained him to a pickup truck and dragged him along a country road until he was decapitated. All three men were convicted and two were executed.

    Although Tuskegee Institute’s annual tabulation from 1880 to 1962 is regarded as authoritative, lynching figures range widely, as a comparison of figures in Beck and Tolnay, Brundage, and Philip Dray show.

  5. 5

    See Ayers, Crime and Punishment; Brundage, Lynching in the New South; Joel Williamson, The Crucible of Race: Black–White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation (Oxford University Press, 1984).

  6. 6

    Williamson, quoted in Dray, p. 72. See Trudier Harris, Exorcising Blackness: Historical and Literary Lynching and Burning Rituals (Indiana University Press, 1984) and Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, edited by Anne Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson (Monthly Review, 1983).

  7. 7

    Harvard University Press, 2002. See the review by David Brion Davis, “The Terrible Cost of Reconciliation,” The New York Review, July 18, 2002.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print