Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Civil War Legacy Revealed in Lynchings

For many Americans, the "good old days" were never good.  A  report, released by the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, presents a gruesome list of  3,959 victims of “racial terror lynchings” in twelve Southern states from 1877 to 1950. The inventory was compiled over five years of research and 160 visits to sites around the South. The victims represent a backlash to the end of slavery and new rights granted to American blacks.

Map of 73 years of Lynchings
[Please see Map of 73 years of Lynchings]
The lynchings have more to do with societal tiers that were changed forever in the aftermath of the Civil War.  Professor E. M. Beck, who teaches at the University of Georgia, noted that “Many of these lynchings were not executing people for crimes but executing people for violating the racial hierarchy.” These offenses could be "bumping up against a white woman or wearing an Army uniform."  Some of victims were accused of a crime and, rather than waiting for the verdict, the alleged perpetrator was removed from the jail and hanged.

While some have alleged that these public executions were the result of people taking the law into their own hands, Professor Beck reports that the number of lynchings did not rise or fall in proportion to the number of state-sanctioned executions. Beck's analysis underscores what Mr. Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative said was that "these brutal deaths were not about administering popular justice, but terrorizing a community."

The chronicle of terror in Texas includes the following community "hate crimes:"
  • In 1910, a group of men rushed into the Dallas courthouse, threw a rope around the neck of a black man accused of sexually assaulting a three-year-old white girl, and threw the other end of the rope out a window. A mob outside yanked the man, Allen Brooks, to the ground and strung him up at a ceremonial arch a few blocks down Main Street.
  • South of the city, past the Trinity River bottoms, a black man named W. R. Taylor was hanged by a mob in 1889.
  • Farther south in Streetman, a 25-year-old George Gay was hanged from a tree and shot hundreds of times in 1922.
  • In Kirvin, three black men, two of them almost certainly innocent, were accused of killing a white woman and, "under the gaze of hundreds of soda-drinking spectators," were castrated, stabbed, beaten, tied to a plow and set afire in the spring of 1922.
  • In Paris, Texas, about 100 miles northeast of Dallas, thousands of people came in 1893 to see Henry Smith, a black teenager accused of murder, carried around town on a float, then tortured and burned to death on a scaffold.
  • In 1920, in Paris the two Arthur brothers were tied to a flagpole and set on fire at the city fairgrounds.
The hangings were spread throughout the South.  What is even more disturbing is the rise in executions following World War I.  It seems obvious that the returning black soldiers, who had served their country, felt that they had earned their place in society. Sadly that was not the case much to the shame of the nation.

Whites Attacking Blacks in Chicago
The summer of 1919 was marked by deadly race riots in numerous major cities across the country including Chicago,Knoxville, and Washington, DC. In addition, postwar tensions were high because of labor unrest across the country. Added to labor tensions were racial ones. Collectively, the events, in more than three dozen cities, were  referred to as Red Summer. In most instances, whites attacked African Americans. In some cases many blacks fought back, notably in Chicago, where, along with Washington, D.C. and Elaine, Arkansas, the greatest number of fatalities occurred. The riots followed postwar social tensions related to the demobilization of veterans of World War I, both black and white, and competition for jobs among ethnic whites and blacks. The riots were extensively documented in the press, which along with the federal government conflated black movements with Bolshevism. Eighteen of the thirty-four attacks occurred in the South, eleven in the North, and five were in border states.  Five attacks took place in Pennsylvania, four riots happened in Georgia, and there were three each in Mississippi and Texas.

In October 1919, Dr. George Edmund Haynes issued a report calling for national action. He noted that lynchings were a national problem, as President Wilson had said in a 1918 speech; from 1889–1918, more than 3,000 people had been lynched; 2,472 were black men, and 50 were black women. Haynes said that states had shown themselves "unable or unwilling" to put a stop to lynchings, and seldom prosecuted the murderers. The fact that white men had been lynched in the North as well, he argued, demonstrated the national nature of the overall problem: "It is idle to suppose that murder can be confined to one section of the country or to one race."

Elaine, Arkansas Newspaper 
The worse case occurred in Phillips County, Arkansas where 243 people were killed in what is known as The Elaine race riot or Elaine massacre, occurred September 30, 1919 in the town of Elaine. In Phillips County, a plantation area of the Mississippi Delta since before the Civil War, blacks outnumbered whites by ten to one. Whites feared resistance to their domination. They also wanted blacks out of the country or dead. Approximately 100 African-American farmers, led by Robert L. Hill, the founder of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America, met at a church in Hoop Spur in Phillips County, near Elaine. The purpose was "to obtain better payments for their cotton crops from the white plantation owners who dominated the area during the Jim Crow era. Black sharecroppers were often exploited in their efforts to collect payment for their cotton crops." Whites resisted such organizing by blacks, and two went to the meeting. In a conflict, guards shot one of the white men. Violence ensued in the town and county, leaving five whites and 243 blacks dead. The only men prosecuted in the events were 115 African Americans, of whom 12 were quickly convicted and sentenced to death for murder. Their cases went to the United States Supreme Court, where the convictions were overturned on appeal. In the closing days of Governor Thomas McRae's administration, he freed most of the defendants, who were helped to leave the state to avoid being lynched.

(Source: Robertson, Campbell, "History of Lynchings in the South Documents Nearly 4,000 Names," New York Times, February 10, 2015; "Red Summer," Wikipedia; and Elaine race riot, Wikipedia)

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