Lynching

lynching, unlawfully hanging or otherwise killing a person by mob action. The term is derived from the older term lynch law, which is most likely named after either Capt. William Lynch (1742–1820), of Pittsylvania co., Va., or Col. Charles Lynch (1736–96), of neighboring Bedford (later Campbell) co., both of whom used extralegal proceedings to punish Loyalists during the American Revolution. Historically, the term lynching is most commonly applied to racist violence in the post–Civil War American South.

Lynching was common among North American pioneers on the frontier, where legal institutions were not yet established. Lesser crimes might be punished by exile, while crimes that seemed to them capital, such as rape, horse stealing, and cattle rustling, were punished by lynching. Pioneers formed vigilance committees to repress crime (see vigilantes). When legal institutions had been duly established, such vigilance committees normally tended to disappear. Measures by such committees had the intrinsic danger of resorting to violence and hasty injustice, and posed a tangible threat to the basis of the law.

Between 1882, when reliable data was first collected, and 1968, when the crime had largely disappeared, there were at least 4,730 lynchings in the United States, including some 3,440 black men and women. Most of these were in the post-Reconstruction South between 1882 and 1944, where southern whites used lynching and other terror tactics to intimidate blacks into political, social, and economic submission. Contrary to a widespread misconception, only about a quarter of lynch victims were accused of rape or attempted rape. Most blacks were lynched for outspokenness or other presumed offenses against whites, or in the aftermath of race riots. In many cases lynchings were not spontaneous mob violence but involved a degree of planning and law-enforcement cooperation. Racially motivated lynchings, which often involved the mutilation and immolation of the victim, might be witnessed by an entire local community as a diverting spectacle.

State and local governments in the South did little to curtail lynchings; various laws against mob violence were seldom enforced. Three times (1922, 1937, 1940) antilynching legislation passed the House of Representatives, only to be defeated in the Senate. Although the term has fallen into disuse since the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, similar practices still occur, often classified today as "bias crimes."

See R. L. Zangrando, The NAACP Crusade Against Lynching, 1909–1950 (1980); P. Dray, At the Hands of Persons Unknown (2002).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2013, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Lynching in America: A History in Documents
Christopher Waldrep.
New York University Press, 2006
Exorcising Blackness: Historical and Literary Lynching and Burning Rituals
Trudier Harris.
Indiana University Press, 1984
Under Sentence of Death: Lynching in the South
W. Fitzhugh Brundage.
University of North Carolina Press, 1997
Legacies of Lynching: Racial Violence and Memory
Jonathan Markovitz.
University of Minnesota Press, 2004
Blood Justice: The Lynching of Mack Charles Parker
Howard Smead.
Oxford University Press, 1988
Revolt against Chivalry: Jessie Daniel Ames and the Women's Campaign against Lynching
Jacquelyn Dowd Hall.
Columbia University Press, 1979
I Will Wear No Chain! A Social History of African-American Males
Christopher B. Booker.
Praeger, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "Black Males, Race Riots, and the Scourge of Lynching"
White Violence and Black Response: From Reconstruction to Montgomery
Herbert Shapiro.
University of Massachusetts Press, 1988
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Two "Lynching and Black Perspectives"
Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics, and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia
J. Douglas Smith.
University of North Carolina Press, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 6 "A Melancholy Distinction: Virginia's Response to Lynching"
The Lynching of Persons of Mexican Origin or Descent in the United States, 1848 to 1928
Carrigan, William D.
Journal of Social History, Vol. 37, No. 2, Winter 2003
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