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LYNCHING AS SOCIAL CONTROL The social hierarchy created by Jim Crow Laws, with people of European descent at the top, could not work without violence being used against those being forcibly kept on the bottom rung. Lynching was terrorism (72 percent of recorded lynching incidences were directed towards African Americans) to maintain the 'caste' system and to enforce an unnatural state of economic and social segregation between human beings. To survive under the legal and social system in place in the South between 1880 and 1954, a person of African descent had to carefully limit his contact with whites to such socially and legally sanctioned careers such as laborer, barbering and domestic - and beyond this keep totally apart and maintain a subservient attitude.
George Fredrickson, a historian, stated it this way: "Lynching represented...a way of using fear and terror to check 'dangerous' tendencies in a Black community considered to be ineffectively regimented or supervised. As such it constituted a confession that the regular institutions of a segregated society provided an inadequate measure of day-to-day control."
The U.S. Congress attempted to pass anti-lynching legislation with the NAACP sponsored Dyer bill of 1922, the Wagner-Costigan bill of 1931, and the Wagner-Gavagan bill of 1940. On each occasion, the U.S. House of Representatives successfully passed the legislation. However, they failed to muster enough votes in the U.S. Senate for closure. Sixty votes were needed to break the filibusters and bring the bills to a vote. Southern senators successfully filibustered all three bills and the legislation died. Their primary complaint was that murder is a crime against the state and not the federal government. That may have been true, however, officials from these states were doing little to stop the lynching and murder of Blacks. Few were prosecuted for these crimes, and even fewer were convicted. 1
For two decades, following these initial attempts to enact legislation, the NAACP was the primary organization fighting for the Civil Rights of Blacks. After WW II they waged a successful campaign against lynching throughout the South. By the mid 1950s, they had enough public awareness to successfully turn public opinion against the practice and lynching became extremely rare. White supremacist organizations stopped using the threat and action of lynching.
In the pre-Civil Rights South, if an African American man was thought to be involved in a murder or rape, or even expressed interest in a white woman, chances were very high he could be lynched without a trial. This occurred as recently as 1955 when 14 year old Emmett Till of Chicago was visiting relatives in Mississippi, whistled at a white woman on a bet, and was brutally murdered a few days later. The widespread national media publicity of this violent murder caused outrage in a more and more connected, sophisticated and educated American population and the tide began to turn against lynching.
The common European American 'rational' for lynching was based (1) on the Southern sentiment/emotion of "honor" and (2) behavior patterns common to mobs. Especially in crimes of rape, it was widely thought that a lynching spared the woman involved the humiliation and distress of having to answer questions in open court but also redeemed male relatives, whose "honor" had also been affected.
Mob behavior patterns also made lynching a reality. Through the ages people have gone along with mobs, succumbing to peer pressure and mob mentality even if they objected to what was taking place--- they feared for their lives, families and property , and contributed bodily to events that would never happen if they were acting on their own accord. In an uneducated, mostly rural, early to mid 20th century culture, mob mentality was a true danger to anyone socially disenfranchised , and especially to those with dark skin.
Lynching took place in the City of Atlanta during the race riot of 1906, but most frequently occurred in the countryside where ignorance and mob mentality easily sided with negrophobia, an ever present mental quality in a state sanctioned segregated society. The mob vigilante mentality and the KKK became the unofficial enforcers of Jim Crow; between 1882 and 1918 approximately 2,522 black men were lynched.
A lynching many times took on a medieval carnival atmosphere with victims being dismembered and burned live at the stake or hung. Parts of the victim were sometimes sold as souvenirs to spectators. It was socially acceptable for whole families to travel from miles away to witness the event. Sometimes special trains for attendees were run by the local railroad company if an especially big turnout was expected.
The inchoate main stream news media then, as in the seedier publications of the present day, was geared towards sensationalist entertainment and the newspapers would publish blow-by-blow accounts of lynching activities. Lynching was the socially condoned pornography from the late 1800's until after WWII when Americans with all skin colors came back from fighting with a different world view. 1964 saw the last lynching of three young men working for the Civil Rights Movement in Missippissi.
There are several recently published books on lynching including At the Hands of Persons Unknown by Phillip Dray (Random House NY, 2002) and Without Sanctuary (Twin Palms Press, 2000). Without Sanctuary is a very disturbing collection of photographs and postcards put together by James Allen and John Littlefield of Atlanta. There is also a website and a traveling exhibit scheduled to open in Atlanta on May1, 2002, at the Martin Luther King National Historic Site on Auburn Ave, where it will remain until December 1.
The following are statistics provided by the Archives at Tuskegee Institute.
From Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch, pg 103:
Credit for the above statistic chart and more Tuskegee statistics are here.