The Killing Fields: Lynching in the New South

By Benjamin Schwarz


etween 1882 and 1930, thousands of people, overwhelmingly men, were lynched in the United States. In the West, mobs lynched 447 whites and 38 blacks; in the Midwest there were 181 white victims and 79 black. But these numbers are overshadowed by the figures from the South, where an estimated 2,828 people were lynched. Of the victims whose race was known, the vast majority–2,314–were blacks killed by white lynch mobs, but whites also killed 284 whites and black lynchers killed 155 people, all but seven of whom were black. “Without Sanctuary” is a collection of 98 photographs of lynchings throughout America, culled from the archive of James Allen who, as an antique dealer, came across them in his travels. It is a strange and terrifying book.

Many of these photographs were taken to be sold as souvenir postcards, but people also collected even more grisly keepsakes–fingers, toes and ears–from lynching victims, including sexual organs from those who had been alleged rapists. South Carolina governor Cole Blease received a finger of a lynched black man in the mail and promptly planted it in the gubernatorial garden. In Salisbury, N.C., a little old white lady, brought to see the bodies of several alleged black ax murderers, opened her purse, took out a knife and cut off a finger from one of their hands. Wordlessly, she put the knife and finger in her purse and walked away. Often there were scores, if not hundreds and sometimes thousands of spectators at a lynching. Far from an archaic holdover, Southern lynching was in many ways intertwined with and exacerbated by modern technology. Railroads sometimes ran special excursion trains to the sites; often spectators took photos–and also made sound recordings; the towns and counties in which lynchings took place usually had newspapers, telegraph offices and sometimes even radio stations that broadcast the killings, thereby expanding and intensifying the power of lynching in the white and black Southern psyche.

Lynching had, of course, long existed in the United States (it’s named for Judge Charles Lynch, who punished Tories in Virginia during the Revolution). Until the very late 1880s, it largely involved only whites in the lawless West, but at that point something terrible took possession of the South. That region, which once had accounted for less than 20% of the practice, was suddenly responsible for nearly 90%. Although for two centuries the South had been a racially divided society–and for the two decades since Emancipation the degree of social control imposed by slavery had been relaxed–only in the late 1880s did many whites develop a fear and concomitant hatred of black men that bordered on the genocidal. Seven-hundred and forty-four blacks were lynched by whites during the 1890s, making that decade by far the most brutal era of mob violence in American history. (Throughout this essay, all figures for lynching victims are from Stewart E. Tolnay and E.M. Beck’s 1995 A Festival of Violence: An Anaylsis of Southern Lynchings.) Lynchings fell by more than half in the next decade, and the number of blacks killed by white lynch mobs then began a protracted decline, but for decades the intensity of racial violence remained astonishingly more virulent than it had ever been before the fevered late 1880s and ’90s.

These figures and the images in “Without Sanctuary” provoke the general reader to attempt to fathom the society that produced them, and for the last 20 years historians and sociologists have offered various explanations for the ferocity that took hold of the region, elucidating and debating a complex set of factors ranging from changes in crime rates to population movements, to the fluidity and mercurial nature of white and black racial attitudes, to attitudes toward sexuality and gender, to the social relations that grew out of different forms of agriculture.

Given the care that the publishers have devoted to the selection of photographs and the production of this volume–“Without Sanctuary” is among the most beautifully made books I’ve come across–it’s a shame that the accompanying essays by historian Leon Litwack and New Yorker writer Hilton Als fail to illuminate this enormously complicated and unsettling subject. Als’ short piece–in which he complains of the “metaphorical lynching” he has experienced when his white editors and white fellow guests at parties “watch” him–is self-aggrandizing and trivializes the subject. Litwack’s essay, derived from his recent book, “Trouble in Mind,” is understandably indignant, but by simplistically explaining lynching as a natural product of white “racism,” he generates more heat than light. One factor this explanation ignores is the 20% of Southern lynching victims who were killed by mobs of their own color. Of course, these incidents do not mean, as some irresponsible historians have claimed, that lynching “was only in small part an act of racism.”

