The true history of a resurgent symbol of hate

A crowd gathered to watch a lynching in Minneapolis in the late 19th century. A crowd gathered to watch a lynching in Minneapolis in the late 19th century. (Corbis)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Philip Dray
December 2, 2007

THIS PAST OCTOBER, a black MBTA worker discovered a noose in the cab of his train. That same month, a white MBTA employee wore a noose to work as a part of his Halloween costume.

The two incidents are part of a resurgence of the noose around the country. Last December, six black high school students in Jena, La., were arrested for beating a white schoolmate after a series of racial disturbances that included the hanging of nooses from a tree at the school. One of the Jena Six, Mychal Bell, was charged with attempted murder. The severity of the charge and the hanging of the nooses prompted a protest of an estimated 20,000 people in Jena on Sept. 20, likely the largest civil rights rally in the South since the 1960s.

Since the Jena story spread, nooses have turned up not only in the Boston subway. One was left on the office doorknob of a black woman professor at New York's prestigious Columbia University Teachers College; another appeared at a Home Depot construction site in suburban Chicago; and the University of Maryland reported one being left outside the office of a black student newspaper. A black doll with a noose around its neck surfaced at a Verizon Wireless Service Center in Pennsylvania, while in Queens, N.Y., a woman was arrested after hanging a noose from a tree in her yard and threatening to lynch her black neighbor's kids from it.

These events have all earned public condemnation. Verizon and Home Depot spokesmen vowed to investigate and discipline any perpetrators, and the MBTA employee who wore a noose to work was suspended for five days without pay. MBTA brass and Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino denounced the MBTA incidents.

But while the strong words of disapproval indicate a broad intellectual recognition that the noose, a symbol of lynching, is offensive, few Americans know the full story. The lynching of black America was not an occasional or aberrational event, the momentary outburst of an angry mob, but a sustained reign of terror visited on an entire people. It targeted blacks whose actions challenged white supremacy and killed them ritualistically, often publicly, in order to terrorize the black community at large. The threat of lynching - symbolized by the noose or the burning cross - was used to uproot black communities, suppress voting, and to intimidate blacks from acquiring land, aspiring to an education, or attaining success in business. The practice poisoned American society for generations, and left a powerful emotional legacy that many African-American families carry to this day.

"The overwhelming majority of people have never seen the glaring pictures of black people hanging in the South," notes Boston-based Nation of Islam Minister Don Muhammad. "That's a terrible thing for us who knew about these things, for a parent or a family member who actually experienced these things in their own lives."

In the 1890s, a black person was lynched almost every other day in America. Sometimes these killings were carried out furtively, in the darkness of a lonely crossroads. But at times they unfolded in elaborate picnic-like events attended by as many as 2,000 people, special excursion trains having brought eager spectators from Atlanta, New Orleans, Jacksonville, or other cities. Spectacle lynchings often surpassed religious revivals as the largest public events held in the post-Civil War South. A most gruesome entertainment, they often involved castration and were ritualized by techniques of torture and showmanship known as "lynchcraft," culminating in the hanging, shooting, or immolation of the day's victim. Once dead, the victim's body, his clothes, and even the tree or chains used in the execution were seized as souvenirs.

Most lynchings took place in the South, but they also occurred as late as the 1920s in seemingly "unlikely" places such as Duluth, Minn., and rural Pennsylvania and Indiana. While sexual assault or a related transgression was often cited as the crime necessitating a lynching, anti-lynching crusaders such as journalist Ida B. Wells and the NAACP discovered that lynchings actually grew from a wide variety of provocations - consensual interracial romances, competition over business or property, arguments over wages, and infractions such as not giving the right of way in a carriage, stealing hogs, and "acting the Big Man and Fool generally."

Lynching is not a footnote to American history, but integral to the text.


his terrible practice began under a flogging tree owned by Charles Lynch, a Revolutionary War-era magistrate in Virginia known to deal local Tories a harsh, personalized brand of justice, or "Lynch Law." For many years the term referred to nonlethal punishments such as caning or tar and feathering, but it took on its more deadly connotation in the years before the Civil War, when the South grew restive about encroaching abolitionist sentiment.

The recorded history of lynching begins in the 1880s, when newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune noted a sudden increase in the number of African-Americans being lynched in the former Confederate states. Inspired by the South's cherished tradition of extralegal "chastisements" such as duels and fistfights, as well as the custom of white "slave police," known as patrollers, most white men simply felt entitled to police and punish any black man; no courtroom was required. Lynching also served to reaffirm white supremacy in a region made anxious by a declining farm economy, young white women leaving home to enter the workforce, and a burgeoning former slave population seeking broader freedoms.

