Capital Punishment: Lynching

Lynching has a long history in the United States, beginning at least around the time of the Revolutionary War. The term ‘‘lynching’’ comes from the practices of Charles Lynch, a Virginia Justice of the Peace who, during the Revolutionary War, helped establish informal courts for the trial and punishment of individuals suspected of engaging in criminal behavior. While lynching originally was associated with imposition of physical punishment for suspected criminal or immoral behavior, since the mid-to-late 1800s, lynching has been understood to mean execution by a group of persons without legal authority for the purpose of punishing a crime or enforcing moral or social standards. Those who engaged in lynching acted outside the legal process to achieve what they claimed was public justice. The so-called ‘‘lynch mobs’’ generally claimed to be acting on behalf of the community, justifying their actions as a necessary means of keeping the peace and promoting moral behavior. It is believed that lynching was committed with the tacit support of the community, and sometimes with the tacit support of the government.

What began as an effort to promote public justice and maintain order eventually became a means of promoting more private goals, such as political and economic gain. For example, vigilante groups formed in the frontier states during the mid 1800s for the avowed purposes of maintaining peace and protecting morals. But these groups eventually engaged in lynching to win political power, as well as the economic benefits that accompany such power. They also used lynching to intimidate or eliminate business competitors.

By the late 1800s, the most common reason for lynching in America was to target and intimidate disfavored racial and ethnic groups. Lynch mobs executed people of many racial and ethnic groups, including African Americans, Native Americans, and Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, and Italian immigrants. Again, political and economic interests played a role, because these lynchings largely were the result of industrial strife and post–Civil War resistance to African-American freedom.

While lynch mobs targeted many racial and ethnic groups, lynching is most commonly associated with the nonlegal execution of African Americans, particularly those living in the South, during and after Reconstruction. Between 1882 and 1968, more than 3,400 African Americans were lynched in the United States. These numbers likely are conservative given that lynchings were not always publicized. Most of the lynchings during the 1882–1968 time period occurred in the South, with Mississippi, Georgia, Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama leading the country in the number of lynchings. Lynching, along with other forms of violence, helped prevent African Americans from fully enjoying economic, social, and political gains after the Civil War.

Lynchings began to decline toward the mid 1900s. By the late 1960s, lynchings had largely subsided, although observers might characterize certain modern- day hate crimes as a type of lynching.

CELESTINE RICHARDS MCCONVILLE

References and Further Reading

  • Dray, Philip. At the Hands of Persons Unknown, The Lynching of Black America. New York: Random House, 2002. 
  • DuBois, W. E. B. Black Reconstruction, New York: Russell & Russell, 1935. 
  • Ifill, Sherrilyn A., Creating a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Lynching, Law and Inequity: A Journal of Theory and Practice 21 (Summer 2003): 263–311. 
  • Lynching in America: Statistics, Information, Images. http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/shipp/lynchingyear.html (statistics provided by Tuskegee Institute Archives) (visited January 8, 2004). 
  • NAACP. Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States: 1889–1918. New York: Arno Press, 1969. 
  • Steelwater, Eliza. The Hangman’s Knot, Lynching, Legal Execution, and America’s Struggle with the Death Penalty. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2003. 
  • Tolnay, Stewart E., and E. M. Beck. A Festival of Violence. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995. 

See also Capital Punishment; Capital Punishment and the Equal Protection Clause Cases; Capital Punishment: Due Process Limits; Capital Punishment: History and Politics; Capital Punishment Reversed; Capital Punishment and Race Discrimination; Cross-Burning; Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857); Due Process; Hate Crimes; Ku Klux Klan; Segregation; Shepard, Matthew

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