By Elaine Magliaro
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.
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.
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)