Years ago, there was an excellent blog by the name of Radish (previously known as phinehasfury.com). I used to link to it. Alas, it has disappeared, and with it some outstanding articles. One of those articles was about lynching in the Old South. I wrote about it on these pages. Unfortunately, I didn’t copy the entire article. If anybody knows where to find it, please let us know in comments.
Today, somebody on Quora shared my answer to “How do White People Feel when they See Pictures of Old Lynching Postcards?” My answer was:
I’ve been asked to answer this question, though I’m not sure what the point is.
In the vast majority of cases, lynching victims were criminals – and since the courts wouldn’t/couldn’t administer justice, the people took things into their own hands.
I’m not sure why white people would feel any differently about this than people of any other race. People of all races participated in lynchings, and people of all races were lynched as well. It’s not a racial thing… except for a few cases – and the question doesn’t specify this.
The share was to illustrate “examples of prejudice,” and I wanted to share my comment, in that thread here; there’s a likelihood of it being removed:
Before I present statistics, I’ll point out a couple of general historical facts, and my primary source here is from Prof. Dwight Murphey, who did extensive research on the topic (www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info/mono/mono1.htm (dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info):
Even today, black Americans have much higher crime-rates than those of white/Asian-Americans, but during the Reconstruction era in the South, things were much worse:
“Of course, one cannot overlook the fact that the defeated South contained the millions of newly-freed blacks, who at first maintained the habits of discipline that had been inculcated into them during slavery, but who, as time went on and a new generation emerged, began to lose those habits. E. Merton Coulter, in his The South During Reconstruction, 1865-1877, writes that “slavery left the Negro illiterate and untrained for the responsibilities of freedom, with such weaknesses as lying and thieving exaggerated. He loved idleness, he had no keen conception of right and wrong, and he was ‘improvident to the last degree of childishness.'”32
A concomitant, of course, was an overflowing of black crime, much of it petty but a great deal of it so serious as to amount almost to a reign of terror…”.
The fact of the matter is that any time there’s a visible demographic that’s responsible for disproportionate violent crime, human nature is to treat criminals of this demographic more harshly. This is probably why men are punished more severely than women for similar crimes. It’s not justification, but explanation.
Secondly, I’ll point out what should be obvious: Every major news organization, school, government agency, NGO and corporation in America has prioritized the emphasis of anti-black racism – to such an extent than NONE of those organizations can be found to highlight instances (of which there are many) of anti-white racism in any consistent manner. This is why a search for “lynching” in Google will yield page after page of results that highlight such crimes against black people as the first results. So, I’m not saying such things never happened, but that there’s a massive industry in place to capitalize on such crimes. This makes it difficult to gain a balanced view of the topic.
I’ll quote Prof. Murphey once again, for his refutation of the notion that Southern lynching was a primarily racist phenomenon are rather strong. I recommend that you take the time to read it. If you’re truly interested, perhaps you should read the entire article:
Do the critics of the South do this? One searches the very extensive literature in vain looking for it. The literature is polemical, occasionally scientistic in the context of the social sciences, sometimes even analytical about peripheral issues, but it never questions or seeks to justify its central supposition: that blacks were lynched because of their race. The dialogue about these things is not over, so it is not too late to issue a scholarly invitation to others to argue the point and provide the evidence. The burden of historical persuasion, however, is on the person who asserts a causal connection.
There is, of course, a major alternative explanation for the lynching of blacks, and that is the crime that was so widespread and outrageous. I won’t repeat the facts cited earlier. It is sufficient to notice that Cutler, who is even one of those who asserts the racial hypothesis, quotes with favor a statement that “the worst instincts of the negro came to the front; the percentage of criminals among negroes increased to an alarming extent; many were guilty of crimes of violence of the most heinous and repulsive kind.” Arthur F. Raper, another who asserts a racial linkage, gives the comparative murder rates: “In 1921-22, the homicide rates in Atlanta, Birmingham, Memphis, and New Orleans per 100,000 Negro population were 103.2, 97.2, 116.9, and 46.7 respectively, while the corresponding rates for the white population were 15.0, 28.0, 29.6, and 8.4.” These figures are eloquent testimony that serious crime was the primary provocation for lynching.16 If those murder rates had existed in the post-Civil War West, the perpetrators, whatever their race, might well have expected to swing from the bridge over the Neosho river.
The only linkage to racism that is persuasive, albeit only in part, is in the cases where a lynching occurred without an outrageous provoking cause. Jane Addams and Ida B. Wells, in Lynching and Rape: An Exchange of Views, refer extensively to the Chicago Tribune statistics and point out that cases are cited of negroes’ having been lynched for “violating contracts, unpopularity, testifying in court, or shooting at rabbits.” Cutler makes the same point to explain why the Tribune listed some lynchings as caused by “race prejudice”: “The probable reason…is that no offense had been committed which was considered worthy of mention as a cause.” It seems sensible that if there was no genuine provocation (although we should keep it in mind that the local community may have perceived the preceding events differently than a Chicago Tribune compiler did), the lynching must have been caused by the other main potential motivating factor, race prejudice. This is persuasive to a point. The weakness in it lies, however, in there having been whites who were also lynched for “minor offenses.” If race was the cause, how is that to be explained?
