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'Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror’

February 10, 2015 05:59:14 am

Photo by theglobalpanorama, via Flickr

A new study from the Montgomery, Ala.-based Equal Justice Initiative concludes that whites lynched 3,959 black men, women and children in 12 southern states between 1877 and 1950—700 more people than previous investigations showed.

Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror,” released today, blasts, among others, the state and federal governments for tolerating those documented crimes.

They included slayings of innocents who, for example, were targeted for wearing World War I uniforms, bumping into whites, or not using deferential titles when they addressed whites.

Noting that entire communities of whites sometimes witnessed the crimes, and treated them as entertainment—packing picnic lunches and collecting souvenirs from victims’ bodies—the report aims to spotlight lynchings' lingering effects on blacks and on a criminal justice system still adversely shaped by race, said attorney Bryan Stevenson, the justice initiative’s founder and executive director.

“Germany, after the Holocaust, couldn’t imagine putting Jews in the gas chamber … or disproportionately executing people who are Jews,” Stevenson, winner of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and other awards for his innovative approaches to juvenile justice and criminal justice reform, told The Crime Report.

“In America, particularly in the South, we are executing people, particularly those of color, with no shame. Why is the system of justice that is so contaminated by the history of lynching not trying to clean itself up and to recover from that error?”

The New York University Law School professor continued: “The narrative of racial justice needs to change. We’ve gone too long without talking about how we got to Ferguson, how we got to Staten Island … Slavery didn’t end, it just evolved …

“We talk about the heroes of the civil rights movement, the glorious triumphs of individuals but not all the damage that was done by decades of … injury that has not been attended. This is the kind of conversation that we need to have.”

The report’s findings result from a five-year investigation by 60 fellows, interns and attorneys for Stevenson’s organization. It draws on previous research by scholars at Tuskegee University, the University of Georgia and University of Washington, among others, these researchers wrote.

It includes the justice initiative’s own review of local newspapers, historical archives and court records as well as interviews with local historians, descendants of lynching victims and others.

The states covered by the study were Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

These are among the main findings regarding those almost 4,000 lynchings:

  • Per capita—based on the total population—Florida lynched the most blacks between 1880 and 1940.
  • Per capita—based on the black population only—Arkansas lynched the most blacks between 1880 and 1940.
  • From 1877 through 1950, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana ranked No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3, with 586, 576 and 540 lynchings, respectively.
  • Not a single white person was convicted of murder by lynching.
  • Of all lynchings committed after 1900, 1 percent yielded a criminal conviction of any kind.
  • The mythical “scourge of black men raping white women” was—in the public domain—the main reason whites gave for justifying lynching.

The report also calculated the number of lynchings per county in each state.

Phillips County, Ark., in the Mississippi River Delta region, ranked No. 1, with 243 lynchings between 1880 and 1940. The next highest count was in Lafourche Parish, La., also in the Delta, with 50 lynchings during the same period.

““The most startling part of the research was just the lack of knowledge in the community,” said Equal Justice Initiative Fellow Kiara Boone, 25, a Macon, Miss. native and one of the researchers. “We visited a lot of communities—in addition to doing the archival research—where the narrative memorialized certain parts of the history but totally left out what happened to African Americans. That was true even in communities that were predominantly African American.

“The report puts into context a lot of the challenges that are beginning to surface for many people right now … It tries to contextualize all this attention [on race] and show that today’s events don’t occur in a vacuum.”

University of Washington sociologist Stewart Tolnay, who has studied lynching for 30 years, sometimes collaborating with University of Georgia sociologist E.M. Beck, a leading lynching scholar, called the justice initiative’s report “extraordinarily important.”

It “highlights this piece of history that some of us in this country would like to sweep under the rug,” said Tolnay, co-author of “Lynched: The Victims of Southern Mob Violence,” slated for release in May or June 2015. “ … We are not in a post-racial society and we are still struggling with race and ethnicity. We have to face up to the consequences of what happened.”

Freelance journalist Katti Gray is a contributing editor of The Crime Report. She covers criminal justice, health, higher education and other topics for a range of national and regional magazines, newspapers and online news sites. A 2014-15 Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow, she is investigating Veterans Treatment Courts aimed at keeping mentally ill, law-breaking veterans out of prison. She welcomes comments from readers.

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