LYNCHING IN AMERICA: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror—A Report from the Equal Justice Initiative

By Elaine Magliaro

Omaha Courthouse Lynching 1919

Omaha Courthouse Lynching 1919

Earlier today, the Equal justice Initiative (EJI) released a report of a multi-year investigation titled Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror. EJI discovered that lynchings in this country were more extensive than had been previously reported. The new report documents the terror lynchings of 3,959 African Americans in twelve Southern states during the period between 1877 and 1950.

From EJI:

Lynching in America makes the case that lynching of African Americans was terrorism, a widely supported phenomenon used to enforce racial subordination and segregation. Lynchings were violent and public events that traumatized black people throughout the country and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials. This was not “frontier justice” carried out by a few marginalized vigilantes or extremists. Instead, many African Americans who were never accused of any crime were tortured and murdered in front of picnicking spectators (including elected officials and prominent citizens) for bumping into a white person, or wearing their military uniforms after World War I, or not using the appropriate title when addressing a white person. People who participated in lynchings were celebrated and acted with impunity. Not a single white person was convicted of murder for lynching a black person in America during this period.

The report explores the ways in which lynching profoundly impacted race relations in this country and shaped the contemporary geographic, political, social, and economic conditions of African Americans. Most importantly, lynching reinforced a narrative of racial difference and a legacy of racial inequality that is readily apparent in our criminal justice system today. Mass incarceration, racially biased capital punishment, excessive sentencing, disproportionate sentencing of racial minorities, and police abuse of people of color reveal problems in American society that were shaped by the terror era.

Southern Lynching 1937

Southern Lynching 1937

One section of the report, Public Spectacle Lynchings, tells of how large crowds of white people—sometimes numbering in the thousands and including elected officials and prominent citizens—would gather to witness the “pre-planned” killings of African Americans. The heinous public spectacles included the prolonged torture, dismemberment, mutilation, and/or burning of the victims.

Campbell Robertson (New York Times)

DALLAS — A block from the tourist-swarmed headquarters of the former Texas School Book Depository sits the old county courthouse, now a museum. In 1910, a group of men rushed into the courthouse, threw a rope around the neck of a black man accused of sexually assaulting a 3-year-old white girl, and threw the other end of the rope out a window. A mob outside yanked the man, Allen Brooks, to the ground and strung him up at a ceremonial arch a few blocks down Main Street.

South of the city, past the Trinity River bottoms, a black man named W. R. Taylor was hanged by a mob in 1889. Farther south still is the community of Streetman, where 25-year-old George Gay was hanged from a tree and shot hundreds of times in 1922.

And just beyond that is Kirvin, where three black men, two of them almost certainly innocent, were accused of killing a white woman and, under the gaze of hundreds of soda-drinking spectators, were castrated, stabbed, beaten, tied to a plow and set afire in the spring of 1922.

Lauren Gambino (The Guardian) reported that “Bryan Stevenson, the director of EJI, said the organization plans to erect monuments, memorials and markers in the communities where the lynchings took place, as a way of piercing the silence and starting a conversation.” Gambino noted that Stevenson acknowledged the hardships that “he faces in getting the funding and approval to build the markers, not to mention the controversy that will almost certainly ensue…” Stevenson said that the “process will force communities to reckon with the vicious history of racial violence.”


“We want to change the visual landscape of this country so that when people move through these communities and live in these communities, that they’re mindful of this history,” Stevenson said. “We really want to see truth and reconciliation emerge, so that we can turn the page on race relations.”

He added: “We don’t think you should be able to come to these places without facing their histories.”

The report argues that atrocities carried out against African Americans during this period were akin to terrorism, and that lynchings were a tool to “enforce racial subordination and segregation”. It is the follow-up to the organisation’s 2013 report Slavery in America.

“It’s important to begin talking about it,” Stevenson said. “These lynchings were torturous and violent and extreme. They were sometimes attended by the entire white community. It was sometimes not enough to lynch the person who was the target, but it was necessary to terrorise the entire black community: burn down churches and attack black homes. I think that that kind of history really can’t be ignored.”


Click here to read the report summary.



EJI Finds Lynching in America Was More Extensive Than Previously Reported (Equal Justice Initiative)

History of Lynchings in the South Documents Nearly 4,000 Names (New York Times)

Jim Crow lynchings more widespread than first thought, report concludes (The Guardian)


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14 Responses to LYNCHING IN AMERICA: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror—A Report from the Equal Justice Initiative

  1. Elaine M. says:

    Even more black people were lynched in the U.S. than previously thought, study finds

    (It is worth pausing here to note that while most discussions of lynching tend to focus on the South, it was by no means just a Southern phenomenon. A “significant” number of lynchings did occur outside this region, as Michael J. Pfeifer, a history professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, wrote in the introduction to the essay collection, “Lynching Beyond Dixie: American Mob Violence Outside the South.” And when the U.S. Senate apologized in 2005 for not passing anti-lynching laws long before, admitting that the legislative body had repeatedly failed to make lynching a federal offense, the bill noted that lynching had occurred in nearly every state.)

