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The narrative of racial difference that lynching dramatized continues to haunt us. Avoiding honest conversation about this history has undermined our ability to build a nation where racial justice can be achieved. In America, there is a legacy of racial inequality shaped by the enslavement of millions of Black people.
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The era of slavery was followed by decades of terrorism and racial subordination most dramatically evidenced by lynching. The civil rights movement of the s and s challenged the legality of many of the most racist practices and structures that sustained racial subordination but the movement was not followed by a continued commitment to truth and reconciliation.
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Truth and reconciliation is a concept of restorative justice that is used to address oppressive histories of mass violence and systematic human rights abuses. Truth commissions serve to expose, confront, and reckon with past injustices through public acknowledgement and commemoration, which is necessary for successful transitions from conflict to peace. Consequently, this legacy of racial inequality has persisted, leaving us vulnerable to a range of problems that continue to reveal racial disparities and injustice.
EJI believes it is essential that we begin to discuss our history of racial injustice more soberly and to understand the implications of our past in addressing the challenges of the present. Lynching in America is the second in a series of reports that examines the trajectory of American history from slavery to mass incarceration. In , EJI published Slavery in America , which documents the slavery era and its continuing legacy, and erected three public markers in Montgomery, Alabama, to change the visual landscape of a city and state that has romanticized the mid-nineteenth century and ignored the devastation and horror created by racialized slavery and the slave trade.
We have more recently supplemented our research by documenting terror lynchings in other states, and found these acts of violence were most common in eight states: Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. We distinguish racial terror lynchings—the subject of this report—from hangings and mob violence that followed some criminal trial process or that were committed against non-minorities without the threat of terror. Those lynchings were a crude form of punishment that did not have the features of terror lynchings directed at racial minorities who were being threatened and menaced in multiple ways.
We also distinguish terror lynchings from racial violence and hate crimes that were prosecuted as criminal acts. Although criminal prosecution for hate crimes was rare during the period we examine, such prosecutions ameliorated those acts of violence and racial animus. 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.
Racial terror lynching was much more prevalent than previously reported. EJI researchers have documented several hundred more lynchings than the number identified in the most comprehensive work done on lynching to date. The extraordinary work of E. Beck and Stewart E. Tolnay provided an invaluable resource, as did the research collected at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama.
These sources are widely viewed asthe most comprehensive collection of research data on the subject of lynching in America. EJI conducted extensive analysis of these data as well as supplemental research and investigation of lynchings in each of the subject states. EJI has documented racial terror lynchings in twelve Southern states between the end of Reconstruction in and , which is at least more lynchings in these states than previously reported.
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EJI has also documented more than racial terror lynchings in other states during this time period. Some states and counties were particularly terrifying places for African Americans and had dramatically higher rates of lynching than other states and counties we reviewed. Mississippi, Florida, Arkansas, and Louisiana had the highest statewide rates of lynching in the United States. Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana had the highest number of lynchings. Phillips County, Arkansas; Lafourche and Tensas parishes in Louisiana; Leflore and Carroll counties in Mississippi; and New Hanover County, North Carolina, were sites of mass killings of African Americans in single-incident violence that mark them as notorious places in the history of racial terror violence.
Our research confirms that many victims of terror lynchings were murdered without being accused of any crime; they were killed for minor social transgressions or for demanding basic rights and fair treatment. Our conversations with survivors of lynchings show that terror lynching played a key role in the forced migration of millions of Black Americans out of the South. Thousands of people fled to the North and West out of fear of being lynched.
Parents and spouses sent away loved ones who suddenly found themselves at risk of being lynched for a minor social transgression; they characterized these frantic, desperate escapes as surviving near-lynchings. In all of the subject states, we observed that there is an astonishing absence of any effort to acknowledge, discuss, or address lynching. Many of the communities where lynchings took place have gone to great lengths to erect markers and monuments that memorialize the Civil War, the Confederacy, and historical events during which local power was violently reclaimed by white Southerners.
