Racial Violence in the United States, 1863 to Present

The Lynching Era (1878-1939) - Introduction

With the era of racial reform dead in the water, the lynching era was one mainly of stagnation with regard to racial equality. "Lynchings," the killing of an individual or small group of individuals by a "mob" of people, was the norm in protecting white supremacy as the racial status quo. While the overall number of lynchings dropped each decade from the 1880's to the 1920's, there was still an average of about 30 lynchings a year during the 1920's. The Tuskegee Intitutes figures on lynchings give a grand total of 3,437 blacks and 1,293 whites lynched from 1882-1951 which averages out to over 78 a year for that entire period. Tolnay and Beck's more accurate study identifies almost 2,500 black lynching victims from 1882 to 1930 in just ten southern states which they point out means that on average at least once a week an African-American was murdered "by a hate-driven white mob." One study done of 100 lynchings from 1929 to 1940 found that at least 1/3 of the victims lynched were innocent of the crimes of which they were accused. The same study found that police officers participated in at least half of the lynchings, and were passive bystanders in 90% of the rest of the lynchings.

Spectacle lynchings were a very particular form of ritualistic murder involving almost the entire local white community. To begin with, the lynching was often announced in advance, and news spread throughout the community in advance, including by announcements in newspapers. Visitors from a wide radius could thus come in creating crowds that often reached into the thousands. Special trains were even scheduled to accomodate those who wanted to come from nearby communities to witness the event. Most often the victim was a black male who was hanged for an alleged crime or offense against the existing racial order. Sometimes there would be torture prior to the execution, usually involving the genitalia. After the hanging the body would go through many possibilities of mutilation. Often dozens of men would empty their guns into the corpse. At other times the body would be burned. Finally, the body would be scavenged for souvenirs with people cutting off fingers, ears, clothing, and anything they could get. These souvenirs would be reminders that would sit on display in homes and businesses, letting African-Americans know that the existing system would be defended by any means necessary. Photographs might be taken and postcards made of the occasion. The white community, in general, did not feel shame regarding these events. They had been so whipped up in paranoid fears, and demonized the black community so completely that the only catharsis they could receive came with the cost of the most extreme brutality and violence possible to regain their sense of restoring the racial order back to normal, one of nearly complete domination.

One observer in 1914 analyzed the white caste system in the southern states coming up with this breakdown of its tenets:
1) "Blood will tell."
2) The white race must must dominate.
3) The Teutonic peoples stand for race purity.
4) The negro is inferiorand will remain so.
5) "This is white man's country."
6) No social equality.
7) No political equality.
8) In matters of civil rights and legal adjustments give the white man, as opposed to the colored man, the benefit of the doubt; and under no circumstances interfere with the prestige of the white race.
9) In educational policy let the negro have the crumbs that fall from the white man's table.
10) Let there be such industrial education of the negro as will best fit him to serve the white man.
11) Only Southerners understand the negro question.
12) Let the South settle the negro question.
13) The status of peasantry is all the negro may hope for, if the races are to live together in peace.
14) Let the lowest white man count for more than the highest negro.
15) The above statements indicate the leanings of Providence.
Of course most of these tenets could have been applied at the time to not just the opinions of southerners, and not just regarding their opinions of African-Americans, but also for the large part toward Mexicans, Chinese, and members of Indigenous nations.

Large-scale race riots occurred throughout the period in many major cities though with less frequency in the 1930's. These riots often began as "two-way battles" between whites and blacks, but often ended with bands of marauding whites attacking African-American communities or neighborhoods indiscriminately. The immediate effects ranged from forced migration to extensive burning of property to dozens of deaths. Of course as a long-term effect, along with the lynchings, all of these things created the atmosphere of fear which would serve to keep those looking to improve their status in society fearful of challenging white supremacy.

Racial and ethnic cleansings were also a part of this period. While these events were filled with violence and the threat of violence, they most often did not rise to the level of what we think of as ethnic cleansing in comparison to say Rwanda, except in regard to Native Americans where this utmost strand of violence had been ongoing since the early colonial period. Massacres of Native Americans and the forcing of them to apartheid-style reservations continued unabated. Chinese-Americans in the Pacific Northwest were rounded up and expelled from towns throughout the region under the threat of large armed mobs who committed whatever violence was necessary to insure the desired outcome. The same went for African-Americans in varying parts of the country. Entire counties had their black populations drastically reduced or eliminated, usually through an initial lynching and then with the armed mob going house to house to expel the residents.