Yglesias had a post up yesterday on a really strange attempt by the conservative magazine American Spectator to try to discredit Shirley Sherrod by arguing that her relative, Bobby Hall, was not lynched because he was not hung (he was beaten to death). Yglesias goes through the history of lynching, and some of the reports on the incident, and demonstrates quite clearly that lynching doesn't necessarily mean "hanging", it simply means mob justice before a trial can take place. It often implies hanging, but the act is not required. Why the American Spectator would try to take a stand on this is a worthwhile question for any subscribers to that publication to ask. But I was also intrigued by the graphic that Yglesias included from the Truman administration's "To Secure These Rights" report:
One thing that caught my eye was how many of the early lynchings were of whites. For the first ten years, about half the incidents involved whites, and then very quickly the vast majority were lynchings of blacks. What happened here? One of the books I rescued from the Urban Institute's library before it closed up was the 1966 follow up report on civil rights titled "To Fulfill These Rights", but this report didn't even mention lynching (which I suppose is in and of itself a sign of some progress). I also consulted DuBois's 1915 article on lynching and he doesn't mention the phenomenon of white lynching. I have three theories for what's going on here. If anyone has any way of arbitrating between the theories or has any additional theories I'd be interested in hearing about it:
1. The end of Reconstruction marked the beginning of the Jim Crow era. The late 1870s and early 1880s were a time of institution building at the state and local level; new institutions emerged to control blacks now that the old laws and customs of chattel slavery and the protective cover of the Union Army were both gone. In 1875 or so, while the United States was not a pleasant place for blacks, it was not yet the Jim Crow world that would emerge. I know specifically of former Confederate officer William Mahone, who (at least initially) made political inclusion of blacks a priority in Virginia. But as the institutions of Jim Crow began to emerge this sort of position became untenable for whites, and men like Mahone very quickly began to relent. So - perhaps white lynchings in the 1880s, which quickly dropped off afterwards, were a form of institutional enforcement. Whites were lynched early on for the same reason that blacks were: they weren't sufficiently deferential to white privilege. Perhaps a few tried to defend blacks during lynchings and suffered the same fate. As the institution matured, whites "learned their place" as it were, and didn't make any attempts to challenge a system that, after all, provided them with privileges. It seems like a reasonable explanation.
2. Lynchings became racialized. There are a lot of things in our society that are thought of as "black things" or "white things". Crime and punishment is no different. The South has always been a violent place, and its not particularly surprising that mob justice was meted out to whites as well as blacks. But when lynching became a specific tool of Jim Crow, it became a "black punishment". Part of keeping the disparity between whites and blacks intact was to make sure that whites weren't subjected to "black punishments". Violent outbursts are racially categorized - you don't hear that much about black duels and you don't hear that much about white lynchings. You can see this trend in servitude and slavery itself in the very early South. Bound servitude was initially a fate of both whites and blacks. But very quickly chattel slavery was distinguished as an institution for blacks alone. In a sense this explanation, like the first one, is very much an "institutional emergence" explanation.
3. Bad statistics. You can't work with data of varying quality every day and not keep in mind that the statistics might just be bad. It's quite plausible that total lynchings were much higher in the 1880s than is reported here, but that white lynchings were reported and counted more often than black lynchings. As the years went on and this was recognized as a real problem, counts of black lynchings became more accurate. If this is the case, then the substantial number of early white lynchings may be a mirage - they may have formed just as small a percentage of the total as they did in later years.
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