Lynching Reconsidered: New Perspectives in the Study of Mob Violence

Lynching Reconsidered: New Perspectives in the Study of Mob Violence

Lynching Reconsidered: New Perspectives in the Study of Mob Violence

Lynching Reconsidered: New Perspectives in the Study of Mob Violence

Synopsis

This volume contains essays by ten scholars at the forefront of the movement to broaden and deepen our understanding of mob violence in the United States.

Excerpt

William D. Carrigan

I was twenty years old when I decided to devote myself to the study of lynching and mob violence in the United States. Although I had loved history for years, my initial major at the University of Texas at Austin was mechanical engineering because I couldn’t answer the question put forward by my parents, ‘So, what can you do with that degree other than teach?’ I now know you can do much with a history degree. But I didn’t have a good answer at the time and dutifully enrolled in a major that might lead to a nice career. The experiment didn’t last too long, principally due to my own lack of interest in the subject matter. Calculus, however, must also share some of the blame.

After fleeing engineering, I was encouraged by a friend to take a United States history class taught by George C. Wright. He had just won a teaching award from the university and was reputed to be a dynamic lecturer. So, my friend and I enrolled in his class, which met at 8 o’clock in the morning. It was a fateful decision. Professor Wright would eventually become the advisor of my honors thesis and push me to attend graduate school. I also eventually married the friend who recommended the course to me.

George Wright was a specialist in lynching and mob violence, and I still remember when he showed images and photographs of several lynchings to our class. At least one of the photographs was of Jesse Washington, a black 18-year-old farm worker who was lynched in 1916 before a crowd of some 15,000 people in Waco, Texas. The grisly images shocked me. I had grown up north of Waco in a little community called Chalk Bluff. While my family had only moved to the region after World War II, I still nevertheless felt sick looking at the crowd. I wondered what I would have done if I had grown up in the early part of the twentieth century instead of the latter part. Would I have joined the crowd and endorsed this brutal burning of a human being? It was a disturbing question. I knew what I hoped would be my answer, but that didn’t help. I wanted to understand how so many people could come to believe that lynching was an acceptable means of dispensing justice. The question that drove me was akin to the question that drives some scholars of the Holocaust: how did ordinary Germans come to support or at least tolerate what was happening around them?

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