Since the phrase was first coined by historian Rayford Logan in the 1950s, historians have consistently described the period between the end of Reconstruction (around 1877) and the early 20th century (at least until the Great Migration and the 1920s, and sometimes well beyond) as “the nadir” of African American life and experience (at least since the abolition of slavery). There are all sorts of reasons for that designation, beginning with the rise of Jim Crow and its systems of legal and social segregation, but extending into virtually every aspect of African American existence in these decades. And of all those extensions, none is anywhere near as horrific—and perhaps none as unfortunately missing from our dominant national narratives and histories—as the lynching epidemic, the wave of brutal mob murders of (mostly) African American men that rose in the last few decades of the 19th century and continued (if with slightly less frequency) until the era of Civil Rights. Historian Leon Litwack has documented that at least 4700 African Americans were lynched between 1882 and 1968, and the actual numbers (including those prior to 1882 and thus that were not reported) are thus likely well above 5000.
The numbers don’t begin to tell the real story about lynching, though. As the Without Sanctuary site (first link below) documents—and this is one case where images are most definitely worth thousands of words, although I’ll certainly do what I can with the latter—most lynchings were a kind of communal carnival of graphic brutality and violence: they tended to happen with enough advance warning and preparation that large numbers of local (and sometimes distant) residents would come out, often bringing their children and families and turning the event into a party (including in many cases postcards that could be sent to those not fortunate enough to attend); and despite the association of “lynching” with hanging, the actual murders often also included castration, burning (usually while the victim was still alive), and assorted other mutilations. Even if the victim had indeed committed the crime of which he was accused—and most of the time, as the author to whom I’ll turn in a moment amply demonstrated, the accusations were entirely non-credible, blatant fronts for situations like consensual relationships between white women and black men, excuses to rid local businessmen of African American competitors, and the like—lynching as a practice went so far beyond capital punishment as to exist entirely outside of any justice system, even the most barbaric or cruel ones. These were orgies of collective fear and rage and racism, and I can’t sum them up any better than did Charles Chesnutt in The Marrow of Tradition: “our boasted civilization is but a thin veneer, which cracks and scales off at the first impact of primal passions.”
Just as Chesnutt’s extraordinary novel emerged out of the Wilmington Massacre, so too did the lynching epidemic draw out one of America’s most extraordinarily brave and impressive journalistic voices. Ida B. Wells (later Wells Barnett) was the daughter of slaves and had already by the 1880s (when she was just in her 20s) established herself as not only a teacher at Nashville’s Fisk University and a journalist in her home city of Memphis but also as a vocal and aggressive opponent of Jim Crow: in 1884 she refused to give up her seat on a Tennessee train car and brought her case all the way to the state’s Supreme Court. But it was her first truly personal experience with lynching that truly galvanized Wells—in 1891 three friends of hers who owned a successful African American grocery store in Memphis were lynched on extremely and overtly trumped-up charges, and Wells responded with the first of her many, many blunt and eloquent and powerful condemnations of lynching. Far from simply editorializing about the subject, Wells became a model researcher and journalist in response to it, producing books like Southern Horrors and A Red Record in which (for example) she used the words and statistics of local white newspapers to highlight all of the hypocrises and lies at the heart of the practice of lynching. Unwavering in the face of numerous threats and terrors of her own, she became a hugely vocal and successful advocate for the anti-lynching movement, traveling around the country and world to make her case, and made it impossible for the nation (and especially the North) to pretend that this issue was not one of significance or deep concern.
Slavery is, it seems to me, possible for us to include in our national narratives in ways that are benign enough or systemic enough that we don’t have to confront the real horrors, or can pretend that they were the exceptions or at least the minority of situations. Not so with lynching—to remember it at all is to come face to face with some of the very darkest stories in our national past, and the very worst of which humans are capable. And as inspiring as Wells’ life and career were, reading her not only doesn’t mitigate the horrors—it delineates them with particular clarity and eloquence. And sometimes, that’s the most important thing a voice can do. More tomorrow, on one of the most unique, cynical, and funny American literary voices.
PS. Two links to start with:
1) Without Sanctuary, an unbelievable archive of photos and postcards that accompanies the book and project of the same name: http://withoutsanctuary.org/main.html
2) Full text of all three of Barnett’s principal works on lynching: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/search.html/?default_prefix=author_id&query=5765
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