The truth probably lies close to historical sociologists Tolnay and Beck’s admittedly equivocal conclusion that “the black and white communities alike endorsed mob violence as an acceptable method of social control” and that lynching’s motivation within both communities “was the same . . . but only to a degree”: Racist attitudes undeniably played a central role in Southern lynchings, but they weren’t in themselves a sufficient cause. After all, whites throughout the South were “racist,” yet lynchings were far more likely to occur in some areas of the region than in others and not necessarily in the most racist places. White South Carolinians under race-baiting Governors Blease and Ben Tillman were given every permission to hate, but their state fell far below the regional average in the number of blacks lynched. And, although racism surely existed in the South of the 1860s, ’70s and ’80s, lynching didn’t sweep through the region then. If, as Litwack argues, lynching was merely a device to assert “white supremacy,” why did white supremacists wait more than a decade after the end of Reconstruction to start their sanguinary campaign? What, in short, accounts for lynching’s strange career?

Rlthough terribly distorted by white males’ economic frustration, racist stereotypes and psychological tensions about gender and sexuality, the racial ferocity of the 1890s and the concomitant rise of lynching were in fact triggered by concrete developments: the dramatic increase in the number of black male vagrants throughout the South in the late 1880s when, owing to the deepening agricultural depression and the penetration of the market economy into the countryside, young black men were forced to leave home in search of work. These “floaters” filled the South’s countryside, especially those “frontier” areas newly opened to agriculture, such as the cotton uplands of Arkansas and Mississippi and the lumber camps in the piney woods of Alabama and the Florida panhandle. There, loosened from the traditional controls of the black family and community, many led a roaming, reckless and often violent existence. Others drifted to Atlanta, Memphis and Birmingham where, finding their labor economically expendable in the increasingly industrial and commercial New South, “the street-corner, counter-value, male-worshiping society that became so very evident in black life in the nation later actually emerged . . . in the turn-of-the-century decades,” as historian Joel Williamson writes.

The results were unmistakable: a sudden rise in black criminality in the South of the 1880s and early 1890s and, as W.E.B. Du Bois argued at the time (quoting with approval the northern white reformer and one-time radical abolitionist Frank B. Sanborn), the emergence of “‘a class of black criminals who are a menace to both black and white . . . instead of petty stealing and vagrancy, we . . . have highway robbery, burglary, murder and rape.'” More perniciously, as Du Bois and other black observers–as well as honest whites–noted, because of the persistent injustice of the Southern courts and the notorious convict lease system (which victimized poor whites as well as blacks), when what Du Bois called “the real Negro criminal” emerged, he was made a hero and martyr by large numbers of blacks and thus “the greatest deterrent to crime, the public opinion of one’s own social caste, was lost.” Whites and blacks, estranged by white racism, became self-consciously opposed over the very definition of crime: As one white Georgia prison official lamented, whites’ injustice had created a setting in which too many blacks were unable or “unwilling to discover the clear distinction between unwarranted persecution and the just enforcement of the just penalties.” And with startling frequency, whites and blacks recognized that a new generation of black men, chafing under their many injustices, committed crimes against whites, as one white Southerner observed, “in the spirit of getting even.” Du Bois darkly noted that “to natural viciousness and vagrancy are being daily added motives of revolt and revenge that stir up the latent savagery of both races.”

As revolt and revenge lapsed all too easily into nihilistic rage, what blacks called the “bad nigger”–a sociopath who killed blacks and the weak as easily and unhesitatingly as whites and the strong–became, as historian Edward Ayers writes, “a stock figure in the region’s imagination as well as its reality.” Quite suddenly in the late 19th century, a new hero emerged in black lore: a hard merciless man who killed, as historian and folklorist Lawrence Levine notes, “from sadistic need and sheer joy,” a hero not in spite of the fear and horror he inspired but in some ways because of them. Thus, ironically, tragically, the white South’s prejudice and oppression had helped create a monster on which whites then unleashed their outraged fury, becoming even more monstrous themselves. “When . . . [black] crimes increased. . ,” Du Bois wrote, “the wrath of a people [whites] broke all bounds and reached strange depths of barbaric vengeance and torture.”

Most lynchings took place precisely in those areas in the South where many of these wandering black males ended up. The Gulf plain and cotton uplands had by far the highest rate of lynchings, and these areas combined extremely low rural population densities with by far the highest rates of black transiency in the South. Whereas in the Piedmont and low country, blacks were likely to know whites as neighbors and shared ties with them going back several generations, in these other areas most blacks and whites were strangers to one another, and “floaters,” both black and white, kindled fear and hostility. The question of the relationship between lynching and transiency has been studied only using a limited sample, but that study found that all of the black lynching victims whose length of residence could be determined were newcomers. In regions with scattered farms, few towns and weak law enforcement, murders had always been frequent and murderers rarely punished. This setting fueled the insecurity and suspicion that fed lynching and also lacked the few checks that served to dissuade would-be lynchers elsewhere.