This doubt is deepened when we take into account all of the counter-evidence that militates against the racism-as-cause explanation. Here is the rebutting evidence I have noticed:
1. Some may not credit it because it can be taken as a self-serving statement by a white southerner, but to me there is significance in what Henry W. Grady, perhaps the major exponent of the white South’s perspective during the last decades of the nineteenth century, was able to write in Century Magazine in 1884. What he wrote must have rung true to his readers, at least from their perspective, since if it were known to them to be nonsense his article would have had little persuasive value. He was talking about the treatment blacks received in southern courts, but it has a bearing on the nature of the “prejudice” that is said to have animated whites: “There is an abundant belief that the very helplessness of the negro in court has touched the heart and conscience of many a jury, when the facts should have held them impervious. In the city in which this is written a negro, at midnight, on an unfrequented street, murdered a popular young fellow…The only witnesses of the killing were the friends of the murdered boy. Had the murderer been a white man, it is believed he would have been convicted. He was acquitted by the white jury, and has since been convicted of a murderous assault on a person of his own color. Similarly, a young white man, belonging to one of the leading families of the State, was hanged for the murder of a negro.”18
2. It is especially worthwhile to notice the last sentence of the quote just given from Grady, which tells that a white man, even one of prominent social standing, was executed for killing a black. This is inconceivable to the proponents of the racial thesis. It also runs counter to a Marxist class analysis.
3. The lynching in the South was not limited to blacks. Whites, and even white women, were lynched, too, obviously not for reasons of racial prejudice. Cutler’s statistics show 567 whites lynched in the South between 1882-1903, inclusive. When other parts of the country are included, Zangrando’s statistics indicate 1,297 whites between 1882 and 1968. A famous case of a white man’s being lynched is the August 1915 lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia after he was convicted of rape-murder. Wright tells how in eastern Kentucky in 1868 nineteen supporters of the Republican Party, apparently all white, were murdered within a four-month period. He says that even though a number of whites were killed for this reason relating to the aftermath of the Civil War, murder was the most frequent provocation. He mentions a white who was lynched for murdering his mother-in-law, another for killing his wife. In 1877 five members of the Simmons gang, all white, were taken from their jail cells and lynched. In the 1880s, several vigilante committees were formed to catch and lynch outlaws. We recall that the Bald Knobbers in southwest Missouri involved white-on-white vigilantism, including lynchings. Richard Maxwell Brown tells of the White Cap movement (another of the many names for vigilantism) that “first appeared in southern Indiana in 1887, but…spread to the four corners of the nation…[W]hite capping was the most prevalent as a sort of spontaneous movement for the moral regulation of the poor whites and ne’er-do-wells of the rural American countryside. Thus, drunken, shiftless whites who often abused their families were typical targets of White Cap violence.” This was a movement directed at what in those days respectable society called “white trash.” If all of this went on and was not racially motivated, why are we to conclude that blacks were lynched for a totally different reason?19
4. In Tennessee in 1911, according to Shay, four white men “lynched” a black and his two daughters with no known provocation. “Two of the white men were ultimately hanged for their part in the lynching.” [In light of the meaning of “lynching,” what Shay is talking about is a case of murder and not of lynching, since the act was not done as an expression of community sensibility and did not receive community approval.] If indiscriminate anti-black racial brutality had been part of the community ethos, the white men would not have been executed.
5. Wright says “there were cases of blacks being lynched by whites for the murder of blacks” (emphasis added). This is totally incongruous if one accepts the racial hypothesis, since according to it whites would have welcomed blacks’ murdering of other blacks.
6. Blacks did some of the lynching themselves, sometimes of other blacks, sometimes of whites. Shay says that “in 1908, at Pine Level, Johnston County, North Carolina, it is recorded that an unnamed Negro entertainer was lynched by Negroes for putting on a poor show.” [Notice, too, that the lynching here was for insufficient provocation, which when done by whites is taken as evidence of their racial motivation.] Another case cited by Shay occurred at Caddo Parish, Louisiana, in 1934 when “a thirty-year- old Negro was beaten to death by members of his own race because of an alleged insult offered by [him] to a colored girl….” Most significant is the case in Clarksdale, Tennessee, in 1914, “when Negroes…lynched a white youth for the rape of a Negress. The coroner’s jury, believe it or not, brought in a verdict of justifiable homicide and freed the blacks” (emphasis added). Shay’s exclamatory “believe it or not” underscores how greatly the white coroner’s jury’s action contradicts the conventional wisdom. The historian E. Merton Coulter tells how “in Chicot County, Arkansas, in 1872 armed negroes took three white men from jail, riddled them with bullets, and went about burning and pillaging.” This shows that it wasn’t just white mobs that succeeded in getting people from the custody of jailers.
7. We might surmise that someone propounding the conventional theory that “racism was the cause” would suppose that there would have been more lynching of blacks in Mississippi, considered a notoriously “racist” state, than in Kansas, where at the beginning of the Civil War anti-slavery forces prevailed over the pro-slavery faction. It is surprising, then, that Donald L. Grant tells us that “the number of lynchings per thousand Blacks in Kansas during the 1890s was practically the same as in Mississippi.”
8. The most important refutation of the racism explanation lies in southern lynching’s place as just part of a much larger mosaic of turmoil and popular justice, such as occurred in colonial America, in the entire country before the Civil War, in the West, in the Northeast, and in the world at large whenever society is unsettled. It is extremely arbitrary and selective to consider the lynching of blacks in the South just by itself, dropping the larger context. Seen just by itself, the racial hypothesis seems plausible, which is why readers quite gullibly accept the charge; but seen as part of a larger phenomenon occurring at exactly the same time, it comes to share in the explanations that are appropriate to the phenomenon as a whole.