The Awful Truth: Lynching In America

On a warm June day here at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site,currently home to a much-discussed exhibit on the history of lynching in America, an elderly man began crying, buried his face in his hands, and then rushed out. He had traveled from Florida to see the exhibit, but had to excuse himself. When he was 1, his father was lynched. He had come to see if maybe there was a photograph of his father in the exhibit. But he just couldn’t bear to stay.

A public exhibit with such a volatile emotional impact — what one scholar associated with it calls an “aura of repulsion” — is the sort of thing many universities might pause before sponsoring. Yet sponsor such an exhibit is exactly what Emory University has done, in partnership with the King site, in “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America,” on display until the end of the year. Scholars involved with the exhibit say that, while the history of lynching is no secret, it demands more research and public discussion. In October, Emory will host an international conference on the subject.

The path that led to the university’s involvement in the project was marked by controversy. But some scholars hope that the end result is something that will lead to healing and reconciliation.

‘Domestic Terrorism’

Although most lynchings happened between the 1890s and the 1920s, the practice began in the 1870s and continued into the 1960s. The majority of lynchings took place in the South, but they were committed in 46 states. Both men and women were lynched, though most of the victims were men. Lynching victims included some Native American and white people, but the vast majority of victims were black. Approximately 5,000 people are known to have been victims of lynching, though most scholars believe the actual number to be much higher. The exact count will never be known. While illegal, the practice was so ingrained in the culture that many lynchings were committed in public, with the knowledge — even cooperation — of the police and local officials. Most lynchings were reported simply as “death at the hands of persons unknown.”

Lynchings were generally committed, according to their perpetrators, as acts of vigilante justice — summary executions — in response to alleged crimes committed by the victims. But many of lynching’s victims were accused of no crime at all. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, or were seen merely looking at a white woman. In many cases, the victim did absolutely nothing; he was simply black.

Considering the historical record on lynching and the impact it has had on race relations, there has been a paucity of scholarship and public discourse on the subject, says Akinyele K. Umoja, an assistant professor of African-American studies at Georgia State University. Mr. Umoja, whose research deals with racial violence in Southern history, says that because lynching “dredges up a lot of pain,” people are hesitant to discuss it. For him, it is even “more painful than discussing slavery,” he says. One reason, in his view, is that lynching is more recent and the memories are thus fresher. Another reason is that whereas slavery was legally and economically institutionalized — it had a clear function: unpaid labor — lynching, an extralegal phenomenon, served no obvious structural purpose at all. Other, that is, than to inflict terror. And that was precisely slavery’s social role, Mr. Umoja points out: It functioned as a means of maintaining order and control in the absence of slavery. Lynching was not aimed solely at its thousands of victims, says Randall K. Burkett, curator for African-American collections at Emory’s Robert W. Woodruff Library and the author of Black Redemption: Churchmen Speak for the Garvey Movement (Temple University Press, 1978).Rather, “it was intended as a statement to every African American.”

Theophus Smith, an associate professor of religion at Emory and the co-editor of Curing Violence (Polebridge Press, 1994), agrees. He calls lynching a form of “domestic terrorism.” The Reconstruction era saw a significant measure of black prosperity and progress. White Southerners, especially poor ones, did not welcome that development. Lynching was an attempt to keep blacks down and “in their place.” With the end of Reconstruction and the resulting removal of federal troops from the South, the number of lynchings accelerated dramatically, lasting into the 1920s.

Carnivals of Atrocity

While all of the photographs in “Without Sanctuary” are soul chilling, some of the images stand out for the elaborate, ritualistic violence they capture. For some lynch mobs, it wasn’t enough merely to kill; they went to great lengths to disfigure their victims’ bodies, both pre- and post-mortem.

The victim in one photo was castrated, and his ears cut off. One man was soaked in oil before being immolated. Another man’s corpse was subjected to careful decoration, his face painted as if in the image of a pagan clown, his body situated in a chair and propped up with a stick by a member of the lynch mob for the photograph.

In a kind of public theater, many lynch mobs performed their bloody rituals in front of large groups of spectators. Indeed, when word traveled that a lynching was imminent, people journeyed by train, often from significant distances, to take part. A carnival-style atmosphere surrounded many lynchings. They became collective, voyeuristic spectacles, occasions for whole families, even entire communities, to engage in ritual celebration.

Indeed the facial expressions of many of those photographed are among the most striking things about the exhibit. Absent from the faces of the lynch mobsters is any semblance of shame or ambivalence. Many express outright glee. In one of the more stunning images, a girl, maybe 9 or 10 years old, is gazing up at a hanging body with a look of fascination verging on joy.

