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Lynching is an extrajudicial punishment by an informal group. It is most often used to characterize informal public executions by a mob in order to punish an alleged transgressor, or to intimidate a group. It is an extreme form of informal group social control such as charivari, skimmington, riding the rail, and tarring and feathering, but with a drift towards the display of a public spectacle. It is to be considered an act of terrorism and punishable by law. Instances of it can be found in societies long antedating European settlement of North America.
In the U.S. most perpetrators of lynchings were white and the victims black. The political message—the promotion of white supremacy and black powerlessness—was an important element of the ritual, with lynchings photographed and published as postcards which were popular souvenirs in the U.S. As well as being hanged, victims were sometimes burned alive and tortured, with body parts removed and kept as souvenirs.
The origins of the word "lynch" are obscure, but it likely originated during the American revolution. The verb comes from the phrase "Lynch Law", a term for a punishment without trial. Two Americans during this era are generally credited for inventing the phrase: Charles Lynch and William Lynch, who both lived in Virginia in the 1780s. Charles Lynch has the better claim, as he was known to have used the term in 1782, while William Lynch isn't known to have used the term until much later. There is no evidence that death was imposed as a punishment by either of the two men. In 1782, Charles Lynch wrote that his assistant had administered "Lynch's law" to Tories "for Dealing with Negroes, &c."
In the United States, the origin of the terms lynching and lynch law is traditionally attributed to a Virginia Quaker named Charles Lynch.:23ff Charles Lynch (1736–1796) was a Virginia planter and American Revolutionary who headed a county court in Virginia which incarcerated Loyalist supporters of the British for up to one year during the war. While he lacked proper jurisdiction, he claimed this right by arguing wartime necessity. Subsequently, he prevailed upon his friends in the Congress of the Confederation to pass a law which specifically exonerated him and his associates from wrongdoing. He was concerned that he might face legal action from one or more of those so incarcerated, even though the American Colonies had won the war. This move by the Congress provoked controversy, and it was in connection with this that the term "Lynch law", meaning the assumption of extrajudicial authority, came into common parlance in the United States. Lynch was not accused of racist bias, and indeed acquitted blacks accused of murder on three separate occasions, as dictated by the facts brought before him. He was accused, however, of ethnic prejudice in his abuse of Welsh miners.
William Lynch (1742–1820) from Virginia claimed that the phrase was first used in a 1780 compact signed by him and his neighbors in Pittsylvania County. While Edgar Allan Poe claimed that he found this document, it was probably a hoax.
In Ireland, it is often claimed to be named after James Lynch Fitzstephen from Galway, Ireland, who was the Mayor of Galway when he hanged his own son from the balcony of his house after convicting him of the murder of a Spanish visitor in 1493. However, linguistic evidence is strongly against it, and the story was likely invented in the 19th century.
Another Irish Lynch is referred to in Thomas Crofton Croker's Researches in the South of Ireland (1824), which notes a family dispute of 1816 in which the Lynches followed the Twomeys after leaving a chapel, and attacked them with "guns, swords, scythes, pistols, and various other weapons". Although this postdates the American usage, it may have contributed to the spread of the term in Ireland.
The archaic verb linch, to beat severely with a pliable instrument, to chastise or to maltreat, has been proposed as the etymological source; but there is no evidence that the word has survived into modern times, so this claim is also considered implausible.:16
The legal and cultural antecedents of American lynching were carried across the Atlantic by migrants from the British Isles to colonial North America. Collective violence was a familiar aspect of the early modern Anglo-American legal landscape. Group violence in the British Atlantic was usually nonlethal in intention and consequence but it occasionally shaded, particularly in the seventeenth century in the context of political turmoil in England and unsettled social and political conditions in the American colonies, into rebellions and riots that took multiple lives. In the United States, during the decades before the Civil War (sometimes called the Antebellum era), assertive free-Blacks, Latinos in the South West and runaways were the objects of racial lynching. But lynching attacks on U.S. blacks, especially in the South, increased dramatically in the aftermath of the Civil War, after slavery had been abolished and recently freed black men gained the right to vote. Even more violence occurred at the end of the 19th century, after southern white Democrats regained their political power in the South in the 1870s. States passed new constitutions or legislation which effectively disenfranchised most blacks and many poor whites, established segregation of public facilities by race, and separated blacks from common public life and facilities. Nearly 3,500 African Americans and 1,300 whites were lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1968.
Lynching in the British Empire during the 19th century coincided with a period of violence which denied people participation in white-dominated society on the basis of race after the Emancipation Act of 1833.
