Lynching in America: A History in Documents

Lynching in America: A History in Documents

Lynching in America: A History in Documents

Lynching in America: A History in Documents

Excerpt

Early in 2000 journalists began to report the news: the Atlanta antiques dealer James Allen had opened an exhibit of sixty-eight lynching photographs in a tiny New York art gallery, the Roth Horowitz. For decades writers had used text and narrative to document the same horrors that Allen's photographs depicted; nevertheless, no text could match the visual impact of these horrifying pictures. People lined up to get in, Stevie Wonder wanted a personal tour, and the New York Times assessed the exhibit first in a lengthy review and then in an article on its editorial page. The editorial writer reported he could hardly stand to look at the pictures. “There is,” he said, “an unbearable measure of horror here that I have no interest in learning to endure.” Allen's images prompted the New York Times to compare white America's war on African Americans to the Nazi Holocaust.

The Allen exhibit crested a scholarly wave. Writers like Ida B. Wells, James E. Cutler, Arthur Raper, and Walter White had documented the horrors of lynching early in the twentieth century, but in 1951 C. Vann Woodward could still dismiss lynching with a single paragraph in Origins of the New South, 1877–1913. In the 1960s American civil rights and antiwar protest kindled academic sympathy for “crowds”—they should not be called “mobs,” we were cautioned. As is so often the case, American academics followed a European example. George Rudé had already rehabilitated European mobs as more purposeful and less violent than previously thought. They had a “moral economy,” E. P. Thompson asserted, becoming almost indignant that anyone would dare think a mob or crowd “spasmodic.” Common people deserved more respect than that, he wrote. The American Revolution proved a fruitful vineyard for making the same kind of findings in America. Leading American historians wrote that revolutionaries enforced their public virtue only after their colonial governments failed them. Even brawling sailors, we learned, really fought for freedom and liberty. Other researchers looked askance at Victorians' facile and class-based hostility toward crowd behavior. Paul Gilje quoted Gouverneur Morris as saying, “The mob begin to think and reason.” Gilje observed that this summed up the scholarship; historians had found the rationality in mob violence.

We now know that those scholars had a gigantic blind spot, one Joel Williamson confessed in 1997.Williamson wrote after Clarence Thomas had battled the U.S. Senate for a seat on the Supreme Court. Confronted with allegations of sexual impropriety, Thomas had charged that the white senators raising the questions actually wanted to lynch him. This powerful language, visibly stunning the liberal Democrats arrayed against him, helped turn public opinion to Thomas's side. Thomas's language caught . . .

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