Henceforth, the nation, as a nation, will have nothing more to do with him. The presence of federal troops in the South during the Reconstruction era acted as a penetrable dam holding back some of the violence, political suppression, and racist rhetoric employed by those intent on restoring white supremacist rule. Their premature withdrawal unleashed a pent-up wave of violence that easily topped the few remaining protective structures and left black people cemented in an inferior economic, social, and political position.
Southern state governments set to work altering their constitutions to disenfranchise black citizens and codify segregation. At the Mississippi Constitutional Convention, where all but one of the delegates were white, the intentional purging of black people from the roll of eligible voters was a top priority. Within the field of permissible action under the limitations imposed by the federal constitution, the convention swept the circle of expedients to obstruct the exercise of the franchise by the negro race.
By reason of its previous condition of servitude and dependence, this race had acquired or accentuated certain peculiarities of habit, of temperament, and of character, which clearly distinguished it as a race from that of the whites,—a patient, docile people, but careless, landless, and migratory within narrow limits, without forethought, and its criminal members given rather to furtive offenses than to the robust crimes of the whites. Restrained by the federal constitution from discriminating against the negro race, the convention discriminated against its characteristics and the offenses to which its weaker members were prone.
Alabama rewrote its constitution in John B. The South created a system of state and local laws and practices that constituted a pervasive and deep-rooted racial caste system. Convict leasing, the practice of selling the labor of state and local prisoners to private interests for state profit, utilized the criminal justice system to effectuate the economic exploitation and political disempowerment of black people.
In turn, the most common fate facing black convicts was to be sold into forced labor for the profit of the state. Beginning as early as in states like Texas, Mississippi, and Georgia, convict leasing spread throughout the Southern states and continued through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
An report by the Hinds County, Mississippi grand jury recorded that, six months after convicts were leased to a man named McDonald, twenty were dead, nineteen had escaped, and twenty-three had been returned to the penitentiary disabled, ill, and near death. It legitimized excessive punishment and abuse of African Americans and terrorized people of color. Jim Crow laws proscribed the lives and possibilities of black people throughout the South. In March , a white woman and black man were arrested in Atlanta, Georgia, after two police officers claimed to have seen them talking and walking together on the street.
He then said he would have to arrest me, and I was ridden to police barracks in a patrol wagon. It is the first ride I have ever taken of the kind, and I have been humiliated and disgraced. But somebody will suffer for this before it is done with. Racial segregation often translated to the total exclusion of black people from public facilities, institutions, and opportunities.
This separation plainly disadvantaged black people and served as a constant symbol of their inferior position in Southern society. The laws made no exception based on class or education; indeed, the laws functioned on one level to remind African Americans that no matter how educated, wealthy, or respectable they might be, it did nothing to entitle them to equal treatment with the poorest and most degraded whites.
What the white South insisted upon was not so much separation of the races as subordination, a system of controls in which whites prescribed the rules of racial conduct and contact and meted out the punishments. Though legally emancipated from slavery and endowed with constitutional rights to participate in society as full citizens, black people soon learned that those rights were unenforceable in a white-controlled political system hostile to their exercise.
This message was communicated through an intricate and complex system of racial subordination built after the Civil War to maintain and reinforce white supremacy in a world without chattel slavery. Constructed of law and custom, force and fear, disenfrachisement, convict leasing, and Jim Crow segregation, the system was fragile and fiercely guarded. Over the century that this racial caste system reigned, perceived violations of the racial order were met with brutal violence targeted at black Americans—and lynching was the weapon of choice.
Beginning in the s and continuing in the decades following the Civil War, lynching became more synonymous with hanging. The first broadly publicized incident of lethal lynching occurred in Madison County, Mississippi, in , after a fabricated story of a planned slave uprising sparked local panic and resulted in the hangings of two white men and several enslaved black people. Even as lynchings became more frequently deadly, they differed greatly by region. An individual subject to a frontier lynching typically was accused of a crime such as murder or robbery, given some form of process and trial, and hanged without any additional torture or foul play.