Lynching, as a form of punishment for presumed criminal offenses, performed by self-appointed commissions, mobs, or vigilantes without due process of law took place in the United States both before and after the American Civil War, most commonly in Southern states and Western frontier settlements. Racist extremism with an eye to viciousness and public spectacle was frequently evident, as exemplified by the first lynching in St. Louis when in 1835 a black man named McIntosh who killed a deputy sheriff while being taken to jail was captured, chained to a tree, and burned to death on a corner lot downtown in front of a crowd of over 1,000 people.
In the South, members of the abolitionist movement or other people who opposed slavery were usually targets of lynch mob violence before the Civil War. During the war, Southern Home Guard units sometimes lynched white Southerners who they suspected of being Unionists or deserters; one example of this was the hanging of Methodist minister Bill Sketoe in the southern Alabama town of Newton in December 1864. The largest lynching during the war and perhaps the largest lynching in all of U.S. history, was the lynching of 41 men in the Great Hanging at Gainesville, Texas in October 1862. Most of the victims were hanged after an extrajudicial "trial" but at least fourteen of them did not even receive that formality. The men had been accused of insurrection or treason. Five more men were hanged in Decatur, Texas as part of the same sweep.
After the war, southern whites struggled to maintain their social dominance. Secret vigilante and insurgent groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) instigated extrajudicial assaults and killings in order to keep whites in power and discourage freedmen from voting, working and getting educated. They also sometimes attacked Northerners, teachers, and agents of the Freedmen's Bureau. A study of the period from 1868 to 1871 estimates that the KKK was involved in more than 400 lynchings. The aftermath of the war was a period of upheaval and social turmoil, in which most white men had been war veterans. Mobs usually alleged crimes for which they lynched blacks. In the late 19th century, however, journalist Ida B. Wells showed that many presumed crimes were either exaggerated or had not even occurred.
From the 1890s onwards, the majority of those lynched were black, including at least 159 women. Between 1882 and 1968, the Tuskegee Institute recorded 1,297 lynchings of whites and 3,446 lynchings of blacks. However, lynchings of members of other ethnic groups, such as Mexicans and Chinese, were undercounted in the Tuskegee Institute's records. One of the largest mass lynchings in American history occurred in 1891, when a mob lynched eleven Italian immigrants in New Orleans, Louisiana, following their acquittal on charges that they had killed the local police chief. The largest lynching was the Chinese massacre of 1871.
Mob violence arose as a means of enforcing white supremacy and it frequently verged on systematic political terrorism. "The Ku Klux Klan, paramilitary groups, and other whites united by frustration and anger ruthlessly defended the interests of white supremacy. The magnitude of the extralegal violence which occurred during election campaigns reached epidemic proportions, leading the historian William Gillette to label it guerrilla warfare."
During Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan and others used lynching as a means to control blacks, forcing them to work for planters and preventing them from exercising their right to vote. Federal troops and courts enforcing the Civil Rights Act of 1871 largely broke up the Reconstruction-era Klan.
By the end of Reconstruction in 1877, with fraud, intimidation and violence at the polls, white Democrats regained nearly total control of the state legislatures across the South. They passed laws to make voter registration more complicated, reducing black voters on the rolls. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, from 1890 to 1908, ten of eleven Southern legislatures ratified new constitutions and amendments to effectively disenfranchise most African Americans and many poor whites through devices such as poll taxes, property and residency requirements, and literacy tests. Although required of all voters, some provisions were selectively applied against African Americans. In addition, many states passed grandfather clauses to exempt white illiterates from literacy tests for a limited period. The result was that black voters were stripped from registration rolls and without political recourse. Since they could not vote, they could not serve on juries. They were without official political voice.
The ideology behind lynching, directly connected with the denial of political and social equality, was stated forthrightly by Benjamin Tillman, governor of South Carolina and later a United States Senator:
We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be the equal of the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.
Lynchings declined briefly after the takeover in the 1870s. By the end of the 19th century, with struggles over labor and disenfranchisement, and continuing agricultural depression, lynchings rose again. The number of lynchings peaked at the end of the 19th century, but these kinds of murders continued into the 20th century. Tuskegee Institute records of lynchings between the years 1880 and 1951 show 3,437 African-American victims, as well as 1,293 white victims. Lynchings were concentrated in the Cotton Belt (Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Texas and Louisiana).
