Nearly 4,000 Black Americans Were Lynched In The Southern States – And Their Names Will Be Documented

This is our history. And like the Holocaust, September 11th, and so forth, this is something we must never, ever forget. If this makes you uncomfortable, sad, angry, embarrassed, or horrified, good. It should. Atrocities are remembered in the most heinous ways so we can learn from their horrors and make a pledge that it will never, ever happen again.

Thanks to the Equal Justice Initiative located in Montgomery, Alabama and founded by Bryan Stevenson, we shall not forget that almost 4,000 black Americans, between 1877 (the end of  the reconstruction era and the rise of the KKK) and 1950, were lynched in cold blood. In total, 3,595 people, across 12 Southern States, fell victim to senseless racial terror lynchings.

According to a massive report  sponsored by the Equal Justice Initiative, which was meticulously researched over the course of 5 years which included over 160 visits to sites around the South:

Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana had the highest absolute number of African American lynching victims during this period.  The rankings change when the number of lynchings are considered relative to each state’s total population and African American population.  Florida, Mississippi, and Arkansas had the highest per capita rates of lynching by total population, while Arkansas, Florida, and Louisiana had the highest per capita rates of lynching by African American population.

The twenty-five counties with the highest rates of lynchings of African Americans during this era are located in eight of the twelve states studied:  Arkansas, Louisiana, Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, Texas, Kentucky, and Mississippi.  The terror of lynching was not confined to a few outlier states.  Racial terror cast a shadow of fear across the region.

When it comes to the states who perpetrated the greatest number of lynchings:

  1. Georgia – 586
  2. Mississippi – 576
  3. Louisiana – 540
  4. Arkansas – 503
  5. Texas – 376
  6. Florida – 331
  7. Alabama – 326
  8. Tennessee – 225
  9. South Carolina – 164
  10. Kentucky – 154
  11.  North Carolina – 102
  12. Virginia – 76

Sociologist E. M. Beck, who teaches at the University of Georgia, says that these lynchings were solely about terrorizing a community, and had absolutely nothing to do with “justice” under the law:

“Many of these lynchings were not executing people for crimes but executing people for violating the racial hierarchy.”

These crimes, as documented by the New York Times, were carried out as side show attractions for spectators, often drawing groups to picnic like settings:

[In Paris, Texas] Henry Smith, a black teenager accused of murder, carried around town on a float, then tortured and burned to death on a scaffold.

[In Paris, Texas]…the two Arthur brothers were tied to a flagpole and set on fire at the city fairgrounds in 1920.

A block from the tourist-swarmed headquarters of the former Texas School Book Depository sits the old county courthouse, now a museum. In 1910, a group of men rushed into the courthouse, threw a rope around the neck of a black man accused of sexually assaulting a 3-year-old white girl, and threw the other end of the rope out a window. A mob outside yanked the man, Allen Brooks, to the ground and strung him up at a ceremonial arch a few blocks down Main Street.

South of the city, past the Trinity River bottoms, a black man named W. R. Taylor was hanged by a mob in 1889. Farther south still is the community of Streetman, where 25-year-old George Gay was hanged from a tree and shot hundreds of times in 1922.

And just beyond that is Kirvin, where three black men, two of them almost certainly innocent, were accused of killing a white woman and, under the gaze of hundreds of soda-drinking spectators, were castrated, stabbed, beaten, tied to a plow and set afire in the spring of 1922.

The Equal Justice Initiative’s report also documents horrific murders of innocent black men, women and children:

In 1889, in Aberdeen, Mississippi, Keith Bowen allegedly tried to enter a room where three white women were sitting; though no further allegation was made against him, Mr. Bowen was lynched by the “entire (white) neighborhood” for his “offense.”  General Lee, a black man, was lynched by a white mob in 1904 for merely knocking on the door of a white woman’s house in Reevesville, South Carolina; and in 1912, Thomas Miles was lynched for allegedly inviting a white woman to have a cold drink with him.

 In 1940, Jesse Thornton was lynched in Luverne, Alabama, for referring to a white police officer by his name without the title of “mister.”  In 1919, a white mob in Blakely, Georgia, lynched William Little, a soldier returning from World War I, for refusing to take off his Army uniform.  White men lynched Jeff Brown in 1916 in Cedarbluff, Mississippi, for accidentally bumping into a white girl as he ran to catch a train.

 In 1904, after Luther Holbert allegedly killed a local white landowner, he and a black woman believed to be his wife were captured by a mob and taken to Doddsville, Mississippi, to be lynched before hundreds of white spectators.Both victims were tied to a tree and forced to hold out their hands while members of the mob methodically chopped off their fingers and distributed them as souvenirs.  Next, their ears were cut off.  Mr. Holbert was then beaten so severely that his skull was fractured and one of his eyes was left hanging from its socket.  Members of the mob used a large corkscrew to bore holes into the victims’ bodies and pull out large chunks of “quivering flesh,” after which both victims were thrown onto a raging fire and burned.  The white men, women, and children present watched the horrific murders while enjoying deviled eggs, lemonade, and whiskey in a picnic-like atmosphere.

Today, the methods of lynching may have changed, but the attitude behind it- racism- is the same. Some of today’s modern lynch mobs can wear uniforms and call themselves police officers, and they murder with impunity because judges and juries are still, even in 2015, on their sides in a system created by and for white men. For this reason, there can be no true justice for people of color until we can look back at the annals of history and recognize that our nation still harbors systemic racism that allows a modern day Jim Crow to continue, only under the banner of policing.

With the all the ugliness and the lack of humanity perpetrated against innocent black Americans, the Equal Rights Initiative wants to do something every single one of us should and must support: erecting markers and memorials to remember the innocent lives that were brutally taken. From the New York Times

The process is intended, Mr. Stevenson said, to force people to reckon with the narrative through-line of the country’s vicious racial history, rather than thinking of that history in a short-range, piecemeal way.

It will require copious amounts of fundraising, and it will certainly ignite controversy in a reigon that still prides itself on its “Southern, Dixie heritage,” but Stevenson and the Equal Rights Initiative have an optimistic outlook that the work to help heal an old wound will be done.