The End of American Lynching

The End of American Lynching

The End of American Lynching

The End of American Lynching

Synopsis

The End of American Lynching questions how we think about the dynamics of lynching, what lynchings mean to the society in which they occur, how lynching is defined, and the circumstances that lead to lynching. Ashraf H. A. Rushdy looks at three lynchings over the course of the twentieth century--one in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, in 1911, one in Marion, Indiana, in 1930, and one in Jasper, Texas, in 1998--to see how Americans developed two distinct ways of thinking and talking about this act before and after the 1930s.

One way takes seriously the legal and moral concept of complicity as a way to understand the dynamics of a lynching; this way of thinking can give us new perceptions into the meaning of mobs and the lynching photographs in which we find them. Another way, which developed in the 1940s and continues to influence us today, uses a strategy of denial to claim that lynchings have ended. Rushdy examines how the denial of lynching emerged and developed, providing insight into how and why we talk about lynching the way we do at the dawn of the twenty-first century. In doing so, he forces us to confront our responsibilities as American citizens and as human beings.

Excerpt

When Clarence Thomas accused the Senate Judiciary Committee of conducting what he called a “high-tech lynching” during the hearings for his Supreme Court nomination on October 11, 1991, his comments resonated powerfully with one part of the American population. Indeed, pundits and pollsters immediately noted the subsequent spike in support for Thomas among African Americans (while they ignored the insistent protest against his nomination by African American women). At the same time, his comments fell on deaf or unhearing ears in the larger part of the American population. Thomas’s comment—and the pollsters’ response of tracing the ways it influenced black popular opinion—explicitly made clear that “lynching” referred preeminently to the practice of terrorism against African Americans. At the time of the hearings, it was not clear that a majority of white Americans made that association with the word “lynching.” in the introduction of a superb and prizewinning book on lynching that was likely in press at the time of the hearings, Fitzhugh Brundage speculated that “for many modern-day white Americans, lynch mobs conjure up images of cowboys, cattle rustlers, and a generally wholesome tradition of frontier justice.” For these many white Americans, presumably, the word did not conjure up another unwholesome tradition of frenzied white Americans ritually dismembering and murdering African Americans at the rate of one person every five days for five decades (1880–1930).

It is certainly true that the historiography of lynching lagged far behind the study of other periods and institutions in American and African American life. in 1991, there were innumerably more books on slavery, Reconstruction, the Harlem Renaissance, and the civil rights and Black Power movements than there were on lynching. Lynching seemed simply to be an ignored or forgotten part of the American past. Indeed, Brundage concluded his book by noting that “nothing about the history of mob violence in the United States is . . .

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