There were 3,959 Black people lynched in the United States between 1877 and 1950—a number that is 700 more than previously known—and Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana had more lynchings than any other state in the country. These revelations are contained in an astounding new report by the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative that attempts to place this horrid form of American racial terrorism in its proper historical context as a tool of white supremacy that had a profound impact on the nation.
The report, called “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror,” ties lynching to a broader picture of white social control, showing how lynchings affected African-American migration patterns, effectively turning many Southern communities from predominantly Black to overwhelmingly white virtually overnight and sending millions of Black people to the cities of the North to escape this terrorism. It is a significantly more nuanced view of how whites used lynching to serve particular purposes—and how lynchings were a seldom-discussed driver of the Great Migration of Black people to the North.
Provocatively, the report suggests that it was the imposition of capital punishment that brought a reduction in the number of lynchings in the South—basically the nation replaced this form of terrorism that government quietly sanctioned with a more official means of killing Black people. More than eight in 10 American lynchings between 1889 and 1918 occurred in the South, according to the report, and more than eight in 10 of the nearly 1,400 legal executions carried out in this country since 1976 have been in the South.
“That the death penalty’s roots are sunk deep in the legacy of lynching is evidenced by the fact that public executions to mollify the mob continued after the practice was legally banned,” the report states.
In addition to killing thousands, helping to marginalize Black people in the country’s political, economic, and social systems and fueling a massive migration out of the South, the EJI says “lynching—and other forms of racial terrorism—inflicted deep traumatic and psychological wounds on survivors, witnesses, family members, and the entire African-American community. Whites who participated in or witnessed gruesome lynchings and socialized their children in this culture of violence also were psychologically damaged. And state officials’ indifference to and complicity in lynchings created enduring national and institutional wounds that we have not yet confronted or begun to heal.”
The EJI calls in the report for the establishment of monuments and memorials to commemorate lynching victims, which the group says “has the power to end the silence and inaction that have compounded this psycho-social trauma and to begin the process of recovery.”
“The absence of a prominent public memorial acknowledging racial terrorism is a powerful statement about our failure to value the African Americans who were killed or gravely wounded in this brutal campaign of racial violence,” the report states. “National commemoration of the atrocities inflicted on African Americans during decades of racial terrorism would begin building trust between the survivors of racial terrorism and the governments and legal systems that failed to protect them.”
The EJI defines lynchings as acts of terrorism “because these murders were carried out with impunity, sometimes in broad daylight, often ‘on the courthouse lawn,’” according to the report. “These lynchings were not ‘frontier justice,’ because they generally took place in communities where there was a functioning criminal justice system that was deemed too good for African Americans. Terror lynchings were horrific acts of violence whose perpetrators were never held accountable. Indeed, some ‘public spectacle lynchings’ were attended by the entire white community and conducted as celebratory acts of racial control and domination.”
How likely was the Black community to get assistance from the federal government during this reign of terror? Not likely. This was President Theodore Roosevelt’s take on the subject: “The greatest existing cause of lynching is the perpetration, especially by Black men, of the hideous crime of rape,” Roosevelt said.
Not only did the EJI find evidence of 700 more lynching than previously thought, but over a period of four years the EJI staff spent thousands of hours documenting where lynchings actually occurred in the 12 most active lynching states in America: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. The result is the most detailed accounting of this horrid system ever collected.
In these 12 states, this is how the lynchings were broken down:
South Carolina 164
North Carolina 102
The EJI even catalogued them by county. These were the top 10 counties for lynching:
1. Phillips, AR 243
2. Caddo, LA 54
3. Lafourche, LA 50
4. Tensas, LA 40
5. Ouachita, LA 35
6. Orange, FL 34
7. Bossier, LA 32
8. Marion, FL 30
9. Jefferson, AL 29
10. Dallas, AL 25
The EJI divided lynchings into six different types: (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 1915 and 1940.
The first category, lynchings based on usually spurious charges of sexual assault, was the most common. According to the EJI, nearly 25 percent of the lynchings of Black people in the South were based on charges of interracial sexual assault.