Rhe relationship between black criminality and lynching in the South has been both exaggerated and avoided. Until well into the 20th century, far too many Southern whites excused the barbaric and criminal lynching of black men with the specious argument that public execution was the best deterrent against black crime–especially rape. Largely in reaction to this indefensible position, many modern historians have chosen to ignore the rise of black crime in the South altogether, even though it can help us understand how the very racism they justifiably excoriate played itself out. Denying black criminality betrays a curiously rosy view of the effects of oppression (and it is therefore ironic that often historians who conspicuously champion social justice do so). A more clear-eyed assessment of the consequences of oppression comes from a runaway slave who wrote that it “makes its victims lying and mean; for which vices it reproaches them, and uses them to argue that they deserve no better fate.” Historians’ disregard of black criminality also neglects the awful truth that, as Williamson makes clear, for all the Southern blacks killed by whites in lynchings and riots and broken in the convict camps in the swamps and forests, “most blacks died by black hands.” (That many frustrated and dispirited black men were violent is hardly surprising; they were, after all, conforming to prominent features of Southern culture as a whole: The South was a notoriously violent place where murder rates among whites, as well as blacks, were by far the highest in the country and among the highest in the world.)

Out of an understandable, if misguided, concern that to grapple with the issue of black crime could be construed as condoning lynching, historians have ignored for too long the indisputable fact that, as Monroe Work, the black sociologist and associate of Du Bois, concluded in 1913: “the number of lynchings reached its highest point about the same period that Negro crime reached its highest point.” Of course, correlation isn’t the same as causation. Also, it must be said that an indeterminate sizeable number of lynching victims did not commit the crimes of which they were accused and, by definition, none was found guilty by properly constituted authorities (whose ability to carry out justice was suspect at best). Still, Litwack, for instance, is evasive on the relationship between black crime and lynching. He asserts that “many of the offenses [allegedly] committed by blacks would have been regarded as relatively trivial if committed by whites.” This is true as far as it goes–and indisputably Southern black men could be lynched for any offense, or no offense. Nevertheless, more than two-thirds of black lynching victims were accused of the capital crimes of murder and rape (in the 1880s and ’90s when the lynching fever took hold, 73% of black victims were accused of those crimes). Significantly, in cases in which blacks lynched blacks and whites lynched whites, lynching victims were also accused of rape and murder about twice as often as of lesser offenses.

Moreover, Litwack asserts that Southern whites’ fear of black men raping white women “was only a rationalization” for lynching. But as Ayers observes, late 19th and early 20th century white Southern newspapers and diaries are “filled with sincere fear and anger, not with fabricated excuses to buttress the status quo.” White supremacy may explain how the widespread lynching of black men could take place, but it doesn’t explain why it did. Given the ferocity of the lynching epidemic, many have looked to psycho-sexual explanations, in which black men represented for white men a sexual liberation that they wanted for themselves but couldn’t achieve without violating their professed morality. Tortured by their frustration, white men projected their own forbidden fantasies on black men and symbolically eradicated those desires by lynching those men. There’s much truth in such an interpretation, but ascribing the relationship between rape and lynching simply and exclusively to warped white psychology overlooks the specific crimes which precipitated lynchings. Again, many rapes were undoubtedly fabricated, were perceived assaults where none existed, or were no more sinister than a sexual advance, but in many cases there was ample evidence of assault, and women made direct and explicit accusations.

Lynching should be unequivocally condemned, but at the same time the assumption that, as some have argued, nearly all white women who made accusations of rape were hysterical, sexually frustrated or lying doesn’t, and shouldn’t, sit well with modern readers. Moreover, psychological interpretations fail to account for regional variations in lynching or its ebb and flow over time. Whites called the rape of white women by black men–the crime that fueled the white South’s lynching frenzy–the “new crime.” Whereas Southern whites had long feared that blacks would rise in a massive insurrection, they did not fear that they would rise individually and sporadically to rape white women. It was only in the late 1880s that this crime and its punishment commanded a new and tremendously magnified attention. White sexual psychology unquestionably played a large role in the lynching frenzy, but there is every reason to assume that, with the dramatic rise in violent black crime (including the number of black men legally convicted of raping black and white women) and the sudden emergence of what Du Bois called “the new Negro criminal,” the “new crime” was–at least in part–a reality. As DuBois summed up his position in his sociological report, “Notes on Negro Crime, Particularly in Georgia” (1904): “…making allowance for all exaggeration in attributing this crime [the rape of white women] to negroes, there still remain enough well-authenticated cases of brutal assault by black men in America to make every negro bow his head in shame…This crime must at all hazards stop. Lynching is awful, and injustice and caste are hard to bear; but if they are to be successfully attacked they must cease to have even this terrible justification.”

