History of Lynchings in America
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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Tonight on Capitol Hill, the Senate is expected to apologize for its repeated failures to outlaw lynching. Nearly 200 bills to ban the practice were introduced over the first half of the 20th century. Seven presidents asked Congress to make lynching a federal crime. Measures passed the House of Representatives three times but repeatedly legislation was blocked in the United States Senate. The current resolution is sponsored by Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Republican George Allen of Virginia. It apologizes to, quote, "the victims of lynching and the descendants of those victims for the failure of the Senate to enact anti-lynching legislation." Some of those descendants will be present tonight to hear that apology.
Right now we're going to take some time to talk about the history of lynching in America, and we want to take your questions or your stories. Give us a call. Our number is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. How common a practice was lynching? How many people knew about it? How many times were people charged with crimes? How many times were people convicted? (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. And the e-mail address again: email@example.com.
Joining us now is William Fitzhugh Brundage, professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He's with us from the studios of member station WUNC in Chapel Hill.
Thanks for joining us today.
Professor WILLIAM FITZHUGH BRUNDAGE (University of North Carolina): My pleasure, Neal.
CONAN: And the number that we've heard in relation to this Senate apology is something on the order of 5,000 Americans lynched. Does that jibe with your research?
Prof. BRUNDAGE: It certainly does. Any number of lynchings in the United States is going to be a guess because it was an extralegal practice, so there was no one compiling accurate statistics of the number of lynchings throughout the 19th or early 20th century. It's not until the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, made it a primary campaign of the organization in the 19-teens, the 1920s that anyone was compiling really good systematic statistics on the number of lynchings. So 5,000 is a guestimate, but it may well be too low.
Prof. BRUNDAGE: Certainly--I just want to say I don't think it's too high.
CONAN: Do we know the process of lynching--this is a post-Civil War phenomenon?
Prof. BRUNDAGE: Well, its origins go back at least to the American Revolution when a colonel in Bedford, Virginia, applied what was called Lynch's Law--his name was Charles Lynch--and he applied what was called Lynch's Law against Tories--that is, supporters of teh king during the American Revolution. And there--it was across teh late 18th and early 19th century various groups in American society were subject to so-called Lynch's Law. But it was really after the American Civil War that it became a pervasive practice and one with very clear racial overtones.
CONAN: So before then, you didn't have to be black to be lynched?
Prof. BRUNDAGE: Absolutely. You could be white, you could be guilty of all sorts of things--you could be a gambler, a horse thief--something along the lines of sort of stereotpyical lynching in the Western movie where it's a desperado, a shady character.
CONAN: "The Ox-Bow Incident."
Prof. BRUNDAGE: Yeah.
CONAN: Something like that.
Prof. BRUNDAGE: Absolutely. After the Civil War, though, increasingly the victims became African-American, and by teh turn of the 20th century, overwhelmingly--more than 90 percent of the victims of lynch mobs were African-Americans or Hispanic Americans, particularly Mexican Americans.
CONAN: Is there anything like a typical lynching? Can you describe what often happened?
Prof. BRUNDAGE: No, I don't think there is such a thing as a typical lynching because there were so many lynchings, and they, of course, took place in so very many different settings. But I think for the public at large--that is, those people who didn't participate in lynching--the typical lynching became the lynching that got the front page of newspapers, and those lynchings were these mass ritualized executions of alleged criminals. When I say mass, I mean crowds of many, many hundred; in some cases, thousands, and in a few cases, even tens of thousands of people gathered around to watch the systematic torture and execution of lynch mob victims. And you can imagine, those became front-page stories in newspapers, and eventually they became photographs in newspapers. So those were--those really gruesome, extended executions came to define the institution of lynching even though most lynching victims didn't die that way.