These communities celebrate and honor the architects of racial subordination and political leaders known for their belief in white supremacy. There are very few monuments or memorials that address the history and legacy of lynching in particular or the struggle for racial equality more generally. Most communities do not actively or visibly recognize how their race relations were shaped by terror lynching.
We found that most terror lynchings can best be understood as having the features of one or more of the following: 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 and The decline of lynching in the studied states relied heavily on the increased use of capital punishment imposed by court order following an often accelerated trial.
The Equal Justice Initiative believes that our nation must fully address our history of racial terror and the legacy of racial inequality it has created. This report explores the power of truth and reconciliation or transitional justice to address oppressive histories by urging communities to honestly and soberly recognize the pain of the past.
As has been powerfully detailed in Sherrilyn A. Ifill's extraordinary work on lynching i , there is an urgent need to challenge the absence of recognition in the public space on the subject of lynching. Only when we concretize the experience through discourse, memorials, monuments, and other acts of reconciliation can we overcome the shadows cast by these grievous events. We hope you will join our effort to help towns, cities, and states confront and recover from tragic histories of racial violence and terrorism and to improve the health of our communities by creating an environment where there can truly be equal justice for all.
Stevenson is a widely acclaimed public interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned. Enslaved people who have just escaped from a Virginia plantation in Library of Congress. When eleven Southern states seceded from the Union to form the Confederate States of America, sparking the Civil War in , they made no secret of their ultimate aim: to preserve the institution of slavery.
Instead, Lincoln favored a gradual process of compensated emancipation and voluntary colonization, which would encourage freed Black people to emigrate to Africa. As the Civil War dragged on, however, increasing numbers of enslaved African Americans fled slavery to relocate behind Union lines, and the cause of emancipation became more militarily and politically expedient. In most Confederate states where the proclamation did apply, resistance to emancipation was inevitable and there was almost no federal effort to enforce the grant of freedom. Many used deception and violence to keep enslaved people from leaving plantations.
The legal instruments that led to the formal end of racialized chattel slavery in America did nothing to address the myth of racial hierarchy that sustained slavery, nor did they establish a national commitment to the alternative ideology of racial equality. Black people might be free from involuntary labor under the law, but that did not mean Southern whites recognized them as fully human. White Southern identity was grounded in a belief that whites are inherently superior to African Americans; following the war, whites reacted violently to the notion that they would now have to treat their former human property as equals and pay for their labor.
In numerous recorded incidents, plantation owners attacked Black people simply for claiming their freedom. The failure to unearth those roots would leave Black Americans exposed to terrorism and racial subordination for more than a century. Formerly enslaved people were beaten and murdered for asserting they were free after the Civil War. Without federal troops, freed Black men and women remained subject to violence and intimidation for any act or gesture that showed independence or freedom.
Library of Congress. He also rescinded orders granting Black farmers tracts of land confiscated from Confederates. Instead of facilitating Black land ownership, Johnson advocated a new practice that soon replaced slavery as a primary source of Southern agricultural labor: sharecropping. Under this system, Black laborers worked white-owned land in exchange for a share of the crop at harvest minus costs for food and lodging, often in the same slave quarters they had previously inhabited.
President Johnson also opposed Black voting rights. Meanwhile, the Johnson administration allowed Southern whites to reestablish white supremacy and dominate Black people with impunity. Two incidents in foretold terrifying days to come for African Americans. This led to the mass arrest and incarceration of Black people - all of whom could be leased for profit. The white mob began firing on Black marchers, indiscriminately killing convention supporters and unaffiliated Black bystanders. Rather than maintain order, white police officers attacked Black residents with guns, axes, and clubs, arresting many and killing several.
By the time federal troops arrived to suppress the white insurgency, as many as forty-eight Black people were dead and two hundred had been wounded. After Republicans lost their majorities during the Great Depression, a realignment occurred and Southern Democrats opposed to the New Deal and Black civil rights moved to the Republican Party.
Republicans won a landslide victory in the congressional races, gaining a veto-proof majority and control of the legislative agenda.