The noose as a sign of intimidation may have first appeared in voter suppression efforts during Reconstruction, the years 1865 to 1877 when Congress mandated and worked to uphold black voting and political participation in the "reconstructed" Southern states. To white "redeemers," intent on restoring "home rule," or white control, squeezing the black vote out of existence was a priority. A number of white vigilante groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, Mississippi's White Liners, Louisiana's White League, and South Carolina's Red Shirts, rode en masse to terrorize black voters, disrupted Republican political rallies, visited isolated black settlements after dark, and fired off cannons near polling places. A noose tied to a white horseman's saddle was a warning no black misunderstood.

One of lynching's most chilling aspects was that it was meant, officially at least, not to exist. It aimed to obviate history, to deny memory, pointedly leaving no court transcripts, no lawyer's arguments, no judge's rulings, and no record of whether the accused confronted his accuser or tried to refute the charges against him. County coroners who rode out to retrieve what remained of lynch victims frequently ended their reports with the convenient finding, "Death at the hands of persons unknown." Reliable sources, such as Alabama's Tuskegee Institute, estimate that nearly 4,000 African-Americans were lynched between the 1880s and the mid-20th century, but it is widely believed that the true number is far higher.

Lynchings may not have been formally acknowledged, but they attained massive popular recognition. Until 1908 souvenir postcards of photographs of lynchings and their victims were allowed to be sent through the US mail, while newspaper articles about lynchings served up steamy tales of virginal white maidens, lecherous "black brutes," and gallant posses of "determined men" eager to defend the region's racial hegemony, as well as detailed accounts of the manhunts and ensuing spectacles. The constant press coverage could not help but create a more or less permanent hysteria. "Negro, Seen in Dream, Causes Death of Girl," read one Atlanta headline in 1906.

Lynching was also a powerful force that pushed black Americans out of specific areas or from the South generally. So-called clearances of black residents occurred in Georgia's Forsyth and Bulloch Counties, among other Southern communities.

In 1892-93 several thousand black residents of Memphis, angry about the lynching of black businessmen whose "crime" had been to operate a profitable grocery store, crossed the Mississippi and headed west in wagons and on foot. A popular Chicago Defender cartoon at the time of the Great Migration in the 1920s shows a Northern white industrialist holding open the door of his idling limousine for a black sharecropper, who scrambles forward with a pack of bloodhounds, labeled "lynchers," close on his heels.

Even where a lynching had never occurred, no one escaped its brooding shadow. The deadly risk of violating any number of Southern racial codes weighed heavily on black families, as mothers and wives braced against the devastation that would ensue were a husband's or son's behavior to attract a lynch mob. "I had never in my life been abused by whites," author Richard Wright recalled of his childhood, "but I had already become as conditioned to their existence as though I had been the victim of a thousand lynchings."

Reform came slowly. Even many people disturbed by lynching's methods and denial of due process believed it to be a terrible but necessary brake on rampant black crime, or a peculiar custom limited to the Black Belt South. Public concern often crested only when lynchings occurred near major Northern or mid-Atlantic cities like Baltimore or Philadelphia, as they did as late as the 1930s, or when whites were lynch victims, as in the cases of Leo Frank in 1915 and civil rights workers Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, killed with their black colleague James Chaney in 1964.

Not until the 1930s did public disapproval drive lynching more or less permanently underground, and only in 1952 did the nation experience a year without a recorded lynching.

In the years after the Second World War, some prominent blacks, including W.E.B Du Bois, stunned their white fellow citizens by pleading for help from the newly formed United Nations, saying America's policies toward its black citizens amounted to a campaign of elimination. The most scathing indictment arrived in 1951 when Paul Robeson and William Patterson of the Civil Rights Congress submitted "We Charge Genocide," which cataloged decades of lynchings, biased convictions and sentencing, the denial of basic public services, and other abuses.

While claims that the United States' treatment of black people rose to the level of genocide were arguable, most black American families then, as now, lived with the knowledge that their ancestors were subjected to an inhuman terror, much as Jewish-American families share a common recollection of relatives destroyed in the Holocaust or by European anti-Semitism. And although the most heinous forms of lynching were halted long ago, many perceive its legacy today in the presumption of black criminality, the disproportionate incarceration of blacks in our nation's prisons and on death row, and police brutality and racial profiling, as well as parents' anxiety about their children's encounters with white authorities.

Certainly the reappearance of so blatant a symbol of racism as nooses at Jena High School, and across the country, unnerves and embarrasses us. So coarse an expression of intolerance cannot but feel anachronistic. But the history of lynching itself is even more painful, reminding us how very cheap a black life was for so long in America, and how ingrained have become society's patterns of injustice and inequality.

Being frightened and offended by the noose, and condemning its appearance, is not enough. More than a symbol, the noose is also a kind of test - a challenge to America to own up to a policy of diabolical cruelty that was long sanctioned, and to ponder whether the faith in our country's goodness can withstand such scrutiny.

Philip Dray is the author of "At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America."

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