Lynching and Racial Violence

the end of Reconstruction (mid-1870s) and World War II, there were
some 3,500 documented incidents of lynching and mob violence against
African Americans, most of them in the South. The victims, mostly
men, were not only hung, but often also tortured, their bodies displayed
publicly and/or dismembered for grisly souvenirs. Sometimes these
men had been convicted of a crime, sometimes only accused, and sometimes
even acquitted, but the real point was to terrorize the communities
in which African Americans lived. Although the participants in the
mob rarely hid their identities, few were ever arrested, let alone
punished for their crimes; according to police reports, grand jury
investigations, and newspaper accounts, the African American victims
met their fates “at the hands of parties unknown.”

Starting in the 1890s, African Americans in the North and South,
and their white allies, built an anti-lynching movement, which used
diverse strategies to confront these outrages. They used not only
petitions, letter-writing, marches, and rallies, but also plays,
songs, visual art, films, and cartoons to assert the humanity of
the victims, educate the public about the scope of the problem,
and pressure politicians to pass a federal anti-lynching law. While
this movement ebbed and flowed and never did achieve its legislative
goal, it became an important current within the “river,”
as historian Vincent Harding has called the freedom struggle.

The anti-lynching movement confronted not only the violent acts
that became known as “lynching,” but also images of those
acts, which sought to lionize the mob and dehumanize their victims.
Often, an enterprising photographer or, as time went on and technology
allowed, an amateur in possession of a camera, documented the events.
Photographs of lynching “parties” reveal that members
of the mob or audience often posed with the corpses of their victims,
in a sort of trophy shot akin to those of successful hunters. In
some cases, these macabre photographs were hawked from home to home
and town to town, a way for the photographers to make money and
for whites who could not be present to participate vicariously in
the expression of power the pictures represented.

On occasion, the photos were turned into postcards, which could
be mailed to friends and relatives in distant locations. In these
ways, lynching photographs helped maintain a racial hierarchy that
asserted that all whites deserved to stand above all blacks. After
viewing one such photograph in 1935, composer and civil rights activist
James Weldon Johnson remarked that lynching was a “problem
of saving black America’s body and white America’s soul.”

the 1980s, James Allen, a white southerner sympathetic to the struggle
against racism, began to collect these photographs and postcards
while making his rounds of antique and junk shops, flea markets,
and private dealers across the South. The images captured the horrible
history of lynchings in trees, bridges, towers, and atop bonfires.
He also purchased posed shots of the mobs, their members staring
unabashedly into the camera’s lens. As Allen’s collection
grew, the idea of exhibiting the images publicly occurred to him,
and, in 1999, they made their first appearance in a small museum
in New York City—30-odd worn snapshots and postcards, collectively
titled “Without Sanctuary.”

The exhibit eventually transferred to the New York Historical Society,
where a collection of anti-lynching movement tracts, posters, and
materials from the 1890s through the 1930s were added, with notebooks
provided for viewers to record their thoughts and emotions. With
supplementary essays by Allen, Congress- person John Lewis, cultural
critic Hilton Als, and historian Leon Litwack, a book—Without
Sanctuary: Lynching Photography In America
—was published
using Allen’s collection.

The photographs have been as controversial as the exhibit has been
popular. Some critics warned of the risk of victimizing the victims
once again, this time by showing their painful images, and of the
danger of creating a new pornography of violence and torture. Other
critics suggested that the photographs encouraged viewers to adopt
the gaze of mob participants, to identify with the evil-doers.

There was also the possibility that white supremacist groups would
celebrate the lynchings and appropriate the images to post on their
websites (they have done so). Then there were people who argued
that the images were too horrific to be viewed or that their display
might generate racial hostilities where “progress” had
been made. On the other hand, there were also scholars, activists,
and curators who were interested in displaying the exhibit and they
called for it to tour museums and universities.

James Allen, scholars at Emory University in Atlanta, staff at the
Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic Site in Atlanta, the U.S. National
Park Service (which manages the King site), and Atlanta community
leaders explored bringing the exhibit to that city, displaying it
in the South for the first time. Under the direction of an African
American curator, Joseph F. Jordan, the planning group engaged the
local community in a series of forums that led to a well-rounded
program based at the King Historic Site, located in Atlanta’s
black community. A respectful—one might even say sacred—space
was prepared for the display. Jordan posted names and details about
the lives of the victims and limited the number of photos on display,
so that viewers might remember the deaths and lives of individuals
who had been murdered in this way. Jordan also chose to include
additional materials from the anti-lynching movement in order to
emphasize that African Americans had resisted white terror and to
include images and stories of Jewish and Italian victims and northern
as well as southern incidents. Notebooks were provided, as in New
York, for viewers to express their thoughts and feelings. Of course,
the core of the exhibit remained those damnable black and white
pictures. They are still there, their power undiminished; 130,000
people have viewed them at the King Center.

