The history of lynching is an American tragedy. Lynching, where a mob or semi-organized group of people band together in order to carry out an act of violent justice such as hanging or burning, began in the late eighteenth century. The origins of the practice are questionable, but one theory suggests that lynchings, or lynch law, got their name from Charles Lynch, a Virginia justice of the peace, who ordered British Loyalists executed outside of the order of criminal courts during the American Revolution. While the practices origins are not completely known, the practice and lore of lynchings took hold in the US South during the nineteenth century. Before the Civil War, the practice was used to intimidate and discourage the supporters of abolition. In the post-Reconstruction South, lynchings became ways for the white ruling class to maintain political and social dominance over African American communities.
In frontier America, lynchings served the purpose of vigilante justice. In sparse frontier territories, organized systems of law and order were not readily available. Targets of this system of justice were often those that skirted the legal limits of the law and sought haven in the unorganized territories of the western frontier. The difficult conditions of frontier life meant that territory and property were often zealously guarded. If necessary, punishment was meted out for crimes both real and anticipated. In the absence of authority and order, mob rule became one method of maintaining social norms. Lynchings took on a different form after the Civil War, however. During this period, after a bloody war and the severe collapse of the Southern economy, lynchings became a way for white America to express its contempt and hatred for those of other races, colors, and cultures. In the US South, this contempt was most often directed towards African Americans.
Historians have argued that this form of justice should not be seen as a new form of justice adopted by Southern states in the post-war years. Instead, lynchings should be seen as a continuation of extralegal systems of justice used to discipline and punish slaves during the antebellum period. Punishment for runaway or disobedient slaves was often harsh and brutal on Southern plantations. Whippings or branding with a hot iron were common forms of discipline. In severe cases, execution by hanging or burning was carried out. Slaves from other plantations were sometimes forced to witness such brutality as a way of keeping order throughout the community. Slave owners were not required to go through legal courts or systems of justice in order to punish or execute their slaves. Slaves were considered property, not individuals, and so any issue of justice only applied to the property rights of the owner.
After the Civil War, the Reconstruction governments of the South instituted court systems and legislation that encompassed former slaves and gave legal protection to the black community. However, this did not prevent the white community from circumventing or ignoring such laws. The practice of lynching took on the form and ritual of plantation justice.
Between the years of 1882, when reliable statistics were first available, to 1968 when the final “classic” forms of lynchings happened in Mississippi, over 4,700 people died from lynchings. Over 3,400 of those were African American men and women. The nature of lynching was essentially random. Any black person could be accused of any crime, real, perceived, or anticipated, at any time. Mobs were not organized at random, however. News outlets often advertised lynching events. Local politicians and elected leaders sometimes endorsed or led the event. Mobs often extended the lynchings into sessions of torture and dismemberment in order to excite larger crowds and create a feverish atmosphere.
Anti-lynching campaigns began organizing in the 1880’s. Organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching were some of the early adopters of the anti-lynching movement. They introduced legislation and encouraged enforcement of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments in the Southern states. The movement did not gain significant momentum until the 1920’s and 1930’s. Women played a significant role in the anti-lynching movement. Since one of the chief justifications for lynching was the protection of Southern white femininity, groups of women in organizations such as the ASWPL and the Council for Interracial Cooperation became important voices in discouraging and educating the public about the illegality of the practice.
Lynching began to fade as a public practice by the 1940’s, though it continued in several Southern states until the 1960’s. The Ku Klux Klan organized a public lynching in Mobile, Alabama as late as 1981. The states of Mississippi and Georgia saw the most lynchings, followed by Tennessee, Louisiana, and Alabama.