Most were lynched under suspicion of conspiring to mount a slave uprising—a growing but largely unsubstantiated fear among whites in slaveholding states. Southern lynching took on an even more racialized character after the Civil War. By the end of the nineteenth century, Southern lynching had become a tool of racial control that terrorized and targeted African Americans. The ratio of black lynching victims to white lynching victims was 4 to 1 from to ; increased to more than 6 to 1 between and ; and soared to more than 17 to 1 after The character of the violence also changed as gruesome public spectacle lynchings became much more common.
Indeed, public spectacle lynchings drew from and perpetuated the belief that Africans were subhuman—a myth that had been used to justify centuries of enslavement, and now fueled and purportedly justified terrorism aimed at newly-emancipated African American communities. Among Southern people, the conviction is general that terror is the only restraining influence that can be brought to bear upon vicious Negroes. Southern states were equipped with readily-available, fully-functioning criminal justice systems eager to punish African American defendants with hefty fines, imprisonment, terms of forced labor for state profit, and legal execution.
Many lynching victims were not accused of any criminal act, and lynch mobs regularly displayed complete disregard for the legal system. In , Edward Johnson, a black man, was convicted of raping a white woman and sentenced to death by an all-white jury in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His attorneys appealed the case and won a rare stay of execution from the United States Supreme Court. In response, a white mob seized Mr. Johnson from the jail, which had been vacated by the sheriff and his staff, dragged him through the streets, hanged him from the second span of the Walnut Street Bridge, and shot him hundreds of times.
Come get your nigger now. Johnson used his last words to declare his innocence. Nearly a century later, he was cleared of the rape. African Americans were lynched under varied pretenses. Today, lynching is most commonly remembered as a punishment exacted by white mobs upon black men accused of sexually assaulting white women. Hundreds more black people were lynched based on accusations of far less serious crimes like arson, robbery, non-sexual assault, and vagrancy, many of which were not punishable by death if convicted in a court of law.
African Americans frequently were lynched for non-criminal violations of social customs or racial expectations, such as speaking to white people with less respect or formality than observers believed was due. Finally, many African Americans were lynched not because they committed a crime or social infraction, and not even because they were accused of doing so, but simply because they were black and present when the preferred party could not be located.
He was arrested and about to be lynched by a mob in Smith County, Tennessee, when at the last moment he broke free and escaped. Thwarted in their attempt to kill the suspect, the mob turned its attention to his sister and lynched Ms. The thousands of African Americans lynched between and differed in many respects, but in most cases, the circumstances of their murders can be categorized as one or more of the following: 1 lynchings that resulted from a wildly distorted fear of interracial sex; 2 lynchings in response to casual social transgressions; 3 lynchings based on allegations of serious violent crime; 4 public spectacle lynchings; 5 lynchings that escalated into large-scale violence targeting the entire African American community; and 6 lynchings of sharecroppers, ministers, and community leaders who resisted mistreatment, which were most common between and Nearly 25 percent of the lynchings of African Americans in the South were based on charges of sexual assault.
When black Memphis journalist Ida B. In , in Aberdeen, Mississippi, Keith Bowen allegedly tried to enter a room where three white women were sitting; though no further allegation was made against him, Mr. Narratives of these lynchings reported in the sympathetic white press justified the violence and perpetuated the deadly stereotype of African American men as hypersexual threats to white womanhood. Lynchings based on minor social transgressions were a tool of racial control designed to enforce social norms and racial hierarchy.
Examples are plentiful. Law-abiding African Americans lived at risk of arbitrary and deadly mob violence. These lynchings and the threat of falling victim to the mobs who committed them sought to keep the African American community terrorized and in a constant state of fear. Jesse Washington was burned before a crowd of thousands in Waco, Texas, in More than half of the lynching victims EJI documented were killed under accusation of committing murder or rape.
