Legacies of Lynching: Racial Violence and Memory

Synopsis

Between 1880 and 1930, thousands of African Americans were lynched in the United States. Beyond the horrific violence inflicted on these individuals, lynching terrorized whole communities and became a defining characteristic of Southern race relations in the Jim Crow era. As spectacle, lynching was intended to serve as a symbol of white supremacy. Yet, Jonathan Markovitz notes, the act's symbolic power has endured long after the practice of lynching has largely faded away.

Legacies of Lynching examines the evolution of lynching as a symbol of racial hatred and a metaphor for race relations in popular culture, art, literature, and political speech. Markovitz credits the efforts of the antilynching movement with helping to ensure that lynching would be understood not as a method of punishment for black rapists but as a terrorist practice that provided stark evidence of the brutality of Southern racism and as America's most vivid symbol of racial oppression. Cinematic representations of lynching, from Birth of a Nation to Do the Right Thing, he contends, further transform the ways that American audiences remember and understand lynching, as have disturbing recent cases in which alleged or actual acts of racial violence reconfigured stereotypes of black criminality. Markovitz further reveals how lynching imagery has been politicized in contemporary society with the example of Clarence Thomas, who condemned the Senate's investigation into allegations of sexual harassment during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings as a "high-tech lynching."

Even today, as revealed by the 1998 dragging death of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, and the national soul-searching it precipitated, lynchingcontinues to pervade America's collective memory. Markovitz concludes with an analysis of debates about a recent exhibition of photographs of lynchings, suggesting again how lynching as metaphor remains always in the background o

Additional information

Contributors:
Publisher: Place of publication:
  • Minneapolis
Publication year:
  • 2004