“The mere accusation of rape, even without an identification by the alleged victim, could arouse a lynch mob,” the EJI writes. “The definition of Black-on-white ‘rape’ in the South required no allegation of force because white institutions, laws, and most white people rejected the idea that a white woman would willingly consent to sex with an African-American man.”
As examples, the report describes what happened in 1889, in Aberdeen, Mississippi, when Keith Bowen allegedly tried to enter a room where three white women were sitting. No more serious transgression was alleged against him. That was it—he entered a room. Bowen was lynched by the “entire (white) neighborhood” for his “offense,” the report states.
In the case of General Lee, he was lynched by a white mob in 1904 for merely knocking on the door of a white woman’s house in Reevesville, South Carolina.
In 1912, Thomas Miles was lynched for allegedly inviting a white woman to have a cold drink with him.
The descriptions of the public spectacle lynchings in the report are particularly disturbing.
“Large crowds of white people, often numbering in the thousands and including elected officials and prominent citizens, gathered to witness pre-planned, heinous killings that featured prolonged torture, mutilation, dismemberment, and/or burning of the victim,” the report says. “White press justified and promoted these carnival-like events, with vendors selling food, printers producing postcards featuring photographs of the lynching and corpse, and the victim’s body parts collected as souvenirs. These killings were bold, public acts that implicated the entire community and sent a message that African-Americans were sub-human, their subjugation was to be achieved through any means necessary, and whites who carried out lynchings would face no legal repercussions.”
One of the examples cited tells the story of Luther Holbert, who in 1904 was accused of killing a local white landowner. A white mob captured Holbert and a Black woman believed to be his wife and they were taken to Doddsville, Mississippi, to be lynched before hundreds of white spectators.
“Both victims were tied to a tree and forced to hold out their hands while members of the mob methodically chopped off their fingers and distributed them as souvenirs,” the report says. “Next, their ears were cut off. Mr. Holbert was then beaten so severely that his skull was fractured and one of his eyes was left hanging from its socket. Members of the mob used a large corkscrew to bore holes into the victims’ bodies and pull out large chunks of ‘quivering flesh,’ after which both victims were thrown onto a raging fire and burned. The white men, women, and children present watched the horrific murders while enjoying deviled eggs, lemonade, and whiskey in a picnic-like atmosphere.”
As the EJI notes, lynchings didn’t only harm the victims of the terror—they harmed white people too.
“The psychological harm inflicted by the era of terror lynching extends to the millions of white men, women, and children who instigated, attended, celebrated, and internalized these horrific spectacles of collective violence,” the report states. “Participation in collective violence leaves perpetrators with their own dangerous and persistent damage, including harmful defense mechanisms such as ‘diminish[ed] empathy for victims’ that can lead to intensified violent behaviors that target victims outside the original group. Lynching was a civic duty of white Southern men that brought them praise. Southern white children were taught to embrace traumatic violence and the racist narratives underlying it.”
Demonstrating how purposeful these acts of terror were, the EJI notes that just eight years after a 1912 lynching in Forsyth County, Georgia—after white vigilantes distributed leaflets demanding that all Black people leave the county or suffer deadly consequences—by 1920, the county’s Black population had plunged from 1,100 to just 30.
As all of these incredibly brutal acts were occurring, American government was silent. Congress never passed an anti-lynching bill, instead capitulating to Southern politicians who argued that such bills were racial “favoritism” and a violation of states’ rights. Southern states even passed their own anti-lynching laws to show the federal government that federal legislation was unnecessary—but these states refused to enforce them. In fact, during this prolonged period, not a single white person was convicted of murder for lynching a Black person in America and just 1 percent resulted in a lyncher being convicted of a criminal offense.
But African-Americans didn’t just stand idly by and take it without fighting back. There were courageous efforts to combat the lynchings through grassroots activism.
“Black people targeted members of white lynch mobs for economic retaliation by boycotting their businesses, refusing to work for them, and setting fire to their property,” the EJI notes. “To thwart lynching attempts, black people risked serious harm to hide fugitives, organized sentinels to guard prisoners against lynch mobs, and engaged in armed self-defense.”
The NAACP was actually created in response to racial attacks in Springfield, Illinois, in 1908 that shocked Northerners and demonstrated that lynching was not only a Southern phenomenon.