The deep racial hostility that permeated Southern society during this time period often served to focus suspicion on black communities after a crime was discovered, whether evidence supported that suspicion or not. This was especially true in cases of violent crime against white victims. In a strictly maintained racial caste system, the mere suggestion of black-on-white violence could spark outrage, mob violence, and murder before the judicial system could act.
In this society, white lives held heightened value, while the lives of black people held little or none.
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Of the hundreds of black people lynched under accusation of rape and murder, nearly every one was brutally killed without being legally convicted of any offense. Some lynching victims were demonstrably innocent of the serious crimes alleged. After a white woman was raped in Lewiston, North Carolina, in , a black man named Peter Bazemore was accused of the crime and lynched by a mob before an investigation revealed that the real perpetrator had been a white man wearing black makeup.
Lynching, a statement of racial terror and white supremacy, was largely reserved for black suspects. White people accused of murder or rape during this era were much more likely to be tried, convicted, and punished by the legal system than by a mob. Mitchell, a key witness, was shot in his home by four white men and died; the white defendant was acquitted and released. In , after Luther Holbert allegedly killed a local white landowner, he and a black woman believed to be his wife were captured by a mob and taken to Doddsville, Mississippi, to be lynched before hundreds of white spectators.
Next, their ears were cut off. Holbert was then beaten so severely that his skull was fractured and one of his eyes was left hanging from its socket. The white men, women, and children present watched the horrific murders while enjoying deviled eggs, lemonade, and whiskey in a picnic-like atmosphere.
Another public spectacle lynching took place in in Memphis, Tennessee, when a mob of twenty-five men seized Ell Persons from a train that was transporting him to stand trial for rape and murder. The mob had announced the lynching time and location in advance, and thousands of people attended, backing up traffic for miles. Food and gum vendors sold their wares to the many spectators as Mr.
Persons was doused with gasoline and set on fire. A ten-year-old black child was forced to sit next to the fire and watch him die. When members of the crowd complained that Mr. Persons would die too quickly if burned, the fire was extinguished, and attendees fought over Mr. Two men cut off his ears for souvenirs, after which the head of Mr.
A mob tortured Lation Scott with a hot poker iron, gouging out his eyes, shoving the hot poker down his throat and pressing it all over his body before castrating him and burning him alive over a slow fire. Gruesome public spectacle lynchings traumatized the African American community. The crowds of hundreds or thousands of white people attending as participants or spectators included elected officials and prominent citizens; white press coverage regularly defended the lynchings as justified; and cursory investigations rarely led to identifications of lynch mob members, much less prosecutions.
These killings were not the actions of a few marginalized vigilantes or extremists; they were bold, public acts that implicated the entire community and sent a clear message that African Americans were less than human, their subjugation was to be achieved through any means necessary, and whites who undertook the duty of carrying out lynchings would face no legal repercussions. Founded in , Paris, Texas, was named for the famous French city and quickly became the seat of Lamar County. In early , a seventeen-year-old black boy named Henry Smith was accused of killing a three-year-old white girl.
He was met at the station on February 1, , by a mob of thousands of white people from across the state. Henry was placed on a carnival float and carried through the town to the county fairgrounds, where he was forced to mount a ten-foot-high platform. Henry was brutally tortured for nearly an hour in front of 10, people and then burned alive. According to an investigation by anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells, Henry pleaded his innocence until the end. Less than thirty years later, Paris hosted a second gruesome lynching.
In , brothers Irving and Herman Arthur worked on a white-owned farm where they suffered ongoing abuse. When the Arthurs decided to leave in search of better working conditions, the farm owners tried to stop them with gunfire and then alleged that the Arthurs had wounded them. Soon after Irving and Herman were arrested and jailed, local whites began posting signs throughout town advertising their impending lynching.
On July 6, , a mob of gathered to watch as both men were tied to a flagpole at the fairgrounds, tortured, and burned to death. A local sheriff involved in the case later declared the brothers had been guilty of no crime. Today, Paris is a small but vibrant and diverse city of 25, people, with no historical markers to document either lynching. A large Confederate memorial adorns the courthouse lawn—a site of racial unrest in the twenty-first century. In , a twenty-four-year-old black man named Brandon McClelland was found dead by a roadside in Paris.
