The experiences of African Americans murdered and terrorized by mob violence for generations between Emancipation and the struggle for civil rights, alongside the virtual inaction of local and federal law enforcement and lawmakers, lay the groundwork for the inequality and injustice we face today. Understanding the current system’s roots in racism and dehumanization is critical to extracting the problem and growing something better.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, 12 million African people were kidnapped, chained, and brought to the Americas after a torturous journey across the Atlantic Ocean. In the United States, the labor of enslaved black people fueled economic growth, while an ideology of white supremacy and racial difference was created to justify slavery as morally acceptable. In the nineteenth century, a thriving plantation economy and forcible taking of land from Native people increased demand for enslaved labor and, through the domestic slave trade, the South’s enslaved population rose dramatically.
After the South’s defeat in a bloody Civil War, the nation adopted the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery “except as punishment for crime,” while leaving intact a bitter resistance to racial equality. Continued support for white supremacy and racial hierarchy meant that slavery in America did not end—it evolved. The identities of many white Americans, especially in the South, were grounded in the belief that they were inherently superior to African Americans. Many white people reacted violently to the requirement to treat their former “human property” as equals and pay for their labor. In the first two years after the war, thousands of black people were murdered for asserting freedom or basic rights; cities like Memphis and New Orleans were sites of violent mob attacks on black communities.
Between 1868 and 1871, a wave of terror swept across the South, resulting in the deaths of thousands of African Americans—some killed merely for failing to obey a white person. Congressional efforts to provide federal protection and civil rights to formerly enslaved black people were undermined by the United States Supreme Court’s rulings in cases like The Slaughterhouse Cases, 83 U.S. 36 (1872); United States v. Reese, 92 U.S. 214 (1875); and United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 (1876). Soon, Northern politicians retreated from a commitment to protect black people and Reconstruction collapsed. In 1877, federal troops were removed from the region and white Southerners used their regained power to bar black people from voting; legalize racial segregation; and create an exploitative economic system of sharecropping and tenant farming that would keep African Americans indentured and poor for generations.
Convict leasing—a horrific system in which black people were convicted of crimes under discriminatory “Black Code” laws and then leased to private businesses to labor under inhuman conditions for state profit—created a new kind of bondage some scholars have described as “worse than slavery.” At the same time, Jim Crow and racial integrity laws prohibited social interactions between people of different races, especially black men and white women. Lynching soon emerged as a primary tool to enforce racial hierarchy and oppression while terrorizing black people into accepting abusive mistreatment and subordination. Federal, state, and local governments largely tolerated these terrorist acts.
Often committed in broad daylight and sometimes “on the courthouse lawn,” racial terror lynchings were directly tied to the history of enslavement and the re-establishment of white supremacy after the Civil War. These lynchings were also distinct from hangings and mob violence committed against white people because they were intended to terrorize entire black communities and enforce racial hierarchy. Unlike frontier justice in the West, racial terror lynchings generally took place in communities with functioning criminal courts—viewed as too good for African Americans. Despite its lawlessness and terrifying unpredictability, lynching was sanctioned by law enforcement and elected officials, and the perpetrators acted boldly and with impunity. Victims were sometimes publicly tortured for hours before their brutalized bodies were left out on display to traumatize other black people. Members of the mob frequently documented their atrocities by posing for photographs with a dangling, bloodied, or burnt corpse.
Most of the more than 4,400 documented victims of racial terror lynching killed between 1877 and 1950 were killed in the 12 Southern states; Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana were among the deadliest. Several hundred additional victims were lynched in other regions, with the highest numbers in Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, and West Virginia. Many more victims were undocumented and remain unknown. This brutality continued into the twentieth century, and national leaders and mainstream media outlets quickly learned to use white supremacist views and pro-lynching rhetoric for political gain. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt declared, “the greatest existing cause of lynching is the perpetration, especially by black men, of the hideous crime of rape.” An editorial in the Memphis Avalanche Appeal advised, “Let [the black man] keep his hands off white women and lynching will soon die out.”
“[If] it requires lynching to protect women’s dearest possession from ravening, drunken human beasts,” white women’s rights activist Rebecca Felton wrote in the Atlanta Journal in 1898, “then I say lynch a thousand a week if necessary.”