The rapid influx of blacks into the North during the Great Migration of the early 20th century disturbed the racial balance within Northern cities, exacerbating hostility between both black and white Northerners. Many whites defended their space with violence, intimidation, or legal tactics toward blacks, while many other whites migrated to more racially homogeneous regions, a process known as white flight. Overall, blacks in Northern cities experienced systemic discrimination in a plethora of aspects of life. Throughout this period, racial tensions exploded, most violently in Chicago, and lynchings—mob-directed hangings—increased dramatically in the 1920s.
African Americans resisted through protests, marches, lobbying Congress, writing of articles, rebuttals of so-called justifications of lynching, organizing women's groups against lynching, and organizing integrated groups against lynching. African-American playwrights produced 14 anti-lynching plays between 1916 and 1935, ten of them by women.
After the release of the movie The Birth of a Nation (1915), which glorified lynching and the Reconstruction-era Klan, the Klan re-formed. Unlike its earlier form, it was heavily represented among urban populations, especially in the Midwest. In response to the massive immigration of people from Southern and Eastern Europe, the Klan espoused an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish stance, in addition to exercising the oppression of blacks.
Members of mobs that participated in lynchings often took photographs of what they had done to their victims in order to spread awareness and fear of their power. Some of those photographs were published and sold as postcards. In 2000, James Allen published a collection of 145 lynching photos in book form as well as online, with written words and video to accompany the images.
The Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill was first introduced to the United States Congress in 1918 by Republican Congressman Leonidas C. Dyer of Missouri. The bill was passed by the United States House of Representatives in 1922 and in the same year it was given a favorable report by the United States Senate Committee. Its passage was blocked by white Democratic senators from the Solid South, the only representatives elected since the southern states disenfranchised African Americans around the start of the 20th century. The Dyer Bill influenced later anti-lynching legislation, including the Costigan-Wagner Bill. The Dyer and Costigan Wagner Bills were blocked by Senator William Borah.
As it appeared in 1922, the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill stated: "To assure to persons within the jurisdiction of every State the equal protection of the laws, and to punish the crime of lynching.... Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the phrase 'mob or riotous assemblage,' when used in this act, shall mean an assemblage composed of three or more persons acting in concert for the purpose of depriving any person of his life without authority of law as a punishment for or to prevent the commission of some actual or supposed public offense."
While the frequency of lynching dropped in the 1930s, there was a spike in 1930. For example, in North Texas and southern Oklahoma alone, four people were lynched in separate incidents in less than a month. A major spike in lynchings occurred after World War II, when white racists began to resent the pride of black war veterans. The last documented mass lynching occurred in Walton County, Georgia, in 1946, when two war veterans and their wives were killed by local white landowners. By the 1950s, the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum which was spurred by the lynching of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy. The visceral response to his mother's decision to have an open-casket funeral mobilized the black community throughout the U.S. Vann R. Newkirk| wrote "the trial of his killers became a pageant illuminating the tyranny of white supremacy". The state of Mississippi tried two defendants, but they were acquitted by an all-white jury.
David Jackson writes that it was the image of the "child’s ravaged body, that forced the world to reckon with the brutality of American racism." Soviet media frequently covered racial discrimination in the U.S. Deeming American criticism of Soviet Union human rights abuses as hypocrisy the Russians would respond with "And you are lynching Negroes". In his 1934 book Russia Today: What Can We Learn from It?, Sherwood Eddy wrote: "In the most remote villages of Russia today Americans are frequently asked what they are going to do to the Scottsboro Negro boys and why they lynch Negroes." In Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy, the historian Mary L. Dudziak wrote that Communists critical of racial discrimination and violence was a major factor in moving the government to support civil rights legislation.
Title 18, U.S.C., Section 241, is the civil rights conspiracy statute, which makes it unlawful for two or more persons to conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any person of any state, territory, or district in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him/her by the Constitution or the laws of the United States (or because of his/her having exercised the same) and further makes it unlawful for two or more persons to go in disguise on the highway or premises of another person with intent to prevent or hinder his or her free exercise or enjoyment of such rights. Depending upon the circumstances of the crime, and any resulting injury, the offense is punishable by a range of fines and/or imprisonment for any term of years up to life, or the death penalty.
The term 'felony lynching' was used in California law. It described the act of taking someone out of the custody of a police officer by "means of riot". It does not actually refer to the actual act of lynching and it has been used to charge individuals who have tried to free someone from police custody. There have been several notable cases in the twenty-first century, some controversial, when a black person has attempted to free another black person from police custody. In 2015, Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation by Senator Holly Mitchell removing the word "lynching" from the state's criminal code without comment after it received unanimous approval in a vote by state lawmakers. Mitchell stated, "It's been said that strong words should be reserved for strong concepts, and 'lynching' has such a painful history for African Americans that the law should only use it for what it is – murder by mob." The law was otherwise unchanged.