    The authors of the new report outline a series of common threads that tied together the lynchings that occurred across states and over a period of several decades. It took little more than an allegation or a perceived insult to spark a lynching in some cases, they write, and the lynchings themselves drew large crowds. James Cameron, who survived being lynched as a teenager and later founded America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, said he remembered seeing 2,000 white people gathered at his lynching, some with their children.

    Here is how the authors of the report describe the crowds in the report’s summary:

    The lynchings we document were acts of terrorism because these murders were carried out with impunity, sometimes in broad daylight, often “on the courthouse lawn.” These lynchings were not “frontier justice,” because they generally took place in communities where there was a functioning criminal justice system that was deemed too good for African Americans. Terror lynchings were horrific acts of violence whose perpetrators were never held accountable. Indeed, some “public spectacle lynchings” were attended by the entire white community and conducted as celebratory acts of racial control and domination.

  2. swarthmoremom says: “An Alabama-based racial justice group is courting controversy for its plan to mark the locations where white mobs hung African-American men, women and children from trees and telephone poles in southern U.S. states for more than 70 years. In its report released Tuesday, the Equal Justice Initiative has compiled an inventory of 3,959 victims of “racial terror lynchings” that occurred in 12 Southern states from 1877 to 1950, the New York Times first reported. The task of plotting the lynching sites will be daunting, as it requires funding and negotiations with landowners, and will face pushback from Southerners who would like to forget that part of history.

    “We cannot heal the deep wounds inflicted during the era of racial terrorism until we tell the truth about it,” Bryan Stevenson, director of the racial justice group, said in a statement about the report. The Montgomery, Alabama-based group’s findings are a result of five years of research and visits to 160 lynching sites around the South. “The geographic, political, economic and social consequences of decades of terror lynchings can still be seen in many communities today… Only then can we meaningfully address the contemporary problems that are lynching’s legacy.”

    There are no prominent public memorials or monuments to lynching victims in the U.S., the group said. Creating one would make a “powerful statement about our failure to value the black lives lost in this brutal campaign of racial violence.”

    “Black lives matter” has become a rallying call for protesters nationwide angered by the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner last year. Monday marked six months since the unarmed Brown, 18, was killed by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri.”

  3. swarthmoremom says: “Beck underscored a point that Stevenson’s new report makes, that in no way were these acts of mob violence any kind of exercise aimed at achieving vigilante justice, they were a means of terrorizing the black community and keeping them in constant fear for their lives and the lives of their loved ones.

    Oftentimes young black men were burned alive for the entertainment of an entire town’s white population. Thelma Dangerfield — treasurer of the Paris, Texas NAACP, told the Times about the 1893 killing of Henry Smith, a black teenager who was accused of murder. “

  4. Inga says:

    We certainly don’t hold the moral high ground historically.

  5. buckaroo says:

    “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”
    — Aeschylus

  6. gbk says:

    Wow, a quote-a-thon:

    Berrigan, Philip: “If voting made any difference, it would be illegal.”

    Bradbury, Ray: “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

    Dryden, John: “Beware the fury of the patient man.”

    Eliot, T.S.: “Success is relative. It is what we can make of the mess we have made of things.”

    Hitchcock, Alfred: “Television has done much for psychiatry by spreading information about it, as well as contributing to the need for it.”

    Ingersoll, Robert Green: “The true civilization is where every man gives to every other every right that he claims for himself.”

    Russell, Bertrand: “To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.”

    Truman, Harry S.: “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

    And one of my favorites:

    Wilde, Oscar: “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”

  7. Bob Kauten says:

    “Don’t believe every quote attributed to me on the internet.”

  8. gbk says:

    Trust this quote:

    “The above quotes are not quotes.”

  9. gbk says:

    Or, rather, my absolute favorite:

    Cash, Wynona: “All quotes are misinformed.”

  10. pete says:

    “Ow, my ass!”

    Eric Cartman

  11. bron98 says:

    “suffering is highly over rated, but I do it so well it isnt that big a deal.”

  12. bron98 says:

    you guys ought to read up on the Omaha riot that lead to the lynching and murder of William Brown.

  13. Pingback: Why We Need to Put Markers and Monuments to Terror and Lynching to Educate our Citizens Better; Lynching in America – Equal Justice Initiative | Eslkevin's Blog

  14. Pingback: On the Subject of America’s Racial Terror and How Lynch Mobs and Barbaric Violence Still Haunt Our Country Today | Flowers For Socrates

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