It's a turbulent term. Some don't realize how painful, some do. Some don't care. Some do.
It's both racial and historical. It wasn't a term solely applied to and within discussions dealing with racially charged issues, and it wasn't an action taken purely as a means of race-related oppression, suppression or violence. But - and that's a big, bold "but" - it's a term and an action that has a history so steeped in race-related crimes, violence and injustice that it carries with it very real, very visceral ties back to its historical roots in racism and racist actions.
From Stewart E. Tolnay and E.M. Beck, A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992.Some history and thoughts below the fold.
There are "2805 [documented] victims of lynch mobs killed between 1882 and 1930 in ten southern states. Although mobs murdered almost 300 white men and women, the vast majorityóalmost 2,500óof lynch victims were African-American. Of these black victims, 94 percent died in the hands of white lynch mobs. The scale of this carnage means that, on the average, a black man, woman, or child was murdered nearly once a week, every week, between 1882 and 1930 by a hate-driven white mob" (ix).1
What is "lynching"?
Here's a workable definition:
Lynching is an extra-legal trial and punishment by an informal group. It is most often used to characterize informal public executions by a mob, often by hanging, in order to punish an alleged transgressor, or to intimidate a minority group. It is an extreme form of informal group social control such as charivari, Skimmington, riding the rail, and tarring and feathering, but with a drift toward the public spectacle. Lynchings have been more frequent in times of social and economic tension, and have often been a means for a dominant group to suppress challengers. However, it has also resulted from long-held prejudices and practices of discrimination that have conditioned societies to accept this type of violence as normal practices of popular justice.2The term "extra-legal" doesn't mean "extra special" or "even more legal than usual" - it means "outside of the law" ... sadly, not necessarily "illegal" or "against the law" ...
Where do we get the term?
From the original practitioner, of course:
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.And the violent aspect of "lynching" only grew, expanding and devolving even as it was applied much more vigorously against non-whites in the ante-bellum South.
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.3
It was monstrous; it became far more gruesome and sinister. [Warning! Violent, gruesome verbal description.
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.3
Use and evolution of term
The terms "lynching" and "lynch mob" are also applied by people and media when describing "mob mentalities" or reactions by groups of individuals - sometimes verbal, sometimes not - when "ganging up" or in response to people, places and events. The terms have entered and are used in common vernacular to ascribe "unthinking, unreasonable group reactions" - but often, within a context and perspective that ignores the visceral imagery and very real pain of those who have direct ties to actual instances of lynching and lynch mobs in their family history & experience.
And, in that regard, the use of such terms often do intentionally call to mind - sometimes too "successfully" - the negative connotations sought when employed as allegory and/or hyperbole. Part of that impact is likely due to the history that media had in helping to shape, justify and mollify actual events:
Newspapers of the day sometimes echoed those sentiments with editorials that, stopped short of actually supporting the violence, but appeased the mob mentality by suggesting that lynching was somewhat understandable. The Hubert murder case became a media circus. Surprisingly, all seven men were quickly arrested and convicted of the murder by a jury. The shooter received a 12-year sentence.Continual use of the terms in "every day" conversation, in media, in prose - absent direct historical context and reference - serves to deepen and extend the visceral impact of the term, the associations and the history. It is, in effect, perpetuating an element of embedded racism which in turn continues to prevent our modern society from moving forward, to any chance of truly becoming "post-racial" - as opposed to what active racists really, truly want the public at large to believe we've already achieved.
The press usually 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".3
So, please, everyone - be careful when, where and how we utilize certain terms. Be aware that everyone's history, perspective, perception, circumstance and the context in which all those reside differs greatly - and that can have a tremendous impact on how what we say or do is received and understood. Sometimes, without meaning to, we are unintentionally perpetuating the very things we seek to eliminate, examine or discuss. What we see as a potentially effective term to solicit attention, others may see and experience as offensive. And that's on us, the individuals who lack or do not understand/comprehend the perspectives & contexts of those we unintentionally hurt or offend.
In times like this, when there are people actively engaged in stirring the pot and attempting to foment more disruption & racial hatred, we have to work to ensure that our own words and actions are not undermining our efforts to build a smarter, better integrated and socially coherent discourse that can reduce - and perhaps, one day, contribute toward eliminating - racism, bigotry, homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, and all ignorance-derived forms of violence, divisive behavior.
We aren't perfect. But we are capable of learning.4 So let's learn from our collective experiences and feedback, make what adjustments are necessary, inform ourselves and our allies, and move on.
1 - History of Lynching in the United States by Jana Evans Braziel, Assistant Professor, Department of English and Comparative Literature, University of Cincinnati
2 - Wikipedia entry on Lynching
3 - Carnival of Death: Lynching in America by Mark Gado, via Crime Library (dot) com
4 - An example: George Takei recently learned that he'd accidentally, unintentionally offended some folks. He posted a genuine, heartfelt apology for it. Some may like it, others may not, and still others may have issues with it in one context or another. That's beside the point...it's an example of learning. Find it here (goes to Facebook).