The exhibit planners opened the exhibit’s run in May 2002 with
a religious ceremony, consecrating the memory of the victims and
honoring their descendants. They organized a film and lecture series
to bring additional information to the community and serve as the
bases for more discussions. The planners held events in Ebenezer
Baptist Church, where Dr. King and his father had preached. They
reached out to community groups in other cities where there had
been lynchings and incidents of racial violence—Rosewood, Florida;
Moore’s Ford, Georgia; Wilmington, North Carolina; Tulsa, Oklahoma;
and Duluth, Minnesota—in order to support efforts to identify
and mark graves, establish public memorials, and influence school
curricula in those locations.

The planners also collaborated with the Emory University Theater
Department and Professor Yvonne Singh to create a performance piece,
“LynchP*n,” which highlighted the mixed, complex, and
even contradictory emotions that swept viewers of the exhibit. This
production provided yet another opportunity for reflection and discussion.

In early October
2002, Emory University hosted a conference entitled “Lynching
and Racial Violence: Histories and Legacies,” which attracted
more than 200 scholars, from undergraduate and graduate students
to young professors and senior scholars from every imaginable academic
field and 121 institutions, community colleges, private liberal
arts colleges, and public research universities. There were also
many community activists, from Atlanta as well as communities around
the country, who have made their top priority the memorialization
of places of racial violence. The keynote speaker was Professor
David Levering Lewis of Rutgers University, the author of nine books
and the recipient of two Pulitzer prizes (for each volume of his
biography of W.E.B. DuBois). Other prominent participants included:
the former counsel to Anita Hill, Emma Coleman Jordan, now Professor
of Law at Georgetown University; former associate editor of the
Negro Digest, Dr. Richard Long, a member of the Emory faculty;
former Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver, now a law professor at Emory;
and former Black Panther Elaine Brown, now a community organizer
and writer in California.

The conference organizers clustered the presenters
into 25 panels, which met 3 or 4 at a time. Papers offered detailed
accounts of more than 20 specific incidents, analysis of the role
of the legal system and government authorities in tolerating if
not facilitating lynchings, critical evaluations of the efforts
of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Adam
Clayton Powell, and other African American leaders to confront lynching,
consideration of the roles played by music, drama, film, poetry,
fiction, and painting in efforts to educate and influence public
opinion, assessments of forms of African American resistance, including
armed self-defense, civil disobedience, electoral politics, law
suits, and migration out of the South, and complex interpretations
of the photographs themselves as historical documents. Each session
not only provided well-conceived presentations, but also provoked
lively exchanges with the audiences.

Some ideas divided conference participants while others were expressed
as critiques of long-standing historical assumptions. Yet others
broke new ground altogether, calling attention to areas of analysis
which had long been in the shadows. Enough soil was plowed to give
participants new ideas about how to make use of those difficult
photographs in classrooms, new questions to bring into research,
and new inspiration to bring into community work.

There were sharp differences of opinion about what is meant by the
term “lynching.” Some, including Professor Levering Lewis,
argued that a lynching must involve a mob taking the law into their
own hands, killing one or more victims, and often following a ritualized
procedure. Proponents of this definition also contend that most
lynchings occurred between the 1870s and the 1930s. Other conference
participants countered that this definition and time frame were
too narrow. They preferred to use the categories “racial violence”
and “domestic terrorism,” and they argued that such practices
began during slavery (the uses of violence, whipping, maiming, torture,
rape, punitive sales, and the like), took on the forms of community-based
violence called “lynchings” in the years of Jim Crow (1870s
through the 1940s), and then were assumed by the government as police
brutality and capital punishment.

These critics question the formal distinctions between legal and
extra-legal violence, pointing to the presence of police officials
in the lynching photos, taking note of the failure of local authorities
to prosecute participants in lynchings, and the unwillingness, time
and again, of all three branches of the federal government (executive,
legislative, and judicial) to intervene to outlaw lynching, and
citing statistics that reveal the disproportionate punishment of
all people of color.

Few participants contested the notion that violence has been central
to the construction and maintenance of racial hierarchies in the
United States. This reflected a change in dominant historical interpretations,
which had long emphasized economic and cultural factors. Professor
Fitzhugh Brundage of the University of North Carolina told a plenary
session that most historians had so downplayed violence that it
would have been impossible to hold a conference like this even a
decade ago. Not one scholarly book on lynching had been published
between 1945 and 1975. But recent years have seen dissertations,
books, and articles which probed lynchings, racial pogroms (attacks
on black communities), and state- sanctioned violence, making possible
a new narrative of the course of U.S. history.

