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Sat, 01.09.1830

Lynching in the United States of America, a story

*Lynching in the United States of America is affirmed on this date in 1830. Lynching was the widespread occurrence of extrajudicial killings beginning in the Pre-Civil War South until the 20th century American Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

Although many of the victims of lynching in the U.S. for the first few decades of the practice were predominantly white Southerners, after the American Civil War emancipated roughly 4 million enslaved Blacks, they became the primary targets of lynching beginning in the Reconstruction era. Lynching’s in the U.S. reached its height from the 1890s to the 1920s and primarily targeted Blacks and other ethnic nonwhites. The American South saw the majority of lynchings, although racially motivated lynching’s occurred in the Midwest and border states. These overlapped with the Great Migration of Blacks out of the American South and were often perpetrated to enforce white supremacy and intimidate ethnic nonwhites through racial terrorism.

A significant number of lynching victims were accused of murder or attempted murder. Rape, attempted rape or other forms of sexual assault were the second most common accusation, often being pretexts for lynching African Americans who violated Jim Crow era protocol or engaged in economic competition with whites. In his seminal An American Dilemma (1944), Myrdal Gunnar concluded that findings demonstrate "a lynching is not merely a punishment against an individual but a disciplinary device against the Negro group." According to the Tuskegee Institute, 4,743 people were lynched between 1882 and 1968 in the United States, including 3,446 African Americans and 1,297 whites.

The Tuskegee Institute, which kept complete records, documented victims internally as "Negro", "white," "Chinese," and occasionally as "Mexican" or "Indian” but merged these into only two categories of black or white in the tallies it published. Mexican, Chinese, and Native American lynching victims were tallied as white. In the West, minorities such as Chinese, Native Americans, Mexicans, and others were also lynching victims. The lynching of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the Southwest was long overlooked in American history when attention was focused on the treatment of African Americans in the South. In modern scholarship, researchers estimate that 597 Mexicans were lynched between 1848 and 1928. Mexicans were lynched at 27.4 per 100,000 of the population between 1880 and 1930. This statistic was second only to the African American community, which endured an average of 37.1 per 100,000 population during that period. Between 1848 and 1879, Mexicans were lynched at an unprecedented rate of 473 per 100,000.

After increased immigration to the U.S. in the late 19th century, Italian Americans in the South were recruited for labor jobs. On March 14, 1891, 11 Italian immigrants were lynched in New Orleans, Louisiana, for their alleged role in the murder of David Hennessy, a white Irish New Orleans police chief. This incident was one of the largest mass lynchings in U.S. history. Isolated lynchings of Italians also occurred in New York, Pennsylvania, and Colorado. A common perception of lynchings in the U.S. were hangings due to their public visibility and taking photographs of the victim.

Some lynchings were professionally photographed and distributed as postcards, which became popular souvenirs. Lynching victims were also killed in various methods; being shot, burned alive, thrown off a bridge, dragged behind a car, etc. Sometimes, the body parts of victims were removed and sold as souvenirs. Lynching also involved putting a rope around the neck of someone to force "confessions." Lynch mobs varied in size from just a few people to crowds of thousands. According to American historian Michael J. Pfeifer, the prevalence of lynching in post-Civil War America reflected a lack of confidence in the "due process" of the U.S. judicial system. He links the decline in lynching in the early twentieth century with "the advent of the modern death penalty": "legislators renovated the death penalty...out of direct concern for the alternative of mob violence". Pfeifer also cited "the modern, racialized excesses of urban police forces in the twentieth century and after" as bearing characteristics of lynching. On April 26, 2018, in Montgomery, Alabama, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened. Founded by the Equal Justice Initiative of that city, it is the first large-scale memorial created to document the lynching of African Americans in the United States. 


Starting in 1909, federal legislators introduced more than 200 bills in Congress to make lynching a Federal crime, but they failed to pass, chiefly because of Southern legislators' opposition. In the south, lynching was rarely prosecuted, as the same people who would have had to prosecute and sit on juries were generally perpetrators in the small communities where many lived. When the crime was prosecuted, it was under state murder statutes. They were a powerful voting bloc for decades and controlled important committee chairmanships. The Senate Democrats formed a bloc that filibustered for a week in December 1922, holding up all national business, to defeat the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. It had passed the House in January 1922 with broad support except for the South, and the Southern Senators defeated it twice more in the next two sessions.

