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…

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