An investigation determined he had been dragged behind or under a vehicle as far as seventy feet. Two white men who spent several hours with Mr. McClelland on the night he died were arrested after blood reportedly was found on the undercarriage of their truck. When the local prosecutor dropped all charges against the men in , citing a lack of evidence, racial tensions flared.
Paris, Texas, is eaten up with racism. Thousands watch as lynchers prepare to torture Henry Smith on a ten-foot-high platform at the county fairgrounds. Most lynchings involved the killing of one or more specific individuals, but some lynch mobs targeted entire black communities by forcing black people to witness lynchings and demanding that they leave the area or face a similar fate. When the men found Mr.
Devert crossing a river with the girl in his arms, they shot him in the head and the girl drowned. Insisting that the entire black community needed to witness Mr. The white men then rounded up all sixty African American residents and forced the men, women, and children to watch the corpse burn. These African Americans and eighty black people who worked at a local quarry were then told to leave the county within twenty-four hours.
He was seized by a mob, forced to jump from an automobile with a noose around his neck, and shot times. The mob then threw Mr. At p. They threw Mr. Rather, these lynchings were designed for broad impact—to send a message of domination, to instill fear, and sometimes to drive African Americans from the community altogether. From to , lynch mobs targeted African Americans who protested being treated as second-class citizens.
African Americans throughout the South, individually and in organized groups, were demanding the economic and civil rights to which they were entitled. In response, whites turned to lynching. The overseer pulled a gun, which Mr. Flemming wrestled away from him and fired in self-defense.
A mob pursued and quickly caught him. Alerted of Mr. In Hernando, Mississippi, in , Reverend T.
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When white landowners learned that Reverend Allen was using his pulpit to preach to the black community about unionization, they formed a mob, seized him, shot him many times, and threw him into the Coldwater River. The gang tied Mr. They took him to the jail in Selma, Alabama, where other inmates heard him being beaten and screaming. Whites used terrorism to relegate African Americans to a state of second-class citizenship and economic disadvantage that would last for generations after emancipation and create far-reaching consequences. The data reveals telling trends across time and region, including that lynchings peaked between and See Figure 1.
Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana had the highest absolute number of African American lynching victims during this period. See Table 1. Mississippi, Florida, and Arkansas had the highest per capita rates of lynching by total population, while Arkansas, Florida, and Mississippi had the highest per capita rates of lynching by African American population. See Tables 2 and 3. The twenty-five counties with the highest rates of lynchings of African Americans during this era are located in eight of the twelve states studied: Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky, Texas, and Mississippi.
The terror of lynching was not confined to a few outlier states. Racial terror cast a shadow of fear across the region. See Tables 4 and 5. Lynching outside of the Southern states differed from lynching within the South, largely in relation to the cultural and historical distinctions between the regions. In addition to the documented lynchings committed in the South between and , EJI has documented more than racial terror lynchings of black people that took place in other parts of the United States during the same period. Though the numbers were lower, mirroring the lower concentration of black residents in these states, racial terror lynchings committed outside the South featured many of the same characteristics.
When black people moved and built communities outside the South in growing numbers during the lynching era, they were often targeted and violently terrorized in response to racialized economic competition, unproven allegations of crime, and violations of the racial order. As early as , anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett gave a speech continuing her denouncement of Southern lynching and also noting the growing number of atrocities being committed in other regions.
EJI found the highest numbers of documented racial terror lynchings outside the South during the lynching era in Oklahoma, Missouri, and Illinois, and those totals were largely fueled by acts of mass violence against entire black communities that left many people dead, property destroyed, and survivors traumatized. In early July , after several years of postwar migration had increased the black population of East St.
