A violent history: New report reveals extent of racist lynchings

Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells

The Equal Justice Initiative published a report entitled “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror” on Feb. 10. It illustrates the need to re-examine a sordid period in U.S. history, which has never been officially acknowledged. (ejl.org)

Although this horrendous practice originated during slavery, after the Civil War concluded and the Reconstruction began, extra-judicial killings of African Americans became integral to the exploitation and social containment of formerly enslaved people. The Ku Klux Klan was formed in 1866 as a secret organization led by former plantation owners and Confederate military officials.

This study places the rise of lynching within a historical context. After the Civil War and the legal abolition of slavery, reactionary whites sought to re-establish their dominance over African people. In the section “Second Slavery after the Civil War,” the authors emphasize that “white southern identity was grounded in a belief that whites are inherently superior to African Americans.

“Following the war, whites reacted violently to the notion that they would now have to treat their former human property as equals and pay for their labor. Plantation owners attacked black people simply for claiming their freedom. In May 1866, in Memphis, Tennessee, forty-six African Americans were killed; ninety-one houses, four churches, and twelve schools were burned to the ground; at least five women were raped; and many black people fled the city permanently.” (p. 7)

Ida B. Wells began anti-lynching campaign

This report continues the work done by other scholars and Civil Rights organizations since the late 19th century. By 1892, public lynchings attracted the attention of African-American journalist Ida B. Wells. She started an international campaign after African-Americans Tom Moss, Calvin McDowell and Henry Stewart were taken from a jail cell in Memphis and fatally shot by law-enforcement agents.

A 2002 PBS documentary, “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow,” tells of Moss, McDowell and Stewart who were “arrested for defending themselves against an attack on Moss’ [grocery] store. Moss was a highly respected figure in the black community. … A white competitor, enraged that Moss had drawn away his black customers, hired some off-duty deputy sheriffs to destroy the store. Moss and his friends, not knowing the men were deputies, resisted. A gun battle broke out and several deputies were wounded.

“Moss, his two friends, and one hundred other black supporters were arrested. Several nights later, masked vigilantes dragged Moss and his two friends from their cells,” and shot them in a deserted railroad yard.

A few months later, Wells’ Memphis newspaper offices were firebombed by a white mob empowered by a local magistrate. She was driven out of the city for exposing the false pretexts under which many lynchings were justified. In Chicago, Wells continued her work.

However, the terrible events in Memphis led thousands of African Americans to subsequently leave the city and migrate to Oklahoma.

In 1893, Wells toured Britain to lecture on U.S. lynchings, revealing to an international audience the plight of African Americans. Two years later, she wrote an important pamphlet entitled “The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States.” It was a comprehensive study of racist mob killings of African Americans.

Wells co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. The organization campaigned for decades against lynching and pushed unsuccessfully for federal legislation to outlaw it.

Sponsored by the Civil Rights Congress, attorney William L. Patterson, Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois and cultural worker and activist Paul Robeson published “We Charge Genocide” in 1951. This historic petition, which was submitted to the United Nations, documented years of racial violence against African Americans, carried out with impunity in full view of white officials, law-enforcement agencies and the courts.

Even during the height of the Civil Rights Movement from 1955 to 1968, white police officers and racist mobs murdered African Americans and their allies.

Study reports nearly 4,000 lynchings

The EJI blog notes, “Researchers documented 3,959 racial terror lynchings of African Americans” in 12 Southern states “between 1877 and 1950 — at least 700 more lynchings of black people in these states than previously reported in the most comprehensive work done on lynching to date.” This work asserts that “lynching of African Americans was terrorism, a widely supported phenomenon used to enforce racial subordination and segregation.”

In compiling information on the newly revealed lynchings, the report’s authors acknowledged the works of academic Stewart E. Tolnay and Tuskegee University. They also drew on additional cases written about in the African-American press.

Legal lynching today: death penalty, police terror

During World War I, the Great Migration of African Americans began — from the rural South to urbanized Northern and Western U.S. regions. Public lynchings declined then, but these acts of racial terror continued through other means, including state-sanctioned executions.

The EJI reports, “By 1915, court-ordered executions outpaced lynchings in the former slave states for the first time. Two-thirds of those executed in the 1930s were black, and the trend continued. As African Americans fell to just 22 percent of the South’s population between 1910 and 1950, they constituted 75 percent of those executed in the South during that period.” (p. 21)

This study documents how this vile process continued into the modern era: “In the 1987 case of McCleskey v. Kemp, the Supreme Court considered statistical evidence demonstrating that Georgia decision makers were more than four times as likely to impose death for the killing of a white person than a black person. … [T]he Court described racial bias in sentencing as ‘an inevitable part of our criminal justice system’ and upheld Warren McCleskey’s death sentence because he failed to identify a ‘constitutionally significant risk of racial bias’ in his case.”

The EJI report reaffirms that today’s wave of police killings and other racist attacks are part of the system of national oppression and social control used by the ruling class to exploit and contain African people since the 19th century. Despite Civil Rights legislation passed in the 1950s and 1960s and the ascendancy of African-American elected officials, including the president, justice is still denied to many.

Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Aiyana Stanley Jones, Tamir Rice and countless others have been killed by police officers who remain unscathed by prosecutors and the courts. The Justice Department has not brought charges against these officers after local authorities failed to indict and arrest the perpetrators.

It will take a revolution to overthrow the legacy of racial terrorism in the U.S. African-American and other oppressed peoples must be totally liberated from national oppression before they can expect any real justice that protects and values their lives from the ravages of state-supported repression and violence.