Lynching: An American Tragedy That Won’t Go Away

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Last February, the Equal Justice Initiative produced a report detailing almost 4,000 lynchings of blacks in 12 southern states between 1877 and 1950, and spurring the Initiative’s current effort to place memorial markers at those lynching sites.

Amy Kate Baily of the University of Illinois and Stewart E. Tolnay of the University of Washington have followed up that report with a book, Lynched: The Victims of Southern Mob Violence, which aims to tell the stories of 1,000 lynching victims during almost a half-century, starting in 1882. The authors hope that putting a human face on a tragedy about which many Americans remain unaware will contribute to greater understanding of the racial tensions that persist today. And it comes amid renewed calls for reparation payments to the descendants of American slaves.

The authors spoke to The Crime Report Contributing Editor Katti Gray about law enforcement’s role in the lynchings, about how some of the heartbreaking tragedies included torture and mutilation, and whether it is still possible to seek legal retribution for the crimes.

The Crime Report: What do you hope this book will convey to readers?

Amy Bailey: What gets overlooked by individuals who are trying to understand these issues, and by much of the news media, is that what we’re observing today, in terms of racial violence, is a continuation of what has happened in our society historically. The book helps people understand that aspect of our history and how current events fit into a larger pattern of racial violence and racial inequality. (We) aim to identify who is most at risk for victimization … If the logic continues today—that people who are marginalized are the folks who are at greatest risk—that fact can inform contemporary public policy. In addition, the victims we tried to spotlight in our book deserve to be known and named and humanized.

Stewart Tolnay: I had been doing research for two decades on lynching. It was always a sore spot that all we knew was the information in the inventories: Name, race, sex, when they were lynched (and) where, and the purported reason for the lynching. We could only trace the pattern of the intensity of lynching over time. We decided to dig much deeper than that.

TCR: How difficult was it find more detailed information?

Bailey: We lost many, many (Census) records in a federal building fire in the 1920s. But of the 2,805 victims we were able to locate between 1882 and 1930, we found detailed biographies of between 45 percent and 50 percent of them. That’s not a bad audit. Nevertheless, we also had to contend with the fact that prime, working-age African Americans still tended to be uncounted in the Census. The 1,000 individuals we were able to identify, by far, were definitely not all the people who were lynched … There has been a gross underestimation of the level of lynching violence.

Tolnay: We relied on some archives from places like the Tuskegee Institute, the NAACP, the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching. As far as reporting in southern newspapers went, this was a big gray area.

Also, we had a precise definition of what constituted a lynching: A death had to have occurred. It was illegal, committed by at least three people and done in the name of racial division and racial pride.

TCR: How do you describe the sight and sound of these killings?

Bailey: There was a wide variation. Some of the incidents were small affairs with five or six perpetuating the murder; some included thousands of people as witnesses. Some of them were grotesque in their level of torture, but that was a small group. Some had mutilation of the person’s body post-mortem. Certainly a lot of these people hung (but) that was not the only way that they were killed.

TCR: What was law enforcement official’s role in preventing—or allowing—lynchings?

Tolnay: In some places law enforcement did nothing to prevent these crimes. But in some cases they did. That’s a fact we didn’t know previously. If law enforcement hadn’t intervened, the number of lynching would have been as much as 50 percent higher than they actually were.

TCR: What were the profiles of those who were lynched?

Bailey: We have a few instances where entire families were killed, including children. There were two brothers who were 11 and 13 when they were killed. At the upper end, we have located men in their 70s who were lynched. The bulk of the lynching victims were in the late teens to early 30s, which replicates the age distribution of victims of violent crime today … Clearly, African-American and mixed-race men were the largest group of victims. But in parts of the West, Native Americans and Asian Americans were targeted. So were [poor] and marginalized white men, new immigrants, Jewish men.

We’ve got a website, where we’re distributing all the case files and the archival data that we were able to locate, Census records, draft registration cards, birth certificates … (employment records, education attained).

Tolnay: You’re able to go online and search and see. We’ve already heard from one reader about a story of a family member who had been lynched.

TCR: At this juncture, is it too late for prosecution of any of these cases?

Tolnay: That’s a great question. The most recent lynching we include in our book was in the 1930s. Right now, there’s one case we know of where a prosecution of the perpetrators is being sought. [Editors Note: Two husband-wife couples were lynched in 1946 near Moore’s Ford Bridge in Georgia. Laura Wexler’s book, Fire in a Cane Break: The Last Mass Lynching in America, is about those lynchings. The murders were profiled on Democracy Now in February 2015.] But I imagine that it would be very hard to resolve most of these cases.

TCR: What lessons, perhaps, do these historical data on lynching teach?

Bailey: One of the lessons is that the role of law enforcement is critical. Those who did their jobs to prevent lynchings were quite effective in trying to protect all the people in their communities. Today, we have clearly some well-publicized incidents where we’ve had to question whether law enforcement did its job correctly.

Tolnay: One of the roles of law enforcement is to protect the vulnerable—whether based on their race, sexual orientation, class, gender … We still do not have a fair society, with the right balance of power. Those who don’t have power and influence need help in leveling the playing field. Law enforcement can be key to that.

Katti Gray is a contributing editor of The Crime Report and a 2014-15 Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow. She welcomes your comments.

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