In the wee hours of the morning of March 9, 1892, the three owners of the People’s Grocery Store, a market catering to the black community of Memphis, TN, were removed by a mob from the city’s jail, carried to a field outside of town, and “shot to pieces” by the mob. The three men, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Wil Stewart, were members of Memphis’s vibrant black bourgeoisie, and their store unfortunately happened to compete with a white owned business across the street. Their white competitor had invaded the People’s Grocery Store’s property with a white gang a few days earlier and the owners had defended their business with guns. Three white men were wounded, and the black business owners were caught up in the police raids that swept through the city’s black community.
The murders of Moss, McDowell, and Stewart inspired one of their friends, muckraking journalist and editor Ida B. Wells, to expose the lynching of African Americans in the Jim Crow South, which reportedly reached nearly 5,000 deaths between 1882 and 1950. On May 21, 1892, Wells published in Free Speech, the Memphis paper she owned and edited, an editorial documenting the eight lynchings that had occurred since her previous issue. Join me below the fold for a quote from that editorial, and a broader historical discussion of lynching in America.
Eight Negroes lynched since last issue… one at Little Rock, Ark., last Saturday morning where the citizens broke (?) into the penitentiary and got their man; three near Anniston, Ala., one near New Orleans; and three at Clarksville, Ga., the last three for killing a white man, and five on the same old racket – the new alarm about raping white women. The same programme of hanging, then shooting bullets into the lifeless bodies was carried out to the letter. Nobody in this section believes the old threadbare lie that Negro men assault white women. If Southern white men are not careful, they will over-reach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women. (Cited in Jacqueline Jones Royster, editor, Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900 (Boston: Bedford Books, 1997), p. 1.)Wells left on a speaking tour to Philadelphia and New York the same day her editorial appeared, and it turned out she would not return to Memphis for another thirty years. In the aftermath of her editorial, the offices of Free Speech were broken into and destroyed, the paper’s co-owner had had to flee for his life, and a death threat had been issued against her. Instead, she nationalized, in fact internationalized, her campaign to document the lynchings of African Americans. Over the next eight years she would publish three critical pamphlets (Southern Horrors, A Red Record, and Mob Rule in New Orleans) in which she documented every lynching in the south in that period and she presented a compelling intellectual argument refuting the the defenders of lynching as a necessary if unsavory practice. On two tours of London in the late 1890s, she helped establish the influential British Anti-Lynching Society, and in the United States she participated in the founding of both the National Association of Colored Women and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
In her Introduction to the edited reprint of Wells’s pamphlets, Royster offers a history of lynching to explain why so many African Americans were lynched in this period. The Oxford English Dictionary records the first literary use of the term “lynching” in 1817, though there are possible earlier references in Ireland in the 1600s and in America in the 1700s. One possible origin traces it back to Judge Charles Lynch, a Virginia Justice of the Peace during the American Revolution who imprisoned loyalists on no other authority than his own word. Lynch’s name, then, “came to be associated with any acts of punishment not sanctioned by law, including whipping, tarring and feathering, and other acts of humiliation and degradation. As time passed, though, lynch law came to refer mainly to unlawful sentences of death.” Royster notes that the OED also suggests “lynching” could have originated in Lynche’s Creek in South Carolina, a meeting place for Revolutionary era Regulators, the populist movement that carried out guerrilla attacks against suspected loyalists. As Royster puts it, the Regulators attacked “enemies of local efforts to establish and maintain power structures. The Regulators circumvented the law by attacking people who could be perceived as vying with them for economic and political power and control” (Royster, Southern Horrors, pp. 8-9).
This last point provides a critical element of the basic definition of lynching – the use of mob violence to restore or sustain the local organization of power. It is worth pointing out that the earliest instances of lynching had nothing to do with attacks by whites on African Americans; in fact, Royster points out that during slavery extrajudicial attacks on blacks were exceedingly rare. Most blacks in the United States were someone’s property and, as she says, “mob violence against slaves would have transferred the power of life and death from the hands of planters to the hands of the mob, whose numbers were quite likely to include non-elite whites. Such a transfer of power would have loosened the systems of control, the general stronghold of the landed aristocracy over both economic and political life” (Royster, p. 10).
The lynching of African Americans only became an important phenomenon in the South after the end of Reconstruction, when the white power structure confronted the problem of how to disenfranchise the recently empowered African American minority. Mob violence was an effective means not only of maintaining a clear line of separation between whites and blacks (as Dubois put it in The Souls of Black Folk, “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line”), but also of demonstrating to blacks exactly what they risked by attempting to rise out of the social station the white elite had defined for them. That is, lynching was used to sustain the local organization of power. (See, for example, the documentation of lynching and other atrocities against black Americans collected in the American Black Holocaust Museum, whose founder had survived a Klan lynching in Indiana in the 1920s.)
During the Jim Crow era, Royster cites statistics that over 80% of lynching victims were black, and in the first decade of the twentieth century that proportion exceeded 90%. As we have seen, however, lynching itself as a named social practice long antedated its appropriation by white southerners in the postbellum era – dating back at least to the Revolutionary War itself, and perhaps even farther – and it has never been exclusively used by whites against blacks. A look at lynching in popular culture can illustrate the point.