Sexual violence became the most common justification for deadly vigilante violence targeting black men and terrorizing black communities. In fact, fewer than 25 percent of documented African American lynching victims were accused of sexual assault and less than 30 percent were accused of murder. Because African Americans were presumed guilty and dangerous, accusations lodged against them were rarely scrutinized; nearly all were lynched without an investigation, much less a trial. Shortly after Reuben Sims was lynched for assaulting a white woman in Baldwin County, Alabama, in 1904, the local sheriff admitted he was innocent but nonetheless refused to arrest any members of the lynch mob.
When 17-year-old Henry Smith was accused of killing a white girl in Paris, Texas, in 1893, he was quickly captured and condemned without trial or investigation. On February 1, a mob of 10,000 people gathered from across the state to watch as Henry was paraded through town on a carnival float, forced onto a 10-foot-high platform at the county fairgrounds, brutally tortured for nearly an hour, and then burned alive. “Caucasian Vengeance for African Barbarity,” declared a Fort Worth Daily Gazette headline above an article describing the fate of the “Animal Form of Rapist-Murderer-Savage-Fiendish Negro, Henry Smith.”
In common but much-less-publicized incidents, lynching victims were targeted not for allegations of crime but for pursuing political and economic equality. Dozens of black sugar cane workers were lynched in Thibodaux, Louisiana, in 1887 for striking to protest low wages. In 1884, after Calvin Mike cast a vote in Calhoun County, Georgia, a white mob attacked and burned his home, killing his elderly mother and his two young daughters, Emma and Lillie.
Reverend T. A. Allen was lynched in Hernando, Mississippi, in 1935 for organizing local sharecroppers. According to press coverage, Rev. Allen—known to wear a button that read “Every Man a King”—was shot through the heart; his body was found chained and floating in the Coldwater River.
Others were lynched for refusing to address a white man as “sir” or demanding to be served at the counter in a segregated soda shop. William Brooks was lynched in Palestine, Arkansas, in 1894 for asking to marry his white employer’s daughter. In Labelle, Florida, in 1926, Henry Patterson was lynched for “attempting to assault” a white woman; soon after his death, news spread that his “offense” had actually been asking for a drink of water.
Hundreds more black people were lynched on allegations of arson, robbery, non-sexual assault, and vagrancy. Reporting on the lynching of a black man in Millersburg, Ohio, in 1892, an Indiana newspaper explained:
He had lingered about people’s doorsteps and annoyed them in various ways. There are supposed to be no Negroes in Holmes County. Nothing is known of the victim’s history, not even his name. He was said to be the only Negro in the county.
In 1930, a 65-year-old black woman named Laura Wood was hanged with a plow chain in Barber, North Carolina, for allegedly stealing a ham. After an overcoat went missing from a hotel in Tifton, Georgia, in 1900, police whipped two black men to death while “interrogating” them in the woods; newspapers did not report their names. In a strictly maintained racial caste system, white lives and white property held heightened value, while the lives of black people held little or none.
Efforts to pass federal anti-lynching legislation repeatedly failed, largely due to concerted opposition by Southern elected officials. Due to this federal inaction and local indifference, only 1 percent of lynchings committed after 1900 led to a criminal conviction.
Facing the constant threat of attack, nearly 6 million black Americans fled the South between 1910 and 1970 as traumatized refugees, abandoning homes, families, and work in hopes of escaping racial terror. When parts of Georgia experienced a mass black exodus after gruesome lynchings in 1915 and 1916, the local planters “attributed the movement from their places to the fact that the lynching parties had terrorized their Negroes.” Lynching profoundly reshaped the American landscape and burdened already vulnerable communities with pain and disadvantage still with them today.
Importantly, these lynchings were not isolated hate crimes committed by rogue vigilantes; they were targeted racial violence perpetrated to uphold an unjust social order. Lynchings were terrorism. This violence left thousands dead; significantly marginalized black people politically, financially, and socially; and inflicted deep trauma on the entire African American community. White people who witnessed, participated in, and socialized their children in a culture that tolerated gruesome lynchings also were psychologically damaged. State officials’ tolerance of lynching created enduring national and institutional wounds that survived to oppose the goals of the civil rights movement and modern calls for equality.