Prof. BRUNDAGE: Yeah. So it was those--when we think about the public impact of lynching--I think we should keep in mind that what really captured the imaginations, gripped the imaginations of African-Americans and whites who were opposed to lynching during the early 20th century was the ferocity of the violence and the fact that it took place publicly with thousands of people, including sometimes children, being spectators at these events. It was that type of violence that really turned the stomach of, for example, Mark Twain, who started calling the United States `the United States of lyncherdom.'
CONAN: Our number, if you'd like to join our conversation, is (800) 989-8255; e-mail us: firstname.lastname@example.org. Now let's hear from Laura. Laura's with us from Memphis, Tennessee.
LAURA (Caller): Hi. Thank you for having me. I have just an--it may seem an obvious question, but murder I thought had always been illegal in the United States, and how is it that lynchng didn't necessarily fall under that unbrella of murder?--because it was specifically directed toward one class--a minority class or a subservient class? But how it wasn't considered the same thing as murder and why it would take an act of Congress to make lynching illegal, you know?
CONAN: A federal law, yeah.
LAURA: Yeah. But that's just too simple...
Prof. BRUNDAGE: That's a very good question, and there are two parts to that. One is of course lynching was illegal in that it was the illegal execution--extralegal execution of someone. So lynchers were subject to state law. But there were only a handful of prosecutions of Southerners for lynchings of African-Americans or whites in the South from the Civil War up into the 1960s. And there were even fewer convictions. So the problem was that white Southern juries were not going to convict anyone for the murder of either a white who was so low that whites would tolerate the lynching of him or her, or of blacks in general. So state laws weren't adequate.
A few Southern states did pass anti-lynching laws during the 1890s when lynching became a chronic problem. But very few of those states made any serious effort to ever enforce those laws. So the challenge became how do you prevent lynching if Southern state governments and Southern juries aren't willing to prosecute. And that's why there was an effort to federalize it, make it a broader crime. And the argument--one of the justifications for making it a broader crime, a crime that involved, if you will, federal rights, was that it was an attack on the citizenship of the victims of lynch mobs, and so therefore it was a contravention, it eroded the 14th Amendment which guaranteed a sort of national rights of citizenship. And so the effort was, therefore, to make it a national crime to overcome the reticence of Southern juries and Southern state governments.
CONAN: Thanks for the question, Laura.
LAURA: Yeah, thank you very much. I appreciate the show.
CONAN: In those rather public lynchings that you were talking about--of course, that doesn't describe all of them--but where--from where did they get the victim? Presumably he was being held in a jail somewhere?
Prof. BRUNDAGE: Yes, and most--it was one of the problems for justification of lynching. One of the arguments for lynching was that well, the crime that the alleged lynchng victim committed was so awful that it provoked a sort of outpouring of violence on the behalf of the immediate community. But the problem with that argument was lynchings often happened to--in fact, in the majority of instance, the victim of a lynch mob was actually in the hands of the police and had to be taken from the police before the lynch mob could murder the victim, which suggests why not just leave the person in the hands of the police and allow him or her to be prosecuted? And we know that white Southern juries weren't likely to let alleged black criminals off easily, so what was the problem? Well, that gets to precisely to one of the reasons why, again, a federal anti-lynching law was seen as a need, that the police systems of teh South were vulnerable to intimidation if not outright complicity with lynch mobs. So yes, you're absolutely right. The majority of lynching victims were already in the hands of lawful authorities before they were either turned over or seized by lynch mobs.
CONAN: Get another caller in. Mark. Mark's with us from Oklahoma City.
MARK (Caller): Hello there.
MARK: Well, I was born and raised in Oklahoma and got a college education at the University of Oklahoma, and through all of that I never had any part of the history classes I ever had ever mentioned anything about lynching. And I was at Barnes & Noble awhile back and totally by chance stumbled across a book that I wanted to bring up to the professor that's called "Without Sanctuary."
CONAN: This is a photography book of pictures of lynching.
MARK: Mainly, yes, with the stories behind, if available, stories behind the pictures. And it was one of a number of things that was an amazing revelation about the history of my state in addition to the South, in addition to the history of the United States. I also had no exposure to the saga of the Tulsa race riots either until I was out of college.