Perhaps the earliest lynching scene in American literature is in Huckleberry Finn, when the folk in an Arkansas town visited by Huck and Jim organize a lynch mob against Colonel Sherburn, the local aristocrat who had just murdered the town drunk in broad daylight on a city street. Sherburn confronts the crowd, shotgun in hand, and calls them out for cowardice. In his speech, we see not only Twain’s critique of the Southern aristocracy, but also an example of how lynching could actually work in practice:
“Why don't your juries hang murderers? Because they're afraid the man's friends will shoot them in the back, in the dark -- and it's just what they WOULD do.The problem with the lynch mob confronting him, Sherburn insulted, was the absence of a real man to lead it. Implicitly threatening to kill one member of the mob, he succeeded in causing the whole crowd to melt away.
"So they always acquit; and then a MAN goes in the night, with a hundred masked cowards at his back and lynches the rascal (Chapter 22).”
Twain established a clear trope in American literature, one that gets repeated over and over again. The cowardly mob, egged on by its hysteria and perhaps a single leader or two, seizes a prisoner (in Huckleberry Finn, Sherburn was guilty but in later iterations the prisoner is nearly always innocent) and threatens to kill him. In most cases, a single armed individual confronts the mob and forces it to back down. See for example the 1956 B noir Western “Rebel in Town” (starring John Payne). After the innocent Gray Mason has been jailed by Sheriff John for a murder Gray’s treacherous brother Wesley had actually committed,
the rabble-rousers break into the jail and pull Gray from his cell. Marching into the jailhouse, John orders the men to let him hang Gray. At that moment, the Masons ride into town, rifles drawn, and Bedloe tells Gray to come to them. When John refuses to release Gray, Bedloe warns that he will open fire on the crowd.Bedloe’s threat leads to Gray’s release, eventually Wesley is discovered, and the movie ends with justice having been served.
“Rebel in Town” drew off a tradition in movie Westerns that had reached its height with William A. Wellman’s 1943 “Ox-Bow Incident” (starring Henry Fonda). In this brutal, dark film a lynch mob in a Western town chases down, tries, and executes three men for a murder that had been rumored around town – over the loud and vocal objections of several members of the lynch party itself. Only after the men have been killed do the lynchers discover the supposed victim of murder had only been wounded and the perpetrators of that crime had already been placed under legal arrest. The homeowner wrongfully murdered by the lynch mob was given the opportunity to write a last letter to his wife. His words are a stinging indictment of mob rule:
My Dear Wife.“The Ox-Bow Incident” deviates from the trope in that the heroic individual is unable to save the innocent prisoners, but otherwise it is true to form. One of the victims in this lynching is Juan Martinez (played by Anthony Quinn), a Mexican cowboy who is also accused (falsely) of gambling and murder. In reality, many lynch victims in the West were latino, Native American or Asian, as documented by Ken Gonzales-Day in his photographic essay Lynching in the West, 1850-1935. This reality, however, was turned on its head in an early episode of “Cisco Kid,” the Western television series that aired from 1950-1954. In “The Lynching Story” a band of white criminals murder a white mine owner and frame his white future son-in-law for the crime. They then break the framed man out of jail and ride him out into the desert where they plan to hang him; their plans, however, are foiled by the timely action of the Mexicans Cisco and Pancho who just happen to be in town that day and overhear the lynching plans of the criminals.
Mr. Davies will tell you what's happening here tonight. He's a good man, and he's done everything he can for me. I suppose there's some other good men here, too, only they don't seem to realize what they're doing. They're the ones I feel sorry for, 'cause it'll be over for me in a little while, but they'll have to go on rememberin' for the rest of their lives. A man just naturally can't take the law into his own hands and hang people without hurtin' everybody in the world, 'cause then he's just not breakin' one law, but all laws. Law is a lot more than words you put in a book, or judges or lawyers or sheriffs you hire to carry it out. It's everything people ever have found out about justice and what's right and wrong. It's the very conscience of humanity. There can't be any such thing as civilization unless people have a conscience, because if people touch God anywhere, where is it except through their conscience? And what is anybody's conscience except a little piece of the conscience of all men that ever lived? I guess that's all I've got to say except - kiss the babies for me and God bless you.
Your husband, Donald.
This trope, of the courageous individual foiling the lynching of an innocent man, reaches its highest expression in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird when Scout Finch, standing at her father’s side as he faces down a mob prepared to murder the innocent prisoner Tom Robinson, recognizes one member of the crowd and begins speaking to him of his son, her schoolfriend. The man is embarrassed by the human contact and calls off the mob.
In the large picture, of course, the novel treats the legal lynching of Robinson, falsely accused of a rape the girl’s father had in fact committed. Despite his best efforts, Atticus Finch is unable to prevent Robinson’s conviction and death sentence by the racist court and jury.
Now, I’ve been away for a while and I have no idea how the kerfuffle over Ted Rall’s supposedly “racist” depiction of Barack Obama was resolved. What I do know, however, is that lynching is a perfectly acceptable term in American culture to describe the actions of a mob which attacks a person under false pretenses in order to impose or sustain a particular ideological conformity. I make no apology for having made that statement at the time, nor do I intend to ever apologize for having made that statement. It is historically accurate, and a perfectly acceptable use of the term.
The “reality-based community” should be broad enough and flexible enough to allow for valid ideological dissent.