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The Logic of Lynching

Billie Holiday performing Strange Fruit

The history of lynching is a lesson in harsh punishment. After the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, which abolished slavery...soon came the “lynching era” which spanned over five decades and has continued on currently. In the South, an estimated 2-3 Black people were lynched each week in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Mississippi alone, 500 Black people were lynched from the 1800s to 1955.

Rise in Black Prominence

The practice of lynching had existed since before slavery, it gained momentum during Reconstruction, that followed the Civil War. Predominantly Black towns sprang up across the South and began to make political and economic progress by registering to vote, establishing businesses and running for public offices.

In response to rising Black economies, threatened white business owners fabricated reasons to justify why a Black person were to be lynched. Rape was often cited as a reason to justify lynching. White mobs often accused Black men of raping white women and then proceeded to torture, hang, castrate, burn, and dismember the accused. In fact, most victims of lynching were political activists, labor organizers or black men and women who violated white expectations of black deference.

One Woman's Crusade

Ida B. Wells began writing articles about race in black newspapers, and bought a share of her own, the Memphis Free Speech, in 1889. After the lynching of one of her friends, launched a fierce anti-lynching campaign in the 1890s. Her investigation into the killing of her friends and the countless lynchings of Black people in the South provided evidence that, the lynching of successful Black people was a means of subordinating potential Black economic competitors.

Wells also argued that consensual sex between black men and white women, while forbidden, was widespread. Lynching was a means of imposing order on white women's sexuality. Wells wrote two pamphlets, entitled A Red Record: Lynchings in the United States and Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. In those works, she catalogued 241 lynchings to publicize the horrors that were being done to Black people and began writing and lecturing about it across the county.

Publicized Murder

Lynchings were seen as a form of entertainment and advertised in newspapers and drew large crowds that traveled to witness the horror. This type of display functioned to reassert white supremacy through white mob violence. Lynching was community sanctioned. Lynchings were frequently publicized well in advance, and people dressed up and traveled long distances for the occasion. The January 26, 1921, issue of the Memphis Press contained the headline: "May Lynch 3 to 6 Negroes This Evening.”

This carnival atmosphere attracted white spectators from far and wide. Railroads ran special trains to allow spectators to gleefully ride their way south to witness the death of a Black person. Tickets were sold, vendors sold food, people cheered and children could be seen eating treats while sitting in their Sunday best.

Rope "souvenir" which was used by Salisbury, Md., mob to hang Matthew Williams, 23-year-old citizen. It is soaked with oil which was poured on his body before the blood-thirsty shoreman burned the body beyond recognition. Thousands of white ["white" has been added and then partially erased] women and children carried these souvenirs home to keep.

Handwritten note and rope used to lynch Matthew Williams, December 1931.

Grisly Souvenirs

Photos of victims, with exultant white observers posed next to them, were taken for on postcards. Body parts, including genitalia, were sometimes distributed to spectators or put on public a hunting trophy. Black bodies were seen as a commodity and dehumanized for the entertainment of the white masses.

Have Times Really Changed?

Police use lethal force to kill Black people at a rate of 32% with a fatality rate 2. times higher among blacks than whites.

Most victims were reported to be armed (83%); however, Black victims were more likely to be unarmed (14.8%) than white (9.4%) or Hispanic (5.8%) victims.

It is clear, the racial terror of lynching still exists today when 28% of those killed by police brutality in 2020 were Black people. Sure the postcards of lynchings are in the past, but they have now been replaced with digital murder photography and videos. The racial terror of lynching still exist today, though they have shifted in shape. This dehumanization of Black bodies seems to be an all true trend that needs to be stopped.

Learn more about what you can do here


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