The photographs, some of which were snapped by people in the lynch mobs, others by reporters, were hardly stowed away in secret. Many were turned into postcards and disseminated widely. People made cards out of the pictures, wrote messages on the back, and sent them to friends and family members through the U.S. mail. In a postcard from 1916 depicting the lynching of a 17-year-old mentally retarded boy in Waco, Tex., the sender refers to last night’s “barbecue.” This suggests not just exultant celebration by the lynchers but gross acquiescence on the part of the federal government, says Joseph F. Jordan, director of the Sonja Haynes Stone Black Cultural Center, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the curator of “Without Sanctuary.” How could graphic images of ritual murder have been sent through the U.S. mail and not have caused alarm on the part of postal workers or prompted someone to investigate such crimes? asks Mr. Jordan. Only, he says, if the practice was widely accepted and the perpetrators were confident of impunity.

Now, the very bravado and callousness that allowed the photographs to be taken, sent through the mail, and preserved also helped usher them into the halls of the King museum, where thousands of people can see them in a very different light.

Mr. Burkett says that in his 30 years of work in African-American studies — a career that has included some “very complicated political issues” — this is the biggest event yet. “I think this exhibition has the possibility, more than anything I’ve ever done, to enable white folk to understand the reality of racism. When you stand in that room with those images, you can’t help but think about where you fit in those pictures. Where does your family fit? Where would you have been?”

The images also cut against the grain of America’s self-image as a nation, says Mr. Burkett. “Our sense of America as a special place, a city on a hill, God’s new Israel — these images challenge that exceptionalism in a fundamental way.”

A Long and Bloody RoadIt took nearly two and a half years of planning and discussions for Emory and the various parties involved to formally agree to hold the exhibit in Atlanta. This is not the exhibit’s maiden voyage. It was first mounted in New York and then in Pittsburgh in 2000 and 2001.But bringing it to Atlanta was essential, Mr. Jordan explains during a walk through the exhibit, because of the South’s place in lynching’s history. “It hits home here,” he says.

Attendance numbers bespeak this. More than 50,000 people have gone to the King site to see the exhibit just in the two months since it opened in Atlanta, surpassing the turnouts in New York and Pittsburgh, where it was on display more than twice as long.

Beginning in January 2000, a group of scholars from the university, which is the keeper of Mr. Allen’s collection, met with representatives from the King site to explore whether to hold the exhibit and, pending the outcome, how exactly to go about it.

Because of the highly charged nature of the material, the discussions were opened up to local residents in a series of public forums. Mr. Burkett says he thinks the process took too long. In fact, he was against holding the public forums at all. “I thought, we’re an educational institution, we have these materials, this is part of American history — we should show these [photographs].”

“I was absolutely convinced,” he says, “that we could do this right.”

He did not feel, that is, that gut-level or ideological objections from critics of the exhibit should be allowed to impede the process.

Several white Atlantans opposed it on the grounds that in revisiting this chapter in history, the exhibition would serve to incite feelings of rage and resentment among black people — that it would serve to further divide rather than to unite.

But not all of those concerned about the exhibit were white. Some African-Americans opposed it as well. One man who spoke at a public forum said, “When I look at these images, I see my grandfather. And then I see my father. And then I see myself hanging on that tree. Why should I subject myself to this? Why do I have to go back there?” One woman worried that her 18-year-old son could be overwhelmed with rage by the photos and become violent.

Georgia State’s Mr. Umoja says the question “Shouldn’t we let the past remain in the past?” has come up repeatedly in discussions of the exhibit, mostly from white people. But lynching, he says, is “etched into the memory of black people.” “Until you have an honest discussion” about lynching, he says, “you can’t have any real healing. We need to tell these stories.”

Town Meets Gown

In the end, Mr. Burkett’s concerns about the public forums were allayed. Some of the black scholars involved convinced him that for Emory, an institution historically seen as part of Atlanta’s white establishment, to have put on the exhibit without consultation would have sent the wrong message to the black community. Now, Mr. Smith says, the exhibit is enjoying “overwhelming support” from black Atlantans. (Managers of the exhibit believe that it is drawing many more black visitors than white ones.) One important outcome of the public discussions, says Mr. Smith, was that Mr. Jordan and Emory were given a “mandate” about the tenor of the exhibit.

So as not to “re-terrorize” or “re-traumatize” viewers, he says, there was an attempt to avoid sensationalism at all costs. Knowing that family members of victims would be in attendance, it was important, he says, to honor the dignity and humanity of the victims. The exhibit was thus fashioned with a deliberately spare, minimalist aesthetic. There has been more curatorial care taken in mounting the exhibit in Atlanta than at either of its previous venues. In the captions at the King site, the victims are referred to initially by their whole names, subsequently as “Mr.” and “Mrs.”