Many presenters offered a wide range of stories about how African
Americans and their white allies resisted this terror. A variety
of organizations—the NAACP, the Urban League, the Communist
Party and its International Labor Defense, labor, church, and community
organizations, African American newspapers—all played important
roles in particular struggles in particular communities. Protests,
rallies, petitions, letters, pressure on politicians, marches, and
even armed self-defense were employed from time to time and from
place to place, and conference papers told these stories with the
passion and compelling details these efforts deserved. Many nails
were driven into the coffin of the old shibboleth that African Americans
had passively “accommodated” to racism.

Among the great
revelations of the conference was the information provided about
the ways that black and white activists had used the arts—drama,
music, painting, sculpture, poetry, fiction, cartoons—to rally
opposition to racial violence. African American women played particularly
prominent roles in this work. In 1916, Angelina Weld-Grimke’s
play Rachel not only exposed the impact of lynching on black
families, but also became the first black-written non-musical play
professionally performed by black actors. Its success inspired W.E.B.
DuBois to organize a drama committee within the NAACP and the Crisis
and Opportunity magazines to offer annual playwriting contests.
Three years later in Boston, Meta Fuller sculpted a statue of lynching
victim Mary Turner as a compelling “silent protest.” Other
women wrote plays, poems, and novels over the next decades, and
they were joined by such men as Claude MacKay and Langston Hughes.
In the mid-1930s, two art shows in New York City brought together
a wide range of paintings to call public attention to efforts to
pass a federal anti-lynching law. A couple of papers examined anti-lynching
themes in recent African American art. Many of the presentations
were accompanied by slides of photographs, paintings, fabrics, sculptures,
and collages.

presenters also offered new skills for looking at visual materials.
This was particularly the case in the viewing and interpretation
of the lynching photographs. Viewers should not take them at face
value as “documents,” several young scholars argued, but
attempt to understand them as “constructions,” composed
by photographers and mob participants to create certain perceptions.

One of the most important of these was white racial solidarity,
performed and expressed across class lines (reflected in the clothing
of the members of the mobs) as well as gender and generational lines.
These constructions often mirrored other forms of photographs—middle-class
portraiture (again, the mob), criminal mug shots (the victims),
and medical students (usually white) with cadavers (usually black)
in dissecting rooms. Furthermore, the lynching photographs were
often circulated along with photographs of the white victims of
the black alleged criminals, constructing and reinforcing a narrative
of white innocence and black guilt.

 Other presenters argued for the presence of black agency in
the construction of visual images as alternatives to the lynching
photographs. There were African American photographers who provided
pictures of the victims’ lives and families for their funerals,
or of their funerals for their families afterwards, so that they
might be remembered as they lived and were loved, and not just as
they died. These photographs offered images of resurrection to replace
the dominant ones of murder and dishonor.

Presenters reported on African American newspapers’ preference
for hand-drawn illustrations and cartoons rather than photographs,
because drawings seemed less disrespectful than photographs and
hand-drawn images could offer interpretations which directed viewers’
seeing. One presenter showed several cartoons that suggested that
lynching was an expression of white insecurities about their own
masculinity. Less graphic than photographs, drawings also defended
against the danger of a voyeurism of victimized bodies. African
American photographers and illustrators helped provide responses
to the images of subjection conveyed in the lynching photographs.

Although the
scholarship that informed the con- ference had valuable political
implications and can be understood as political work, the conference
ended on a particularly activist note. A conference presenter from
St. Joseph, Missouri, informed a break-out session that the day
before the conference opened, a young Kenyan man had been found
hanging from a radio tower, in her city. This tower was located
three blocks from the scene of a multiple lynching in 1906 from
a tower, which had since been torn down. While it was hard to be-
lieve our ears, we were suddenly confronted with the visual evidence
of digital pictures of the young man’s body. The air seemed
to be sucked out of the room. The presenter explained that the local
authorities had left his body hanging for more than 12 hours and
that they had already ruled his death a suicide, over the objection
of his mother. It was his mother who had encouraged the presenter
to bring the pictures to us. St. Joseph, Missouri is the hometown
of Attorney General John Ashcroft’s hometown—the man now
in charge of “homeland security.”

 Participants in that break-out session, led by Emory faculty
members and Elaine Brown, drafted a letter to Attorney General Ashcroft,
calling for a federal investigation into this case of “domestic
terrorism.” By 5:00 PM The entire conference assembly, after
a constructive discussion, lined up to affix their names to the
letter. There were also plans to release the letter to the media
around the country.

These tragic events in Missouri had provided us with an opportunity
to take what we had been learning and put it to immediate use. This
conference about such a difficult and painful history had contributed
to scholarly and activist efforts to shape a more hopeful future.

Rachleff teaches labor and African American history at Macalester
College. The photographs collected and exhibited as “Without
Sanctuary” can be viewed at