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New details emerge on lynchings in Jim Crow South

New report documents 3,959 lynchings from 1877 to 1950 – more than earlier estimates

A new report from the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) said its researchers have documented nearly 4,000 lynchings of African-Americans in 12 states during the Jim Crow era — about 700 more than previous comprehensive studies have found.

Titled “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror,” the EJI report said 3,959 lynchings of African-Americans took place from 1877 to 1950 in states across the South: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. 

Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation in the South from 1877, when Reconstruction ended, to the beginning of the civil rights movement of the 1950s. The disenfranchisement of African-Americans in the Jim Crow era was cemented by the widespread use of violent tactics, including lynchings. 

“Racial terror lynching was a tool used to enforce Jim Crow laws and racial segregation — a tactic for maintaining racial control by victimizing the entire African-American community, not merely punishment of an alleged perpetrator for a crime,” the report said. 

Researchers at EJI said they reviewed historical archives and court records, examined contemporaneous reports in African-American newspapers and interviewed historians, lynching survivors and victims' descendants to calculate the figures.

They also relied on the work of sociologist Stewart E. Tolnay, who co-authored the book “A Festival of Violence” — a comprehensive study of lynchings in 10 Southern states between 1882 and 1930 — and research collected at Tuskegee University in Alabama.

Data on lynchings has been collected in the United States as far back as 1882, when The Chicago Tribune began publishing an annual list all the lynchings that occurred in the previous year, The New York Times reported. The NAACP has also published its own list. 

The report said that while the reasons for lynchings were varied, they could be divided into six major categories, including those which “resulted from a widely distorted fear of interracial sex"; lynchings in response to "casual social transgressions;" and attacks that were based on allegations of serious violent crime.

The "fear of interracial sex" category was responsible for 25 percent of all lynchings of African-Americans in the South, the report found, and reflected widespread prejudices about race and sex at the time. "The definition of black-on-white 'rape' in the South required no allegation of force because white institutions, laws and most white people rejected the idea that a white woman would willingly consent to sex with an African-American man," the report said.

In one case cited by the report, a black man named General Lee was lynched by a white mob in 1904 "for merely knocking on the door of a white woman’s house in Reevesville, South Carolina.”  

Other categories of lynchings included incidents that "escalated into large-scale violence targeting the entire African-American community"; those targeting “sharecroppers, ministers and community leaders who resisted mistreatment"; and “public spectacle” lynchings.

The public spectacle lynchings involved large crowds of white people, sometimes numbering in the thousands, to witness what the report referred to as "prolonged torture, mutilation, dismemberment and/or burning of the victim."

In one such spectacle lynching, in 1904 in Doddsville, Mississippi, the victims were a black man named Luther Holbert, who allegedly killed a white landowner, and a black woman believed to be his wife. They were tied to a tree and forced to hold out their hands as their fingers were "methodically chopped off" and distributed to the gathered crowd as "souvenirs," the report said. Their ears were cut off, and their attackers used a corkscrew to "bore holes" into their bodies and "pull out large chunks of 'quivering flesh.'" The report said both were then thrown into a 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," the report said. 

EJI said in its report that lynching "profoundly impacted race relations in America and shaped the geographic, political, social and economic conditions of African-Americans in ways that are still evidence today." Researchers said they believe their study "begins a necessary conversation to confront the injustice, inequality, anguish and suffering" created by the practice of lynchings and "racial terror." 

“We cannot heal the deep wounds inflicted during the era of racial terrorism until we tell the truth about it,” EJI Director Bryan Stevenson said in a statement. 

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