Louis, Illinois, and created economic competition for white residents, white mobs in the city ambushed African American workers as they left factories during a shift change. Just a few years later, in , a black elevator operator named Dick Rowland was arrested in Tulsa, Oklahoma, after a misunderstanding led to rumors that he had attacked a white woman. Though charges against Mr. Rowland were soon dropped and he was released, a white mob quickly gathered to lynch him. When the black community banded together to help the young man leave town, the mob indiscriminately attacked the prosperous local black residential and business district known as Greenwood.
Over the next two days, the mob killed at least thirty-six black people, displaced many more, and destroyed the once vibrant community. No member of the mob was ever convicted. Racial terror lynchings outside the South were often brutal and brazen public spectacles. Though both men had alibis confirmed by their employer, a mob refused to wait for a trial.
Instead, the mob seized both men from jail, hanged them from Gottfried Tower near the town square, and burned and shot their corpses while a crowd of white men, women, and children watched. Members of the mob reportedly raped Ms. Nelson before hanging her and her son from a bridge over the Canadian River. On August 7, , a large white mob used tear gas, crowbars, and hammers to break into the Grant County Jail in Marion, Indiana, to seize and lynch three young black men who had been accused of murder and assault.
Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, both 19 years old, were severely beaten and hanged, while the third young man, year-old James Cameron, was badly beaten but not killed. Photographs of the brutal lynching were shared widely, featuring clear images of the crowd posing beneath the hanging corpses, but no one was ever prosecuted or convicted. Even in states with sparse black populations and very few documented racial terror lynchings, violent attacks terrorized small and vulnerable black communities.
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After seizing the men from jail, where they were being held on charges of assault, the mob ignored the pleas of a local white clergyman to spare the young men, and hanged them from a light pole. In Omaha, Nebraska, in October , thousands of white people gathered to seize George Smith, a black man, from the local jail after he was accused of assault. Though he had an alibi and most reports of the alleged crime were false, the mob beat Mr.
Smith, dragged him through the streets with a rope around his neck, and then hanged him from telephone wires in front of a local opera house. Despite the severe physical injuries inflicted, the coroner concluded that Mr. More than twenty-five years later, another Omaha lynching led to death and destruction for black residents. After a black man named Will Brown was accused of attempting to assault a white woman, a mob set the local courthouse on fire and pulled him from the jail. The mob beat Mr.
Brown, hanged him from a telegraph post, riddled his body with bullets, and then dragged his burning corpse through the streets until it was mutilated beyond recognition. Fragments of the rope used to hang Mr. Brown were sold for ten cents as souvenirs to white spectators. The lynching era was fueled by the movement to restore white supremacy and domination, but Northern and federal officials who failed to act as black people were terrorized and murdered enabled this campaign of racial terrorism. For more than six decades, as Southern whites used lynching to enforce a post-slavery system of racial dominance, white officials outside the South watched and did little.
Congress made efforts to pass federal anti-lynching bills throughout the lynching era, but Southern white representatives predictably and consistently protested so-called federal interference in local affairs. Very few white people were convicted of murder for lynching a black person in America during this period, and of all lynchings committed after , only 1 percent resulted in a lyncher being convicted of a criminal offense.
In November , journalist, activist, and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. I am not a Republican, because. Because they care no more for the Negro than the Democrats do, and because even now, and since their defeat last November, the Republican head and the New York Republican Convention are giving vent to utterances and passing resolutions recommending State rights, and the taking from the Negro—for the reason his vote is not counted, but represented in the Electoral College, that they claim his gratitude for giving—the ballot.
The dominant political narrative blamed lynching on its victims, insisting that brutal mob violence was the only appropriate response to the growing scourge of black men raping white women. Such theories were used to legitimate and reinforce racial hierarchy.
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By the start of the twentieth century, national leaders had learned to profitably employ popular white supremacist views and pro-lynching rhetoric. With fading voting power and few allies in either national political party, African Americans undertook their own efforts to combat the terror of lynching through grassroots activism.
Black people targeted members of the white lynch mobs for economic retaliation by boycotting their businesses, refusing to work for them, and setting fire to their property. Protestors demand that President Truman take action against lynching, Black anti-lynching activists like journalists Ida B.