But I also wanted to bring up--it's hard to pick a particularly barbaric photo and account in the book "Without Sanctuary," but I wondered if the professor heard of this book, number one. I think there was also an exhibit by the same name, and I think it was in Tennessee somewhere.
CONAN: Yeah, I think you're right. Go ahead.
MARK: And the incident I'm thinking about was mentioned in a segment on "Nightline" about lynching, and there's one of them happened in Waco, Texas, in the 20th century, and I was wondering if the professor heard of that particular one. I don't know whether I should...
Prof. BRUNDAGE: I think...
CONAN: Professor Brundage, go ahead.
Prof. BRUNDAGE: I think you're talking about the lynching of Jesse Washington, which happened in Waco, Texas, I believe in 1916, and it is one of the most shocking because it took place in downtown in a city that was undergoing growth and was prospering and was very proud of being part of the modern 20th century American society, and yet here were--you can see the pictures of the extended burning alive of Jesse Washington in front of a huge crowd, which included the town fathers and virtually much of the population of Waco watching it. You're absolutely right. And your point...
MARK: He wasn't just lynched. He was tortured...
Prof. BRUNDAGE: Oh, absolutely.
MARK: ...and there were thousands of people around cheering it on.
Prof. BRUNDAGE: Yes. And you're--to raise the point about the use of the term `lynching,' lynching was--I mentioned before this sort of ritualized execution. In many lynchings, torture was an element of it, and I mean, aside from just the psychological torture of the poor victim not knowing how he or she was going to die or when, there was the more immediate physical torture, and in the case of Jesse Washington, it was just a horrendous process that one is surprised that he hadn't died long before they set him afire. So you're absolutely right about that.
MARK: It wasn't just the South. As I understand it, there's another relatively, comparatively high-profile case of I think a multiple lynching--I believe it was in Indiana.
Prof. BRUNDAGE: You're right. And there was also a multiple lynching--very gruesome multiple lynching, for example, in Wisconsin and one in Minnesota, so it wasn't just in the South, although the numbers, if you sort of break down the number of lynching victims and where they happen in the country, by far the largest number happened in the South. But you're absolutely right. It was a national crime, which speaks in a way to also the federal anti-lynching law. It wasn't just a blot on Southern civilization to have these lynchings happen, but it was happening with almost no national response to it until African-Americans organized and brought the attention of the NAACP and other organizations. So yes, it was a national insult, if you will.
CONAN: Mark, thanks very much for the call.
We're talking with Professor William Fitzhugh Brundage. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And a quick e-mail question from Ellie in Kohl's Department Store. `You've talked about the frequency of racial minorities being lynched. How often were women lynched?'
Prof. BRUNDAGE: Good question. There were at least...
CONAN: And if you could keep it short.
Prof. BRUNDAGE: There were approximately 150 women that were lynched. That's a rough--somewhere between 150 and 200. Often women were lynched alongside with an alleged male partner in crime. But some of the lynchings of women were exceptionally gruesome...
Prof. BRUNDAGE: ...not something I'd like to go over in public...
Prof. BRUNDAGE: ...but they were--women were certainly subject to extreme violence as well.
CONAN: Thank you very much. We appreciate your time today. William...
Prof. BRUNDAGE: Thank you.
CONAN: ...Fitzhugh Brundage is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Of course, the most stinging commentary on lynching ever: "Strange Fruit" by Billie Holiday.
(Soundbite of "Strange Fruit")
Ms. BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) Southern trees bear a strange growth. Blood on the leaves and blood at the roots. Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. Pastoral scene of the gallant South: the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth. Smell of magnolias, sweet and fresh, then the sudden smell of burning flesh. Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck, for the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, for the sun to rot, for the tree to drop. Here is a strange and bitter crop.
CONAN: This is NPR News.
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