It’s clear from their diaries that many white Southern men did not think it farfetched that furious black men would attack the most vulnerable among the most privileged race, and there is reason to assume that this motive partly fueled the “new crime.” After all, writing of assaults on white women in 1892, Frederick Douglass warned: “When men sow the wind, they reap the whirlwind” (and, of course, in a later period such black writers as Eldridge Cleaver, LeRoi Jones and Frantz Fanon asserted, notoriously, that the rape of a white woman was an act of racial retribution). Given late 19th and early 20th century Southern men’s self-definition as the protectors of women, dispensers of justice and guardians of communal values, the “new crime” instigated a virulent response that transformed every black man into potential quarry. As a perceptive white Southerner wrote of rape: “It is with this crime that lynching begins; here and here only could the furious mob spirit break through the resisting wall of law and order. Once through, it does not stop. But it is only because lynching for rape is excused that lynching for any other crime is ever attempted.” That savage spirit which “broke through” in the late 1880s wasn’t subdued until the 1940s.

Lynching and the circumstances from which it arose poisoned the South. Generations of white rural women were taught literally never to be alone. Observers blamed the apparent menace of black rapists for a host of social ills, including the despondency of isolated farm women, the movement of white families off the land and the ill-education of white children, whose parents kept them at home rather than expose them to possible risk while traveling to and from school on lonely country byways. Far more terribly, every black man knew that–because of mistaken identity or for the most trivial reason or for no reason at all–at any time he could be killed. As Richard Wright wrote, “the white brutality I had not seen was a far more effective control of my behavior than that which I knew.”

No one has better understood the anguish at the heart of race relations in the South than Du Bois. With enormous charity he understood that “deeply religious and intensely democratic as are the mass of the whites, they feel acutely the false position in which the Negro problems place them. Such an essentially honest-hearted and generous people cannot cite the caste-leveling precepts of Christianity or believe in equality of opportunity for all men, without coming to feel more and more with each generation that the present drawing of the color-line is a flat contradiction to their beliefs and professions.” Then, however, Du Bois acknowledged, these whites were confronted with that “criminal class” which “stands as a menace and a portent before even the most open-minded,” causing them to redraw the color line firmly. But Du Bois recognized that although this reaction might appear reasonable, it would, in fact, perpetrate a horrific crime by defining black Southerners as criminals “simply because they are Negros.” Du Bois’ warning remains as resonant today as when he wrote it a century ago: “Draw lines of crime . . . as tightly and uncompromisingly as you will, for these things must be proscribed; but a color line not only does not accomplish this purpose, but thwarts it.”

Rt would be cheaply comforting to look at the photographs of lynched black and white men and women–from Arkansas to Minnesota, from Mississippi to California–in “Without Sanctuary” and shake one’s head only at racist white Southerners. “Racism” is a reassuring explanation because we’re now taught that it can easily be exorcised by that anodyne notion of “tolerance.” There’s a danger in over-explaining lynching, for as G.L. Godkin of The Nation wrote in 1893, “man is the one animal that is capable of getting enjoyment out of the torture and death of members of its own species. We venture to assert that seven-eighths of every lynching party is composed of pure, sporting mob, which goes . . . just as it goes to a cockfight or prize-fight, for the gratification of the lowest and most degraded instincts of humanity.” (And anyone who believes this behavior is peculiar to a racist America should examine the lynchings in, to name a few societies, ancient Greece and Republican Rome, and traditional Germany, Corsica, China, Nigeria and East Africa.)

Looking at the photographs of the broken, burned and mutilated victims in “Without Sanctuary”–some of whom, themselves, undoubtedly committed atrocious crimes–the terrible truth, the only “explanation” of lynching, is that given half a chance, too many men will act brutally.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s