Constructions of Responsibility for Three 1920 Lynchings in Minnesota Newspapers: Marginalization of People, Groups, and Ideas

By Gustafson, Kristin L. | Journalism History, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Constructions of Responsibility for Three 1920 Lynchings in Minnesota Newspapers: Marginalization of People, Groups, and Ideas


Gustafson, Kristin L., Journalism History


For decades, Minnesota history books omitted the 1920 lynchings of three black men by a mob in one of the largest cities, and residents seemed to forget or "bury" it. This study explored how initial coverage of the event in seventeen Minnesota newspapers constructed responsibility for the lynchings and likely shaped perceptions that might explain their seeming absence from collective memory. Coverage in the newspapers showed: several constructions of responsibility for the lynchings; dominant voices that reinforced the dominant constructions; reinforcement of a dominant white social structure and institutions, such as the police and law enforcement mechanisms; and what was not reported or was slighted, such as certain ideas and voices of black and white women and black men. Ultimately, this showed that the coverage contributed to hegemony through marginalizing some groups, individuals, and ideas related to it.

The year 1920 was significant in America. Passage of the Nineteenth Amendment meant many women could vote for the first time; U.S. soldiers, including African American soldiers who had endured discrimination in the armed forces while experiencing freedoms abroad denied them at home, returned after World War I; alcohol prohibition began; an American steel strike ended; industrialization and labor strife challenged business owners and workers; and some say the Progressive movement, which attempted to eradicate many social conflicts, ended. Americans continued to face conflicting images of race, such as seemingly carefree mixed-race jazz halls juxtaposed with riots that reflected tensions among the races.1

This study will discuss Minnesota newspaper coverage of an event that in some ways epitomizes, and in other ways is anathema to, American culture in 1920: The June 15 lynchings of three black men-two from Virginia and one from Kansas-by a mob estimated at 10,000. The lynchings took place on a street corner in Duluth, the state's third largest city, a booming industrial center, and the westernmost port of the Atlantic Ocean. State histories omitted the lynchings for decades.2 Many Minnesotans were unaware of it until the story began to be retold in the 1970s. Much of the recounting of the event, both immediately following it and fifty years later, relied on newspaper articles as sources. But no one has explored the media role in constructing the event or in being responsible for it.

It is assumed here, based on the theory of the social construction of reality, that the way events are reported influences audiences' understanding of them.3 Cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall said in 1977 that modern media can shape the views of events and issues because journalists select and present "social knowledge" and "social imagery" through which people then perceive, and live in, an intelligible "reality."4 In the process of news production, he said, media can legitimize ideas or groups, make power structures invisible, reinforce and reproduce hegemony, and present what is reported as news as part of a society's "common sense."5 Construction is used here to mean the formation or creation of a representation that helps audiences interpret, understand, and explain that which is being represented. Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckman explained this concept in the 1960s, writing that the "reality" of everyday life is presented as an intersubjective world, and "commonsense knowledge" is shared with others "in the normal, self-evident routines of everyday life." The process of reality construction is not static; rather, reality is constantly being constructed, challenged, evaluated, reevaluated, and reconstructed. Gaye Tuchman, who wrote in 1978 that news "helps to constitute [reality] as a shared social phenomenon," added that "news is perpetually defining and redefining, constituting and reconstituting social phenomena."6

Among scholars who have explored the media role in identifying problems, suggesting (or implying) solutions, and constructing responsibilities for problems has been Linda Jean Kensicki (now Kenix), who studied coverage for the cause, effect, and responsible agent of three societal problems: pollution, poverty, and incarceration. …

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