Lynched: The Victims of Southern Mob Violence

Lynched: The Victims of Southern Mob Violence

Lynched: The Victims of Southern Mob Violence

Lynched: The Victims of Southern Mob Violence


On July 9, 1883, twenty men stormed the jail in Morehouse Parish, Louisiana, kidnapped Henderson Lee, a black man charged with larceny, and hanged him. Events like this occurred thousands of times across the American South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, yet we know scarcely more about any of these other victims than we do about Henderson Lee. Drawing on new sources to provide the most comprehensive portrait of the men and women lynched in the American South, Amy Bailey and Stewart Tolnay's revealing profiles and careful analysis begin to restore the identities of--and lend dignity to--hundreds of lynching victims about whom we have known little more than their names and alleged offenses.

Comparing victims' characteristics to those of African American men who were not lynched, Bailey and Tolnay identify the factors that made them more vulnerable to being targeted by mobs, including how old they were; what work they did; their marital status, place of birth, and literacy; and whether they lived in the margins of their communities or possessed higher social status. Assessing these factors in the context of current scholarship on mob violence and reports on the little-studied women and white men who were murdered in similar circumstances, this monumental work brings unprecedented clarity to our understanding of lynching and its victims.


The era during which lynchings in the American South were frequent enough to play an instrumental role in that region’s regime of racial control is long past. By the 1930s, lynchings had become relatively uncommon. Once occurring on an average of one lynching each week, the annual total of incidents plummeted to the single digits in most years after 1930 and eventually grew even less common. What, then, accounts for the continued interest by social scientists and historians in the five decades, 1880 to 1930, that spanned the turn of a new century? Among the many possible answers to that question, we will consider two. First, that thousands of American citizens (and a few noncitizens) were routinely slaughtered by other Americans, most without the benefit of due process, is shocking and seemingly contradicts our national creed. Therefore the phenomenon begs for greater documentation and convincing explanation.

Second, the social and political winds that are blowing in the twentyfirst century carry a faint scent of that shameful past. The challenge of racial difference continues to flummox a nation that has grown significantly more racially and ethnically diverse during the last several decades. At the risk of some exaggeration, the current political map of “red” and “blue” states approximates reasonably closely the division of the country into states where lynching was common and states where it was not. W. E. B. Du Bois famously wrote in 1903 that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” Will the “problem” of the twenty-first century be the same?

Certainly the emotional impact of the echoes of our nation’s history of lynching—evident in the persistent power that the image of a noose holds within our culture—suggests that the racial conflicts of the past centuries have not been fully resolved. Notwithstanding the election of the nation’s first mixed-race president, the current subtly racialized discourse surrounding social welfare policies, mass incarceration, voting restrictions, and immigration strongly suggests that we are not yet liv-

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