White Violence and Black Response: From Reconstruction to Montgomery

By Herbert Shapiro | Go to book overview

FIVE
The Focusing of Debate

DURING THE PERIOD from 1900 to the end of World War I, the facts show that racial violence was growing in intensity and scope. A span of seventeen years covered the violence of New York, Atlanta, Springfield, Houston, and East St. Louis, and added to these incidents was the continuation of vigilante lynching, taken together with numberless "small" acts of violence that never drew public attention. Afro-Americans had to respond to this more intensified and diversified violence in a context of rapid economic change flowing from an accelerated black migration from the rural South to the urban South and especially to the urban, industrial North. There was a range of responses, a more focused debate about alternative courses of action, and grass-roots resistance that was increasingly influenced by a civil rights movement and the black press.

On one level there was the continuation of already established forms of individual protest. The brutalities inflicted in specific incidents were brought to public attention, either by the word of the victims themselves or in accounts written by individual crusaders. Representative of autobiographical accounts of experience with violence was an account of the life of a Georgia peon. This black man, born in Elbert County, Georgia, told how his uncle had bound him to labor for a white farmer and how when he sought to find employment for himself he was claimed by his master and given thirty lashes with a buggy whip. He had continued to work for the "Captain" until reaching twenty-one years of age and then himself made a labor contract to work on the same plantation. Later, after the owner's son inherited the place, the plantation was turned into a convict camp, and when the narrator attempted to leave the place he and others were rounded up and placed in one of the camp's stockades. For three years he was compelled to work under peonage. "Barring two or three severe and brutal whippings which I received," this man said, "I got along very well, all things considered; but the system is damnable." The narration detailed the physical punishment inflicted on the peons:

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