Racial-Terror Lynching More Widespread in South Than Thought

A new report by the Equal Justice Initiative says hundreds more Blacks were victims of terror lynching in the South between 1877 and 1950 than previously reported.

By Sheryl Estrada

Screen Shot 2015-02-11 at 10.47.38 AMThe Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) released the report “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror” on Tuesday. Between 1877 (the end of Reconstruction) and 1950, the report states there were 3,959 racial-terror lynchings of Blacks, at least 700 more than has previously been reported.

The report is focused on the 12 most active lynching states in the United States: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

The researchers, who participated in five years of research, distinguished “racial-terror lynchings” from hangings and mob violence that followed some criminal trial process or that were committed against “non-minorities” without the threat of terror. Those lynchings, a form of punishment, did not have the features of terror lynching, directed at underrepresented groups being threatened and menaced.

“Lynching and the terror era shaped the geography, politics, economics and social characteristics of being Black in America during the 20th century,” Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of EJI, told The New York Times.

EJI, based in Montgomery, Ala., is a private nonprofit that provides legal representation to defendants and prisoners denied fair treatment in the legal system. The organization also prepares reports, newsletters and manuals to assist advocates and policy makers.

The report says that terror lynching was the result of one or more of the following:

  • a distorted fear of interracial sex;
  • a response to casual social transgressions;
  • allegations of serious violent crime;
  • a desire for a public spectacle;
  • lynchings that escalated into large-scale violence targeting the entire Black community;
  • lynchings of sharecroppers, ministers and community leaders who resisted mistreatment, which were most common between 1915 and 1940.

Stevenson also said that many participants in the great migration from the South should be thought of as refugees fleeing terrorism instead of people looking for work.

“We cannot heal the deep wounds inflicted during the era of racial terrorism until we tell the truth about it,” Stevenson said in a statement. “The geographic, political, economic and social consequences of decades of terror lynchings can still be seen in many communities today and the damage created by lynching needs to be confronted and discussed. Only then can we meaningfully address the contemporary problems that are lynching’s legacy.”

EJI is focusing on selecting lynching sites and erecting markers and memorials. There are currently no prominent public memorials or monuments to commemorate the thousands of Blacks lynched in America.

However, in Chattanooga, Tenn., there has been recent discussion of creating memorial plaques for Ed Johnson, killed in 1906, and Alfred Blount, killed in 1893. They were innocent Black men lynched from the Walnut Street Bridge, the first bridge to connect Chattanooga’s downtown to its NorthShore neighborhood.

Still pained by the history of the bridge, there are Black Chattanoogans who still won’t walk across it.

There seems to be support for the plaque from local officials.

“I would pay for it out of my discretionary funds,” said Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Beck.

For the most part, EJI’s task of plotting the sites will be tough, as it requires funding and negotiations with landowners, and there will be resistance from Southerners not wanting to memorialize that part of history.

Stevenson has experienced resistance before: The lynching report is part of a larger project that included the creation of historical markers about slave markets in Montgomery.

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