In the South, Blacks generally could not serve on juries, as they could not vote, having been disfranchised by discriminatory voter registration and electoral rules passed by majority-white legislatures in the late 19th century, which also imposed Jim Crow laws. Under the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, the Civil Rights Section of the Justice Department tried but failed to prosecute lynchers under Reconstruction-era civil rights laws. The first successful federal prosecution of a lyncher for a civil rights violation was in 1946. By that time, the era of lynching as a common occurrence had ended. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. succeeded in gaining House passage of an anti-lynching bill. However, it was defeated in the Senate, still dominated by the Southern Democratic bloc, supported by its disfranchisement of blacks. 

State laws

In 1933, California defined lynching, punishable by 2–4 years in prison, as "the taking using a riot of any person from the lawful custody of any peace officer," with the crime of "riot" defined as two or more people using violence or the threat of violence. It does not refer to lynching homicide and has been used to charge individuals who have tried to free someone in police custody – leading to controversy. In 2015, Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation by Senator Holly Mitchell removing the word "lynching" from the state's criminal code without comment after it received unanimous approval in a vote by state lawmakers. Mitchell stated, "It's been said that strong words should be reserved for strong concepts, and 'lynching' has such a painful history for African Americans that the law should only use it for what it is - murder by mob." The law was otherwise unchanged.

In 1899, Indiana passed anti-lynching legislation. It was enforced by Governor Winfield T. Durbin, who forced an investigation into a 1902 lynching and removed the sheriff responsible. In 1903 he sent militia to bring order to a race riot that had broken out on Independence Day in Evansville, Indiana. In 1920, 600 men attempted to remove a Black prisoner from Marion County Jail but were prevented by the city's police. Lawrence Beitler photographed the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in 1930 in Marion, Indiana. In reaction to these murders, Flossie Bailey pushed for the passage of the 1931 Indiana anti-lynching law. The law provided for the immediate dismissal of any sheriff who allowed a jailed person to be lynched and allowed the victim's family to sue for $10,000. However, local authorities failed to prosecute mob leaders. In one case, when Indiana's attorney general indicted a sheriff, James Ogden, the jury refused to convict. Seeing this image inspired Abel Meeropol to write the song "Strange Fruit," popularized by singer Billie Holiday. That same year (1930), the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL) was founded.

In a peculiar turn, in 1951, South Carolina passed a law criminalizing second-degree lynching, which is defined as "any act of violence inflicted by a mob upon the body of another person and from which death does not result shall constitute the crime of lynching in the second degree and shall be a felony. Any person found guilty of lynching in the second degree shall be confined at hard labor in the State Penitentiary for a term not exceeding twenty years nor less than three years, at the discretion of the presiding judge."  By 2003, however, all but two of the state's 46 counties charged blacks with second-degree lynching out of proportion to their representation in the population. In the prior five years, 4,000 adults were charged, and 136 were convicted.

Black suspects were convicted of this assault charge at twice the rate of white suspects. One thousand four hundred juvenile lynching charges were filed, and, in 2002, 231 black youths were convicted, ten times as many as white youths. In 2006, five white teenagers were given various sentences for second-degree lynching in a non-lethal attack on a young black man in South Carolina. In 2010, the South Carolina Sentencing Reform Commission voted to rename the law "assault and battery by a mob" and to soften consequences for situations in which no one was killed or seriously injured in an attack by two or more people on a single victim.  

Federal oversite

From 1882 to 1968, "...nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress, and three passed the House. Seven presidents between 1890 and 1952 petitioned Congress to pass a federal law." The Southern Democratic block in the Senate prevented the passage of an anti-lynching bill during this period. In 2005, by a resolution sponsored by senators Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and George Allen of Virginia and passed by voice vote, the Senate formally apologized for its failure to pass an anti-lynching law "when it was most needed."

On December 19, 2018, the U.S. Senate voted unanimously in favor of the "Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018," which, for the first time in U.S. history, would make lynching a federal hate crime. The legislation had been reintroduced to the Senate earlier that year as Senate Bill S. 3178 by the three African American U.S. senators, Tim Scott, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker. As of June 2019, the bill, which failed to become law during the 115th U.S. Congress, had been reintroduced as the Emmett Till Antilynching Act. The House of Representatives voted 410-4 to pass it on February 26, 2020.

As of June 4, 2020, while protests and civil unrest over the murder of George Floyd were occurring nationwide, the bill was being considered by the Senate, with Senator Rand Paul preventing the bill from being passed by unanimous consent. At the time, no legislation has passed in both houses of Congress. Yet, on February 22, 2022, The Emmett Till Antilynching Act was passed. This legislation was landmark United States federal law that makes lynching a federal hate crime. The bill was named after 14-year-old Emmett Till, lynched in Mississippi in 1955, sparking national and international outrage.

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