A 2017 study found that exposure to lynchings in the post-Reconstruction South "reduced local black voter turnout by roughly 2.5 percentage points." Another 2017 study found supportive evidence of Stewart Tolnay and E. M. Beck's claim that lynchings were "due to economic competition between African American and white cotton workers". The study found that lynchings were associated with greater black out-migration from 1920 to 1930, and higher state-level wages.
In Britain, a series of race riots broke out in several cities in 1919 between whites and black sailors. In Liverpool, after a black sailor had been stabbed by two whites in a pub, his friends attacked the pub in revenge. In response, the police raided lodging houses with black occupants, accompanied by an "enraged lynch mob". Charles Wootton, a young black seaman who had not been involved in the attacks, was chased into the river Mersey and drowned after being pelted with missiles thrown by the mob, who chanted "Let him drown!" The Charles Wootton College in Liverpool was named in his memory.
In 1944, Wolfgang Rosterg, a German prisoner of war known to be unsympathetic to the Nazi regime, was lynched by Nazis in POW Camp 21 in Comrie, Scotland. At the end of the war, five of the perpetrators were hanged at Pentonville Prison – the largest multiple execution in 20th-century Britain.
The situation is less clear with regards to reported "lynchings" in Nazi Germany. Nazi propaganda sometimes tried to depict state sponsored violence as spontaneous lynchings. The most notorious instance of this was "Kristallnacht" which was portrayed as the result of "popular wrath" when it was really carried out in an organised and planned manner, mainly by SS men. Similarly, the approximately 150 confirmed murders of surviving crew members of crashed Allied aircraft in revenge for what Nazi propaganda called "Anglo-American bombing terror" were mainly carried out by Nazi officials and members of the police or the Gestapo although civilians sometimes took part in them. The execution of enemy aircrew without trial in some cases had been ordered by Hitler personally in May 1944. Publicly it was announced that enemy pilots would no longer be protected from "public wrath". Furthermore, there were secret orders which prohibited policemen and soldiers from interfering in favor of the enemy in conflicts between civilians and Allied forces, or prosecuting civilians who engaged in such acts. In summary,
On November 23, 2004, in the Tlahuac lynching, three Mexican undercover federal agents investigating a narcotics-related crime were lynched in the town of San Juan Ixtayopan (Mexico City) by an angry crowd who saw them taking photographs and suspected that they were trying to abduct children from a primary school. The agents immediately identified themselves but they were held and beaten for several hours before two of them were killed and set on fire. The incident was covered by the media almost from the beginning, including their pleas for help and their murder.
By the time police rescue units arrived, two of the agents were reduced to charred corpses and the third was seriously injured. Authorities suspect that the lynching was provoked by the persons who were being investigated.
Both local and federal authorities abandoned them to their fate, saying that the town was too far away for them to even try to arrive in time and some officials stated that they would provoke a massacre if the authorities tried to rescue them from the mob.
A young Guatemalan woman, Alejandra Maria Torres, was attacked by a mob in Guatemala City on December 15, 2009. The mob alleged that Torres had attempted to rob passengers on a bus. Torres was beaten, doused with gasoline, and set on fire, but she was able to put the fire out before sustaining life-threatening burns. Police intervened and arrested Torres. Torres was forced to go topless throughout the ordeal and subsequent arrest, and many photographs were taken and published. Approximately 219 people were lynched in Guatemala in 2009, of whom 45 died.
Extrajudicial punishment of alleged criminals who committed various crimes, ranging from theft to murder, has some endorsement in Dominican society in all its bearings, including lynching; according to a 2014 Latinobarómetro survey, the Dominican Republic had the highest rate of acceptance of these unlawful measures in Latin America. These issues are particularly evident in the Northern Region.
After the 2010 earthquake the slow distribution of relief supplies and the large number of affected people created concerns about civil unrest, marked by looting and mob justice against suspected looters. In a 2010 news story, CNN reported, "At least 45 people, most of them Vodou priests, have been lynched in Haiti since the beginning of the cholera epidemic by angry mobs blaming them for the spread of the disease, officials said.
The practice of whipping and necklacing offenders and political opponents evolved in the 1980s during the apartheid era in South Africa. Residents of black townships formed "people's courts" and used whip lashings and deaths by necklacing in order to terrorize fellow blacks who were seen as collaborators with the government. Necklacing is the torture and execution of a victim by igniting a kerosene-filled rubber tire that has been forced around the victim's chest and arms. Necklacing was used to punish victims who were alleged to be traitors to the black liberation movement along with their relatives and associates. Sometimes the "people's courts" made mistakes, or they used the system to punish those whom the anti-Apartheid movement's leaders opposed. A tremendous controversy arose when the practice was endorsed by Winnie Mandela, then the wife of the then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela and a senior member of the African National Congress.
