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When lynch mobs roamed free in the USA

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When lynch mobs roamed free in the USA

The sanitisation of history appears to be gaining currency in the USA as people forget that 43 years before Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, black men were still being lynched in America, reports Ifa Kamau Cush.

As Americans celebrated, in late August 2013, the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s landmark “I Have a Dream” speech, which concluded the black people’s historic march on Washington in 1963, hardly was it mentioned that in 1920, a mere 43 years before the speech, African-Americans were still being lynched in the USA, and King’s speech was in part to exorcise the demons of that ugly past and give African-Americans their full rights as human beings.

The sanitisation of history appears to have won the day as even President Barack Obama, the first black president of the USA, who gave a rousing address to mark the 50th anniversary of King’s speech, stayed clear of the territory of the lynch mobs, as if there was no organic link between lynching and what King and the others were advocating for by marching on Washington. No one, in fact, knows for certain how many African-Americans were lynched between 1880 and 1920, when the grisly practice was at its
height, but probably about 3,000 were hanged, shot, burned alive, or tortured to death in order to establish and preserve white supremacy in the USA’s deep south.

In fact, the terror of lynching lay more in its threat than in its execution. Lynching intimidated blacks and excited whites not because it was common, but because it could be perpetrated at any moment without fear of punishment.

Lynchings in the South were typically carried out by “respectable” citizens, whose actions were supported by the police and defended zealously by local politicians. Police officers released victims into the custody of the lynch mob, and the only regret commonly expressed by southern politicians was that they were not able to take part personally.

The most common justification for lynching was the allegation of rape, a highly emotional charge that southern whites used to disguise the harsh political logic of their lawlessness. “There is only one crime that warrants lynching,” South Carolina governor Benjamin R. ‘Pitchfork Ben’ Tillman declared, “and governor as I am, I would lead a mob to lynch the negro who ravishes a white woman.”   

Southern whites generally defended the practice of lynching fiercely. For example, when Ida B. Wells, a black teacher and journalist, began to attack it in 1892, she was forced to leave the South under threat of death.

Born into slavery in northern Mississippi, Wells attended Rust University, where she had studied to become a teacher. Rust was one of many schools for freed people founded in the South by northern missionaries after the American Civil War. Unfortunately, a yellow fever epidemic in 1878 killed both her parents, forcing her to leave school to care for her six younger siblings.

Using what she had learned at Rust, Wells found teaching jobs in small, rural schools and later in nearby Memphis. Although her low wages barely sustained her, the fact that she was a teacher bestowed a measure of middle-class respectability which she used to great advantage in Memphis’ bustling black social life.

Discovering that she preferred journalism to teaching, Wells soon began writing articles for a local black newspaper. In 1891, she became part-owner and editor of the Memphis Free Speech newspaper. On 9 March 1892, Calvin McDowell, Thomas Moss, and Will Stewart were taken from the Memphis city jail and lynched, a horrible racial crime that greatly affronted Wells.

The three prosperous African-Americans had jointly owned a grocery store, the People’s Grocery Company, that was competing successfully with a neighbouring white store. Resentful of their success, their white neighbour had begun feuding with them, and over time the dispute escalated from street brawls to the shooting of three sheriff’s deputies by armed men guarding the store.

On 21 May 1892, an unsigned editorial in the Free Speech denounced the lynchings as murder. “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old threadbare lie that negro men rape white women,” Ida Wells wrote anonymously. The Memphis Evening Scimitar responded with its own editorial urging that the author of the Free Speech article (assumed to be a man) be tied to a stake and castrated. Wells’ male business partner fled the city, and she herself, lecturing in New York City, chose not to return home.

Because the lynchings of McDowell, Moss and Stewart had followed unquestionably from a business rivalry rather than a rape, Wells began looking into the circumstances of other lynchings and came to the conclusion that the practice was fundamentally a means of keeping blacks in their economic place. Her research led to the publication in 1895 of A Real Record, which used statistical analysis to show that charges of rape occurred in less than a third of all lynchings – and even in those cases, Wells argued, the accusations were usually fictitious.

Wells’ efforts changed many minds, both within the United States and overseas where her European lecture tours generated broad sympathy. Even so, the political reality in America remained largely unaffected.

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt told Congress (against the pleadings of Booker T. Washington) that “the greatest existing cause of lynching is the perpetuation, especially by black men, of the hideous crime of rape”.

Not until the Great Migration of the late 1910s, when black workers began leaving the South in large numbers, did southern whites begin to curb the practice in order to keep their labour force at home.

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