Wells and T. Thomas Fortune and Tuskegee sociologist Monroe Work harnessed the growing power of the black press. In February , a white mob in Lake City, South Carolina, set fire to the home of the Baker family and riddled it with gunshots, killing Frazier Baker and his infant daughter, Julia, and leaving his wife and five surviving children wounded and traumatized.
Baker, a black man, had aroused the hatred of the predominately white community when President William McKinley appointed him to the position of local postmaster. After efforts to have Baker removed from the post failed, local whites resorted to mob violence. Despite ample evidence, an all-white jury refused to convict any of the defendants.
Though she ultimately lost the case, the effort foreshadowed her lifelong fight against racial injustice. An avid reader and writer, Ms. Wells became a popular columnist in black newspapers while in Memphis, eventually rising to editor and part owner of the local Free Speech and Headlight.
More than African Americans heeded the call, but Ms. Wells stayed to promote the movement she had begun. In May , she published another editorial that challenged the claim that lynching was necessary to protect white womanhood. Wells relocated to New York, where she continued her anti-lynching efforts by writing for the New York Age , publishing several anti-lynching pamphlets, and embarking on a speaking tour through the Northern states and Britain, where she decried the atrocities of lynching and urged federal and international intervention. Wells became Mrs. Wells-Barnett and raised five children while collaborating with leaders like Frederick Douglass and W.
In the preface to her pamphlet, Southern Horrors , Ida B. If this work can contribute in any way toward proving this, and at the same time arouse the conscience of the American people to a demand for justice to every citizen, and punishment by law for the lawless, I shall feel I have done my race a service. Other considerations are of minor importance. The NAACP formed in direct response to racial attacks in Springfield, Illinois, in —an outbreak of violence that shocked Northerners and demonstrated that lynching was not only a Southern phenomenon. By , chapters boasted 91, members nationwide.
The NAACP launched a renewed campaign for federal anti-lynching legislation that succeeded in winning passage of the Dyer anti-lynching bill in the House of Representatives on January 26, , by a vote of By , the ASWPL claimed 40, supporters, and by , Gallup polls showed overwhelming white support for anti-lynching legislation. When national lynching rates declined markedly in the s, NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White attributed the trend to these shifts in the public discourse and to anti-lynching activism, as well as to the Great Migration. Within a single decade, the black populations of Georgia and South Carolina declined by 22 percent and 24 percent, respectively.
Black flight in the face of violent racial terrorism was not a new or mysterious Southern phenomenon. In a brutal environment of racial subordination and terror, faced with the constant threat of harm, close to six million black Americans fled the South between and Many left behind their homes, families, and employment after a lynching or near-lynching rendered home too unsafe a place to remain.
Many shared the experience of George Starling, a young black man working in the orange groves of Eustis, Florida, in , who fled for his life after word spread that he was seeking better working conditions. And there would be no protecting him if he stayed. Though the growth of Northern cities and wartime industrial work increased the volume of black movement out of the South, the terror of lynching and other racial violence had long made the South a tenuous homeland for black Americans.
In each successive decade of the Great Migration, the number of lynchings in the South declined as black departures from the region rose. Lynching and racial violence in border states of the South and Southwest from to targeted Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans, who were shot en masse and lynched by mobs that often included Texas Rangers and other law enforcement officials.
Researchers estimate that hundreds of Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans were lynched in the South and Southwest during this period, and have identified lynchings in Texas alone.
Scholars have argued that these lynchings in border states served to establish white economic, political, and social dominance in the border areas acquired by the United States following the war with Mexico. Violence forced Mexican residents of territory newly claimed by the United States to flee their homes, allowing whites to seize their land and natural resources. Martin Luther King Jr. When the era of racial terror and widespread lynching ended in the mid-twentieth century, it left behind a nation and an American South fundamentally altered by decades of systematic community-based violence against black Americans.
