In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the lynching of Black people in the Southern and border states became an institutionalized method used by whites to terrorize Blacks and maintain white supremacy. In the South, during the period 1880 to 1940, there was deep-seated and all-pervading hatred and fear of the Negro which led white mobs to turn to �lynch law� as a means of social control. Lynchings�open public murders of individuals suspected of crime conceived and carried out more or less spontaneously by a mob�seem to have been an American invention. In Lynch-Law, the first scholarly investigation of lynching, written in 1905, author James E. Cutler stated that “lynching is a criminal practice which is peculiar to the United States.”1

Most of the lynchings were by hanging or shooting, or both. However, many were of a more hideous nature�burning at the stake, maiming, dismemberment, castration, and other brutal methods of physical torture. Lynching therefore was a cruel combination of racism and sadism, which was utilized primarily to sustain the caste system in the South. Many white people believed that Negroes could only be controlled by fear. To them, lynching was seen as the most effective means of control.

There are three major sources of lynching statistics. None cover the complete history of lynching in America. Prior to 1882, no reliable statistics of lynchings were recorded. In that year, the Chicago Tribune first began to take systematic account of lynchings. Shortly thereafter, in 1892, Tuskegee Institute began to make a systematic collection and tabulation of lynching statistics. Beginning in 1912, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People kept an independent record of lynchings.

These statistics were based primarily on newspaper reports. Because the South is so large and the rural districts had not always been in close contact with the city newspapers, it is certain that many lynchings escaped publicity in the press. Undoubtedly, therefore, there are errors and inaccuracies in the available lynching statistics.

The numbers of lynchings listed in each source varies slightly. The NAACP lynching statistics tend to be slightly higher than the Tuskegee Institute figures, which some historians consider “conservative.” For example, in 1914, Tuskegee Institute reported fifty-two lynchings for the year, the Chicago Tribune reported fifty-four, and The Crisis, the official organ of the NAACP,gave the number as seventy-four.2 The reason for the discrepancies in these figures is due in part to different conceptions of what actually constituted a lynching, and errors in the figures. According to the Tuskegee Institute figures, between the years 1882 and 1951, 4,730 people were lynched in the United States: 3,437 Negro and 1,293 white.3 The largest number of lynchings occurred in 1892. Of the 230 persons lynched that year, 161 were Negroes and sixty-nine whites.

Contrary to present-day popular conception, lynching was not a crime committed exclusively against Black people. During the nineteenth century a significant minority of the lynching victims were white. Between the 1830s and the 1850s the majority of those lynched in the United States were whites. Although a substantial number of white people were victims of this crime, the vast majority of those lynched, by the 1890s and after the turn of the century, were Black people. Actually, the pattern of almost exclusive lynching of Negroes was set during the Reconstruction period. According to the Tuskegee Institute statistics for the period covered in this study, the total number of Black lynching victims was more than two and one-half times as many as the number of whites put to death by lynching.

Lynchings occurred throughout the United States; it was not a sectional crime. However, the great majority of lynchings in the United States took place in the Southern and border states. According to social economist Gunnar Myrdal: �The Southern states account for nine-tenths of the lynchings. More than two-thirds of the remaining one-tenth occurred in the six states which immediately border the South: Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Kansas.�4 Mississippi, Georgia, Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama were the leading lynching states. These five states furnished nearly half the total victims. Mississippi had the highest incidence of lynchings in the South as well as the highest for the nation, with Georgia and Texas taking second and third places, respectively. However, there were lynchings in the North and West. In fact, every state in the continental United States with the exception of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Vermont has had lynching casualties.

The causes assigned by whites in justification or explanation of lynching Black people include everything from major crimes to minor offenses. In many cases, Blacks were lynched for no reason at all other than race prejudice. Southern folk tradition has held that Negroes were lynched only for the crimes of raping white women–the nameless crime–and murder. However, the statistics do not sustain this impression.

Read more at Yale Univ’s website: http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1979/2/79.02.04.x.html


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