The Origins of Lynching Culture in the United States

The Origins of Lynching Culture in the United States


The legal definition of lynching is when
three or more persons, which constitute a mob, put someone to death extra-legally without court sanction, without legal sanction, and they do it
for the purpose of tradition and/or whatever their version of justice is. And this becomes a legal definition by
the 1920s of the NNACP. And their struggle, of course, against
lynching and trying to make lynching a federal crime. Lynching actually begins in the
Revolutionary War years and it’s named after the brother of the man who founded
Lynchburg, Virginia. And lynching took place–this is extra legal justice in
quotes–takes place during that period of time because it’s not too many courts.
It’s sort of difficult to get to them. This is a period–the British are also in
place and many places in the South–and so it becomes very dangerous to move
around. And so this is a form of justice– of local justice–that is not condoned by
a formal court. It’s interesting, it’s not until 1886 that the number of Black lynch victims actually exceed the number of white and lynch victims. So this is
an American tradition that becomes racialized later for a number of
reasons. There’s a constant struggle over the
meaning of who deserves the protection and rights that are talked about in the
US Constitution. And what happens, of course, is that one of the functions of a
stereotype–of a racial stereotype–is to show that someone is undeserving of
first-class citizenship. And until rather recently, first-class citizenship was
seen not as a right but as a privilege. And it was a privilege accorded to those
with a particular character and who lived their life in a particular way and
had the honor that you are talking about. This really stymied activism because in
the history–African-American history– there is a–which still exists in some
extent–a big conservative element that really says, “you know if we live our life
a certain way, we’re going to get–we’re going to become–first-class citizens.” You
guys, that’s what the Constitution says but it’s a privilege it’s not a right. In the late 19th century, an evolving
scientific theory claimed that human beings could be categorized and ranked
by such constructs as social standing and group affiliation. Drawing on Charles
Darwin’s theory of Biology that the fittest will survive, this science called
Social Darwinism perpetuated various myths about how societies evolved. One
particularly destructive myth was that Black people were inferior to white
people. And therefore, there was a justification
to suppress the advancement in all areas lest the society, as it whole, be brought
down. There had been prejudices always
around color ever since you know the first Africans came to the US, but they
changed. And in the late 19th century, with the advent of Social Darwinism and
the need to think about Black people and Black labor and Black bodies in a
particular way, we begin to see this idea that Blacks are actually beginning to
devolve down the evolutionary scale; devolve into more primitive identities
and with primitive of course as lasciviousness and lack of control, lack
of character, lack of honor, etc. And scientists actually sought to prove
these things empirically. And from there, they begin to also think about the
notion of what is happening to women. The idea around women’s sexuality begins a change in this period of time as well. This need for this passionless
sort of idea of white women who need to maintain their purity and the purity of
the race which is one of the fears, the Bugaboos, that come up around interracial
relationships and this charge of rape. While there was no shortage of reasons
for discrimination against Black people by white in this period the emerging
myth of the threat of the rape of a white woman by a Black man became a
tense focal point and the often false accusation of rape the chief
justification for lynching. One person of the period to expose this destructive
myth was black journalist and anti lynching activist Ida B Wells.
I know Wells was an activist, a woman who was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi in
1862. And in 1892, a very good friend of hers was actually lynched in Memphis,
Tennessee by the name of Tom Moss and two other men along with him. And what
she begins to understand is that lynching is really taking on a new kind
of face quite literally. That blacks are being victimized now in greater numbers.
And the reason that is given for this rise in lynchings which reaches a peak
in 1892 is the accusation that Black men are raping white women. And she says it’s new because there’s
there’s no history of this in the numbers that people are professing. She
knows that Thomas Moss certainly hasn’t and there’s a whole history, there’s a
reason why he was lynched. He was actually competing successfully with
another what would the white store owner. So what she does which is really makes
her so interesting I think an activist is she becomes an investigative reporter.
And so when she starts talking against lynching it’s not she’s just not giving
an opinion she’s actually going to the sites of lynchings. She’s using
statistics that other people also use to disprove the idea. By simply finding out
instances when there was a charge of rape that often they were just
consensual relationships between Black men and white women. And that in and of itself just it turns
the world upside down because if it’s consensual, Black men aren’t monsters as
even now the social scientists are saying. If it’s consensual, white women aren’t desexualized and innocent of any kind of behavior or and in need of all this protection which
Black people are being killed in the name of. So, it’s a notion that
really involves all them and they’re all often dependent on the other
and defined in opposition to the other. You can’t have white people if you don’t
have black people, right? With all the characteristics that are also defined in
opposition to one another. I mean this is one reason why you have
to have lynching that even segregation there’s too much equality. I mean, there’s
just you have to have something that really distinguishes white people from
Black people and having Black peoples be lynch victims and white people are
able to be the spectators–now that’s different. Now that is a difference that
is consistent. According to the Tuskegee Institute, from 1882 to 1951, 4730 people, mostly Black, were lynched in the United
States. They were tortured, hanged, burned alive, dragged behind trucks, and in
several cases there bodies were dismembered and the pieces either
discarded or kept by many as souvenirs.

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