The effects of the lynching era echoed through the latter half of the twentieth century. African Americans continued to face violent intimidation when they transgressed social boundaries or asserted their civil rights, and the criminal justice system continued to target people of color and victimize African Americans. These legacies have yet to be confronted. After the rate of lynchings abated, the central feature of the era of racial terror—violence against black Americans—took new forms.
The social forces and racial animus that made lynching a frequent occurrence and constant threat in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries remained deeply rooted in American culture, and violent intimidation continued to be used to preserve social control and white supremacy. African Americans in the South faced violence, threats, and intimidation in myriad areas of daily life, with no protection from the justice system.
Black Southerners who survived the lynching era remained subject to the established legal system of racial apartheid known as Jim Crow. As organized resistance to this racial caste system began to swell in the early s, black demonstrators were met with violent opposition from white police officers and community members. Black activists protesting racial segregation and disenfranchisement through boycotts, sit-ins, voter registration drives, and mass marches consistently faced physical attacks, riots, and bombings from whites.
As a leader of the nonviolent protest movement, Reverend Dr. Police attacked demonstrators during highly publicized events like Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, in Even black children engaging in peaceful demonstrations were at great risk of harm and death. In , four young girls were killed when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed, and that year, more than black children protesting racial segregation in the city were arrested, blasted with fire hoses, clubbed by police, and attacked by police dogs.
Closely mirroring the era of lynching, police in Mississippi facilitated the extrajudicial murders of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner in by delivering the men to a white mob after detaining them for an alleged traffic violation. A mob of Ku Klux Klansmen, who had gathered during the several hours the three young men were held in jail, was ready and waiting to seize and murder them upon release.
McCollum had been in the county jail since the previous Saturday for wounding a local constable during an arrest. The town of Sheridan remained a hostile environment for African Americans in the following decades, but some found work at the local sawmill and built a small, resilient black community. Jack Williams, owner of the local sawmill and landlord for most of its employees, then approached black families living on his property and demanded that they let him move their wooden shack homes to Malvern, twenty miles to the west, or he would evict them and burn their homes to the ground.
Just before they left town, they watched a bulldozer dig a large hole and push the entire school into the ground, then cover it up, wiping out all evidence of its existence. The town remained completely white for decades, and its public schools did not desegregate until , when the school districts of two small interracial communities nearby consolidated with the larger district. Lynching and racial terror profoundly compromised the criminal justice system. Extrajudicial mob violence operated hand-in-hand with legal execution as a means of exercising lethal social control over the black population.
Southern courts were deeply embedded in the exploitation of black workers in the South long after the formal abolition of slavery. Lynching also directly fostered the racialization of criminality. Whites defended vigilante violence aimed at black people as a necessary tactic of self-preservation to protect property, families, and the Southern way of life from dangerous black criminals. In other cases, white mobs justified lynching as a preemptive strike against the threat of black violent crime. Decades of racial terror in the American South reflected and reinforced a view that African Americans were dangerous criminals who posed a threat to innocent white citizens.
America has never addressed the effects of racial violence, the criminalization of African Americans, and the critical role these phenomena have played in shaping the American criminal justice system, particularly in the South. The Civil Rights Act of , a signature legal achievement of the civil rights movement, contains provisions designed to eliminate discrimination in voting, education, and employment, but it does not address discrimination in criminal justice.
Though the most insidious tool of racial subordination throughout the era of racial terror and its aftermath, the criminal justice system remains the institution in American life least impacted by the civil rights movement. The unprecedented level of mass incarceration in America today is a contemporary manifestation of these past distortions and abuses that continues to limit the opportunities of our nation's most vulnerable.
Southern legislatures shifted to capital punishment so that legal and ostensibly unbiased court proceedings could serve the same purpose as vigilante violence: satisfying the lust for revenge. White mobs converged outside the courtroom during the trial to demand that the accused be executed. Represented by incompetent lawyers, the nine were convicted by all-white, all male juries within two days, and all but the youngest were sentenced to death. After all, they did not lynch the accused; they gave them a trial.
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