The practice of extrajudicial punishments, including lynching, is referred to as 'jungle justice' in Nigeria. The practice is widespread and "an established part of Nigerian society", predating the existence of the police. Exacted punishments vary between a "muddy treatment", that is, being made to roll in the mud for hours and severe beatings followed by necklacing. The case of the Aluu four sparked national outrage. The absence of a functioning judicial system and law enforcement, coupled with corruption are blamed for the continuing existence of the practice. Between 118 and 1230 cases are reported annually.
During the First Intifada, before the PA was established, hundreds of alleged collaborators were lynched, tortured or killed, at times with the implied support of the PLO. Street killings of alleged collaborators continue into the current intifada ... but at much fewer numbers.
In October 2000, two Israeli reservists, serving as drivers, mistakenly entered Ramallah and were killed by a Palestinian crowd. Their bodies were mutilated and dragged to Al-Manara Square in the city center. Palestinian policemen did not prevent, and in some cases actually took part in the lynching.
On March 19, 2015 in Kabul, Afghanistan a large crowd beat a young woman, Farkhondeh, after she was accused of burning a copy of the Quran, Islam's holy book. Farkhondeh had a dispute with a local cleric, after which he accused her of burning the Quran. Shortly afterwards, a crowd attacked her and beat her to death. They set the young woman's body on fire on the shore of the Kabul River. Even though it was unclear whether or not the woman had actually burned the Quran, police officials and the clerics in the city defended the lynching of the woman by saying that the crowd had a right to defend their faith at all costs. They also warned the government not to take action against those who had participated in the lynching. The whole process of lynching the young woman was filmed and shared on social media. The police forces in the area did little to save the young lady. The day after the incident six men were arrested on accusations of lynching and Afghanistan's government promised to continue the investigation. On March 22, 2015, Farkhondeh's burial was attended by a large crowd of Kabul residents who demanded that justice be meted out against those who had participated in her lynching. A group of Afghan women carried her coffin, chanted slogans and demanded justice.
In India, lynchings generally reflect internal tensions between numerous ethnic communities in the country. Recent examples include the Kherlanji massacre, where four members of the Bhotmange family who belonged to the Dalit caste were slaughtered in Khairlanji, a small village in the Bhandara district of Maharashtra, by members of another caste group, the Kunbi. Though this incident was reported as a stereotypical example of "upper" caste violence against members of a "lower" caste, it was actually found to be an example of communal violence. The incident occurred as an act of retaliation against the family because it had opposed the Eminent Domain seizure of its fields so a road could be built that would have benefitted the attacking group. The women of the family, Surekha and Priyanka, were paraded naked in public, before they were mutilated and murdered. Sociologists and social scientists reject the identification of the caste system with racial discrimination and they instead attribute it to intra-racial ethno-cultural conflicts.
In 1937, Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from New York, saw a copy of the photograph of the Marion lynching. Meeropol later said that the photograph "haunted me for days" and inspired him to write the poem "Strange Fruit". It was published in the New York Teacher and later in the magazine New Masses, in both cases under the pseudonym Lewis Allan. This poem became the lyrics for the song of the same name, also written by Meeropol, performed and popularized by Billie Holiday. The song reached 16th place on the charts in July 1939. The song was later notably performed by the High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone, whose eerie vocals shed light to the darkness of lynching.
The finale of the 2015 film The Hateful Eight set in post Civil War America is a detailed and close focused depiction of the lynching of a white woman, prompting some debate about whether it is a political commentary on racism and hate in America or if it was simply created for entertainment value.
Statistics provided by the Archives at Tuskegee Institute.
Statistics provided by the Archives at Tuskegee Institute.
For instance, the files at Tuskegee Institute contain the most comprehensive count of lynching victims in the United States, but they only refer to the lynching of fifty Mexicans in the states of Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas. Our own research has revealed a total of 216 victims during the same time period.
Soon Americans who criticized the Soviet Union for its human rights violations were answered with the famous tu quoque argument: 'A u vas negrov linchuyut' (and you are lynching Negroes).
treating caste as a form of racism is politically mischievous and worse, scientifically nonsense since there is no discernible difference in the racial characteristics between Brahmins and Scheduled Castes
The perception of the caste system as a static and textual stratification has given way to the perception of the caste system as a more processual, empirical and contextual stratification.
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