New Report Examines Lynchings And Their Legacy In The United States

Feb 10, 2015
Originally published on February 11, 2015 9:52 am

Nearly 4,000 blacks were lynched in the American South between the end of the Civil War and World War II, according to a new report by the Equal Justice Initiative.

The report, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, says that the number of victims in the 12 Southern states was more than 20 percent higher than previously reported.

Lynchings were part of a system of racial terror designed to subjugate a people, says the Alabama-based nonprofit's executive director, Bryan Stevenson.


Interview Highlights

On the difference between white and black lynchings

We're focusing on lynchings of African-Americans because when whites were lynched it was really more about punishment — it wasn't sent to terrorize the white community, it was intended to actually make the white community feel safe.

The lynching of African-Americans, on the other hand, was really a direct message to the entire African-American community — it was designed to traumatize and terrorize.

On state-sanctioned lynchings

In most of the places where these lynchings took place — in fact in all of them — there was a functioning criminal justice system that was deemed "too good" for African-Americans. You had lynching of whites and others in the far West and in the early parts of the 19th century that would be called "frontier justice"; you didn't have functioning justice system and so people took things in their hands.

Here, we had very well established courts of laws, we had very well established criminal justice systems. Often these men were pulled from jails and pulled out of courthouses, where they could be lynched literally on the courthouse lawn.

On the reason behind the lynchings

My thesis is essentially that slavery — the evil of slavery wasn't involuntary servitude. It was this narrative of racial difference, this ideology of white supremacy. And so when reconstruction collapsed, to restore the racial hierarchy you had to use force and violence and intimidation. And in the South that manifested itself with these lynchings.

On the legacy of lynchings

It also resulted in millions of African-Americans fleeing the South, and the geography of black people in America today is largely shaped by the institution of lynching. We have African-Americans in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York, Oakland, because millions of people fled the South not as immigrants looking for opportunities but as refugees from terror.

On how to remember the lynchings

There's nothing marked in Montgomery [Ala.], or in most communities in the South, to this history of lynching, and we want to change that. ... We want to erect markers and monuments at lynching sites all over this country. Because I think until we deal with this history, we talk about what it represents, we're going to continue to be haunted by this legacy of terrorism and violence that will manifest itself in ways that are problematic.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Between the end of the Civil War and World War II, nearly 4,000 blacks were lynched in the American South. It was a system of racial terror designed to subjugate a people. Those are the conclusions of a new report called "Lynching In America." It's from an Montgomery, Ala. based nonprofit called the Equal Justice Initiative, whose founder and executive director, Bryan Stevenson, joins us now. Welcome to the program.

BRYAN STEVENSON: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And first, a definition - when you report there were actually 3,959 lynchings in 12 Southern states, what counts as a lynching?

STEVENSON: Well, we're focusing on lynchings of African-Americans because when whites were lynched, it was really more about punishment. It wasn't sent to terrorize the white community. It was intended to actually make the white community feel safe. The lynching of African-Americans, on the other hand, was really a direct message to the entire African-American community. It was designed to traumatize and terrorize.

So we have requirements. It's got to be something that involved three or more people involved in the act of murder. It had to be something done by people who had no or very little fear of reprisal or being held accountable. It had to be in response to some perceived misconduct - not always a crime - and then we had to confirm that the victims were, in fact, killed.

SIEGEL: The notion of terrorizing black people is central to your view of the subject here. You do not see the lynching of a black man in the South as a case of a mob imposing rough justice because people are impatient with the courts. You're saying the point was to demonstrate something to the black community at large.

STEVENSON: That's correct. I mean, in most of the places where these lynchings took place - in fact, in all of them there was a functioning criminal justice system that was deemed too good for African-Americans. You had lynchings of whites and others in the far West, and at the early parts of the 19th century that would be called frontier justice. You didn't have a functioning justice system, and so people took things in their hands. Here we had very well-established courts of law. We had very well-established criminal justice systems. Often these men were pulled from jails and pulled out of courthouses where they could be lynched, literally, on the courthouse lawn.

SIEGEL: Your report is about lynchings in the American South. As you say, there were lynchings also out West and in other parts of the country. You include a photo of a public whipping in Wilmington, Del. Are you focusing on the South just to tighten that link between lynching and maintaining Jim Crow laws, or was the phenomenon just that much greater in the South?

STEVENSON: Well, it's both. I think that the South was recovering from enslavement and slavery. And my thesis is essentially that slavery - the evil of slavery wasn't involuntary servitude. It was this narrative of racial difference - this ideology white supremacy. And so when reconstruction collapsed, to restore the racial hierarchy, you had to use force and violence and intimidation. And in the South, that manifested itself with these lynchings.

And it did have effects outside of the South. Obviously, the federal government tolerated this violence for decades. But it also resulted in millions of African-Americans fleeing the South. And the geography of black people in America today is largely shaped by the institution of lynching. We have African-Americans in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York, Oakland because millions of people fled the South not as immigrants looking for opportunities, but as refugees from terror.

SIEGEL: Well, you are based in Montgomery, Ala., a city with a lot of history about both secession and the civil rights movement and much else. Is there some place that people know - is - a lynching ground or a hanging tree or a...

STEVENSON: There's nothing marked in Montgomery or in most communities in the South to this history of lynching, and we want to change that. Our project is moving out and working with communities. We want to erect markers and monuments at lynching sites all over this country because I think until we deal with this history and we talk about what it represents, we're going to continue to be haunted by this legacy of terrorism and violence that will manifest itself in ways that are problematic.

SIEGEL: Bryan Stevenson, thank you very much for talking with us.

STEVENSON: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: Mr. Stevenson is executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. The group's new report is called "Lynching In America: Confronting The Legacy Of Racial Terror." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.