Also as a result of the community discussions, the museum holds an open forum every Saturday afternoon for discussion about the exhibit.

fighting Back

African-Americans were not mere passive victims of lynching; they also mobilized against it. Coinciding with lynching’s high tide, as it were — from the end of Reconstruction until the 1920s — was the emergence of a broad-based movement to put an end to the practice. One of that movement’s driving forces was Ida B. Wells, an African-American journalist and social reformer.

In 1892 she started a highly publicized campaign to end lynching. She traveled to Europe to publicize the problem and to urge European leaders to impose sanctions against Southern commercial interests.

Clarissa Myrick-Harris, an associate professor of history and African-American studies at Morris Brown College and director of the Southern Black Communities Oral History Center, calls Wells’s efforts the first attempt to wage “an international war on terrorism.”

In 1916 the NAACP followed suit, launching an official anti-lynching campaign of its own in an attempt to bring the issue to greater public attention.

Many white Southerners defended lynching as a form of chivalry, a means of protecting white women from black men. Wells challenged white women directly on this point, imploring them to denounce lynching and say, in effect, thanks but no thanks, we do not wish to have our honor defended in this way.

Jessie Daniel Ames answered the call by founding the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching. There remain, to this day, unresolved cases of lynching. “Some of the perpetrators of these crimes are still out there,” says Mr. Burkett. To investigate those outstanding cases, but also in order to come to terms with the legacy of lynching as a whole, Mr. Smith has called for the creation of a body along the lines of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. With a poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights hanging behind his desk, Mr. Smith speaks softly yet with passion and eloquence about this process, one he sees as a path to what he calls “restorative justice.” “How do we restore communities that have been fractured by racial violence?” he asks.

Toward that end, last year Mr. Smith and others gathered representatives from cities with a history of lynching across the country for a weekend-long workshop called “Lifting the Veil of Silence.” One idea raised at the meeting was the creation of memorials for lynching victims. Another suggestion was that of demanding reparations for families of victims.

Eugene D. Genovese, a retired distinguished scholar-in-residence at the University Center in Georgia and the author of The Southern Front: History and Politics in the Cultural War (University of Missouri Press, 1995) as well as the classic Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (Pantheon, 1974), says that while he has enormous respect for Mr. Smith’s work, he is skeptical about the likely usefulness of such efforts. He agrees, he says, that for there to be reconciliation, “the injustices that have been done to black people have to be faced.” But he sees most academic discourse on race over the last two decades as “pernicious,” he says. “It demonizes and criminalizes the white South in a way that’s not going to lead to reconciliation.”

Adolph Reed Jr., a professor of political science at New School University and the author of Stirrings in the Jug: Black Politics in the Post-Segregation Era (University of Minnesota Press, 1999), has been critical of the calls for reparations for slavery. But lynching is another matter, he says. “If there’s a case to be made for reparations, based on existing precedents, it seems like this would be it. There are victims with names and culprits with names, and there’s a specifiable harm,” he says.

But the most important aspect of the process, says Mr. Smith, is the prospect of confronting the staggering “historical amnesia” about lynching. “People are basically clueless as to why race relations are so awkward, so seemingly intractable, why we never seem to have a breakthrough, however much we may work on better policies.”

This, he says, is why “Without Sanctuary” resonates so deeply. “When you see these images, you get at the brutal reality of what has happened — generations of terror. If you leave that out, you’re not able to do deep structural work on repairing relationships between blacks and whites.”

No reconciliation, in other words, without truth.


The literature on lynching is small but growing. In addition to Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Twin Palms Publishers, 2000), the companion volume to the exhibit at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, recent books dealing with the subject include the following: A Lynching in the Heartland: Race and Memory in America, by James H. Madison (Palgrave, 2001) Negrophobia: A Race Riot in Atlanta, 1906, by Mark Bauerlein (Encounter Books, 2001) On Black Men, by David Marriott (Columbia University Press, 2000) Rituals of Blood: Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries, by Orlando Patterson (Civitas/CounterPoint, 1998) Under Sentence of Death: Lynching in the South, edited by W. Fitzhugh Brundage (University of North Carolina Press, 1997) A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930, by Stewart E. Tolnay and E.M. Beck (University of Illinois Press, 1995) Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930, by W. Fitzhugh Brundage (University of Illinois Press, 1993) Lynching, Racial Violence, and Law, edited by Paul Finkelman (Garland, 1992)

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