Lynching…Violent Past or Continuing Future?

Just recently at a gathering, I had a person suggest that lynching in the American South (and the rest of the U.S.) was a violent past that we will never see again (I know, great party conversations, huh?). In fact, they even suggested that there have been no reports of lynchings since the early 1970s, which signaled for them that this horrible act had finally been eradicated by law enforcement and the shutting down of hate groups across America. I’ve thought about this and several questions come to mind:

  • Has “lynching” become less frequent in the late 20th and 21st centuries in America?
  • Did the American Legislature finally create laws and carry them out to effectively stop race-based murder?
  • What does “shutting down hate groups” have to do with it?

Starting with the first question, I would have to point out that lynching in America is a serious topic to consider in that it is an all but “hidden discussion” much like the genocide committed on American Indians by American colonists and citizens. More important, it is one of those historical facts of American racism that you only really hear about during Black history month or as a footnote to discussions about Jim Crow. Certainly, there are hundreds of research monographs and historical and first-person accounts of these atrocities but no real discourse on how much of an impact this genocidal tactic had on American race relations, its racial minorities, and whether it continues to this day (Here are two websites that reports statistics of lynchings in the U.S. from 1882 to 1968: The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, PBS, Lynching Statistics).

So, the natural follow up to this is what happened since the 1970s? Well, Associate Professor of History, Amy Wood, suggests that we just changed the way we identified lynchings. Professor Wood suggests that in the 1970s and 1980s we began to identify crimes against certain racial and ethnic groups as “hate crimes,” moving away from the abrasive term of lynching through judicial/law enforcement policies. As suggested by the Southern Poverty Law Center, hate crimes, particularly murders predicated by race and racism, have continued to exist since the 1970s (see this report).

Professor Wood also argues that some scholars suggest that there is some forms of “legal lynching” today. For example, African American men face higher rates of incarceration, as well as facing the death penalty than White men. Some would also point to the Trayvon Martin case since the law protected George Zimmerman in shooting and killing Martin. Wood even argued that  the Jena Six incident in 2006 was “symbolic lynching,” because the whole point of lynching is to streak fear in the hearts of racial minorities and exert power.

I would also suggest that lynching today is often masked by who it impacts. For example, there have been several killings on the Mexican and U.S. border that could be considered lynching of Mexican immigrants by Whites. Here is a recent story about a number of “unexplained” murders involving Mexican immigrants and the U.S. Border Patrol (Wall  of Silence). With this incident, we see Mexican immigrants the target of possible lynching but call it a necessary evil of border protection/enforcement. Or, how about this recent incident recently in North Carolina where a Hispanic teen who was hand-cuffed (hands behind his back) in a patrol car supposedly pulled a hidden gun and shot himself in the head (see this News Clip). In short, legal counsel is suggesting that police shot him because he was possibly considered a “illegal threat.”

To address the second question, certainly there have been several legislative efforts to outlaw and end lynching but none of them were successful. From 1882 to 1968, over 200 different anti-lynching bills were presented to Congress. In 1922, the Dyer Bill was the first federal bill to successfully pass at least in the U.S. House of Representatives but never became law due to filibusters in the Senate. However, this law promised to make lynching a federal felony crime and presented punishments and sentencing guidelines for those found guilty of the crime.

The next big push to outlaw and punish lynching was with the Costigan-Wagner Bill presented during the 1930s. It largely used the Dyer Bill arguments but was defeated because it never gained any real support from President Franklin D. Roosevelt who thought he would lose support of his New Deal programs from Southern Democrats if he pursued it. Despite continuing efforts up into the 1950s, no clear federal laws were ever enacted to specifically end lynching.

Some scholars suggest that lynching was partially shuttered by the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which permits federal prosecution of anyone who commits a “hate crime” for several reasons including race, color, religion, or national origin. However, even after that, a number of  documented lynchings happened including  the murder of  Michael Donald  by Klansmen in Alabama in 1981 or the 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr. by Shawn Berry, Lawrence Brewer, and John King who beat him with a bat and dragged behind a truck in Texas. Interestingly, these incidents were not labeled as lynchings but a hate crimes by new FBI crime definition standards. In fact, the Byrd lynching in 1998 and with the Matthew Shepard murder helped to encourage the most recent legislation to address hate crimes (aka lynching), which was the “Matthew Shepard” Act signed into law in 2009 by President Barack Obama. Also, it should be noted that while the U.S. Congress and Senate never really enacted any legislation to address lynching specifically, the U.S. Senate in 2005 formally apologized for its failure of enacting a federal anti-lynching law. (As a side note: On the state level, a handful of states like Virginia passed their own anti-lynching laws (1928). Ironically, no one in the state of Virginia has ever been convicted of lynching).

Finally, I don’t have a way to correlate the relationship between decreases in hate groups and lynchings/hate crimes. I do know, however, that throughout American history race-based hate groups have ebbed and flowed based on economic and political conditions. For instance, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported a serious spike in membership from many race-based hate groups in 2008 when President Obama was elected, which also happened to coincide with the most recent economic recession in recent years. I also know that while several lynchings can be linked to hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan, a number of lynchings particularly in the American South were perpetrated by regular, non-affiliated white citizens. So, at this point, I cannot really determine if there is even a causal relationship between the two.

While I know that this post probably brings about more questions than answers, I believe it is important to uncover the raw truth about this type of violent group action in our history. More important, we must continue to consider that while we may call lynching something else in the 21st century, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that groups of people are still using murder as a way to exert power over entire communities. Maybe the reality is that as Americans we are still committing the oldest sins in the newest ways.

Think about this as you listen to Billie Holiday’s, “Strange Fruit.”

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About lippardcd

Assistant Professor of Sociology at Appalachian State University.
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