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Exhibition of Lynching Postcards

The Lynching Century: African Americans Who Died in Racial Violence in the United States



A Favorite American Sport

People looked forward to these lynching gatherings and felt no shame attending.
Alfred Cranford was a white planter in Newman, Atlanta. When his worker, a black man by the name of Sam Hose, asked for a day off to visit his sick mom and for a pay advance, he refused. The next day, Cranford pointed a pistol at Hose and threatened his life. According to a white detective, Hose then flung an axe in self-defense, killing Cranford. Within days, newspapers had begun labeling him as "a monster in human form" who had deliberately snuck up on poor Cranford to bury an axe in his head, and then proceeded to drag Mrs. Cranford into the bedroom to rape her. The story may have had some variations, but the outcome surely did not.

2000 white Georgians watched as Sam Hose was chained to a tree, stripped of his clothes, doused with oil, and then had parts of his body cut off before finally being set on fire. His body was cut into pieces and fought for as prized souvenirs. A grocery store displayed his charred knuckles. A sign was put up next to his ashes the next day that read, "WE MUST PROTECT OUR SOUTHERN WOMEN." A local newspaper defended the lynchers, describing them as, "(P)eople intensely religious, home-loving, and just. There is among them no foreign or lawless element." And like most, if not all, lynchings, no one was ever prosecuted.

Check out the little girls in the crowd witnessing this event.

Learning about the 4,742 African Americans lynched between 1882 and 1968 gave me an eerie sense of deja vu. What happened to Sam Hose had so many similarities to what I had discovered in Tulsa, Oklahoma during the Greenwood race riot. A black male was accused in the newspapers of raping a white woman, even though no such thing seemed to have occurred. An angry mob of whites then gathered to enact "justice" using the most brutal, violent tactics available. These attacks were aided and supported by the media, the courts, the police, and ultimately, the government. The underlying issue driving all of this was black people's assertion of independence and white people's terror at the thought of it.

The early days of lynching were not based on skin color. In the West and Midwest, lynching was used primarily against other whites as a form of vigilante justice. But after Reconstruction, lynching took on a more sinister and sadistic form. Southern whites had already tried to control the black population by denying them the right to vote, instituting segregation, and making sure there were few opportunities for blacks to economically advance. Scientific theories about black inferiority sprung up. But all this was not enough to satisfy white people's sense of security.

From the late nineteenth century up to the 1930s, Southern whites lynched an average of 2-3 African Americans a week. But these were not your average hangings. "Uppity blacks" thought to have "stepped out of their place" needed to be taught a lesson in the most graphic ways possible. Thus, it wasn't enough to just hang or burn them. There had to be public ceremonies and rituals to dismember and torture black folk. Lynchings now were big festive carnivals, a place of entertainment just like we think of the movies or the WWF.

Looking at lynching photos is a truly nauseating experience. I cannot conceive of how human beings could act in such barbaric ways and then laugh and joke at their actions. Then I was reminded how much the Romans liked to watch people being thrown at lions. Perhaps there is something inherently bloodthirsty in human nature. But that doesn't mean we should overlook what represents some of the darkest and most grotesque moments in our nation's history.

Most whites on juries refused to convict lynchers, even when the evidence was beyond reasonable doubt.

"It was like killing a chicken or killing a snake. The whites would say, 'Niggers jest supposed to die, ain't no damn good anyway-so jest go on an' kill 'em," said a Mississippi resident. This belief that black people were less than human, a "savage, violent, sexually ravenous and depraved race" in contrast to the "moral, civilized, Christian" whites so dominated the American mindset that lynchings were casually announced as "Negro barbeques" in newspapers.

When I look at the photos of happy, excited whites watching a black man getting fried to a crisp, I tend to view these people as a bunch of sick wackos. However, most of the citizens who gathered to execute and watch lynchings were your average, normal, church-going whites. Prominent citizens attended many a lynching, including US senators and congressmen. Parents would ask that their children be let out of school to attend scheduled murders. People would send postcards to each other of blacks strung from a tree. Is it any wonder why a black newspaper called lynching "our national pastime?"

Occasionally, there would be some distinction made between a "good lynching" vs. a "bad lynching." It was a good lynching if it involved rape, bad if happened because a black refused to be vaccinated for a disease. The majority of lynchings did not involve accusations of rape, but were mostly for minor offenses that did not respect white supremacy, such as not tipping your hat to a white person or letting a white person pass you on the sidewalk.

One of my all-time heroes, Ida Wells-Barnett.

African Americans tried to fight back and agitate against the atrocities occurring in the South. The NAACP was formed partly in response to the climate of terror. One of its founders, Ida Wells-Barnett, a black journalist, devoted much of her professional life to crusading against the evils of lynching and the American indifference to it. Starting in 1898, she, along with a group of others demanded that President William McKinley formulate anti-lynching legislation. The federal government never, even under liberal president Franklin Roosevelt, passed any anti-lynching laws, fearful of losing political support in the South. There were also white organizations, such as the Southern Association of Women Against Lynching led by Jessie Ames, but for the most part, whites, if they did not participate in lynchings, did not do anything to stop them.

After being chased out of town, Ida gets her own spot on the famous Beale St. in Memphis, Tennessee. Beale St. was a place that helped nourish American blues and jazz.

Like that other courageous journalist named Ida, Ida Wells-Barnett caused a lot of trouble with her uncompromising writings against lynching. As one of the owners of the Memphis Free Speech newspaper, she attacked not only the lynchers, but also others she thought were passive bystanders, particularly Southern churches. She wrote, "Our American Christians are too busy saving the souls of white Christians from burning in hellfire to save the lives of black ones from present burning in fires kindled by white Christians." She condemned whites for trying blacks without due process of law. "No other nation, civilized or savage, burns its criminals; only under the Stars and Stripes is the human holocaust possible." Before Rosa Parks, there was Ida refusing to give up her seat on a railroad trainby biting the man who told her to leave. When three successful Memphis businessmen were lynched, her scathing editorial led local whites to torch her office. She fled to New York City and later to Chicago, becoming a well-known speaker and activist.

Some blacks saw a silver lining in all these tragedies. It meant African Americans were still alive and passionately struggling for their rights. For Frederick Douglass, the lynching epidemic could be seen in one way in a favorable light because, "The enemies of the Negro see that he is making progress and they naturally wish to stop him and keep him in just what they consider his proper place." The closer a black man got to the ballot box, the more he looked like a rapist. Lynchings still went on into the 1960s, but with much less frequency. Ida Wells kept a vigilant watch on the nation's conscience. We must do so as well so that we may never again allow evil to triumph as it did during the lynching era.

*Information taken from "Without Sanctuary," essay by Leon Litwack


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - Springfield's massacre: The 1908 Race Riots
Stephen - "I'm African! No, I'm American! No, I'm African!" No, I'm American!
Stephanie - Poetry to stir the soul and inspire a nation
Nick - How the government ground down a community
Making A Difference - If you are dark of skin, you are guilty as sin
Stephen - Celebrating your heritage: the Black Renaissance
Irene - The largest racial killings in American history
Stephanie - Two nations, one country