Lynching and Black Perspectives
THE POLITICAL violence of the Reconstruction era and that of the Populist years were connected by the willingness of the white rulers of the south to employ whatever means were necessary to destroy the unity of blacks and whites. Blacks in many areas continued to vote and even to hold office, but where political activity by blacks threatened to bring to life a majority coalition that would curb the property interests of the southern elite the answer was terror.
Violent acts were not confined to the sphere of political activity, however. Although the phenomenon of lynching antedated the Civil War, in the post-Reconstruction period the killing of blacks by white mobs, either individually or in groups, became an occurrence of increasing frequency. This violence, cresting in the early 1890s, was generated, as Edward L. Ayers suggests, by a general social crisis, in which the steep economic depression of the period was a key element.1
The specifics of each lynching might vary, but the general pattern of this racial barbarism was clear. Whites would be roused to hysteria by accounts of some purported black offense. The hysteria could be evoked by charges that a crime had been committed, but frenzy could also be incited by simply alleging that a black man had been "uppity," had argued with a white employer, or had neglected to move out of the path of a white person. The cry of rape, appealing to the most extreme fears and hatreds, drawing upon racist myths concerning black male sexuality and a hypocritical view of white womanhood, became a summons to the mob and also was used to justify the lynching to national public opinion. The mob would then begin the search for the black or blacks reported to have offended, and if the black person identified could not be found the mob would turn its wrath upon someone else, a wife perhaps or other relative of the accused, and indeed sometimes anyone who was black would do. The point was that for the supposed crime or insult the black community as a whole was accountable, and one black victim for the lynch mob would serve as well as another. The victims of the lynch mob