Most Americans are aware that black people in the South were frequently subjected to public executions by white mobs during the Reconstruction era, but the true extent of this practice was not known until very recently. Yesterday, the Equal Justice Initiative released a report, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, which documents 3,959 lynchings of African Americans between 1877 and 1950. The report is significant not just because it found evidence of approximately 700 more lynchings than previously recorded, but also because it reveals the true nature of lynchings and their effect on the African American community and society as a whole – then and now.
The report notes that lynchings were not merely public hangings, but rather involved severe forms of torture, including castration, dismemberment, flaying and burning. In addition, lynchings were not typically spur-of-the-moment acts of vigilante justice, but were celebrated events – ceremonious spectacles often attended by the entire white community of a town, including prominent public officials, and written about in the town newspaper. Those who participated in lynchings did not wear disguises or cover their faces, but no white participant was ever convicted of murder for engaging in the practice.
Importantly, EJI’s report investigates the role that lynchings played in society during this time, finding that lynchings constituted a form of racial terror used to keep black people subjugated. A lynching victim was typically accused of a crime – often of raping a white woman – or of a minor offense such as speaking improperly to a white person or wearing a military uniform in public. Then, without due process, he (or sometimes she) was ritualistically and publicly murdered. Because the accusations were usually obvious pretense and because white perpetrators were never punished for their actions, lynchings had a deep psychological impact on the black community and also created a culture in which black lives were viewed as unimportant and not valuable.
EJI Director Bryan Stevenson said, “[t]he geographic, political, economic, and social consequences of decades of terror lynchings can still be seen in many communities today and the damage created by lynching needs to be confronted and discussed.”