Lynchings In America

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Recently, an L.A. Times article (dated 2/13/00) reviewed a new book entitled "Without Sanctuary", a collection of photographs from lynchings throughout America. During the course of the article, the author, Benjamin Schwarz, outlined some very interesting and disturbing facts related to this gruesome act of violence: Between 1882 and 1930, more than 3,000 people were lynched in the U.S., with approximately 80% of them taking place in the South. Though most people think only African Americans were victims of lynchings, during those years, about 25% were white. Data indicates that mobs in the West lynched 447 whites and 38 blacks; in the Midwest there were 181 white victims and 79 black; and in the South, people lynched 291 whites and 2,462 African Americans. Though most people believe lynchings were just the manifestation of racial hatred, the author indicates that 20% of Southern lynching victims were killed by mobs of their own race. In addition, other societies such as Ancient Rome and Greece, Germany, China, Nigeria, and East Africa lynched their own. It is for this reason that Mr. Schwarz believes lynchings cannot be explained only in terms of racism and paranoid "white psyche". To find the true reason, we must consider a different point of view. According to Mr. Schwarz, in the late 19th century, there arose in the South a large proportion of transient black men who, as their labor became expendable in an increasingly industrial and commercial economy, adopted a life of crime. In the article, Mr. Schwarz writes, "There, loosened from the traditional controls of the black family and community, many led a roaming, reckless and often violent existence." The theory goes, as these African American men moved from city to city, they became easy targets for Southern whites (and some blacks) who took it upon themselves to "punish" lawless citizens. To support his theory, Mr. Schwarz refers to data that shows "Most lynchings took place precisely in those areas in the South where many of these wandering black males ended up. The Gulf plain and cotton uplands had by far the highest rate of lynchings, and these areas combined extremely low rural population densities with by far the highest rates of black transiency in the South." W.E.B. Du Bois is even quoted as having written about the emergence of "a class of black criminals who are a menace to both black and white . . . instead of petty stealing and vagrancy, we . . . have highway robbery, burglary, murder and rape." Though I tried my best to be objective when reading the L.A.Times Article, I found myself quickly becoming exasperated by Mr. Schwarz's effort to "play both sides of the field". While he writes "It must be said that an indeterminate sizable number of lynching victims did not commit the crimes of which they were accused and, by definition, none was found guilty by properly constituted authorities (whose ability to carry out justice was suspect at best)", he also notes "Denying black criminality betrays a curiously rosy view of the effects of oppression." and "Looking at the photographs of the broken, burned and mutilated victims in "Without Sanctuary"--some of whom, themselves, undoubtedly committed atrocious crimes--the terrible truth, the only "explanation" of lynching, is that given half a chance, too many men will act brutally." To me, such an explanation does a great disservice to Black History. Even if we assume that Mr. Schwarz is correct in stating that lynchings increased as black crime rose in the South, his comments do not shed any light on the true reason for such heinous acts. After all, as Mr. Schwarz also mentions, during the 1880's and 90's, the South was a violent place where murder rates among both whites and blacks were the highest in the country. Why then weren't just as many Caucasians victims of lynchings as were African Americans? In addition, though 20% of Southern lynching victims were killed by mobs of their own race, who is to say those were not racially motivated (whites killing whites who are believed to be "black sympathizers" and blacks killing blacks who are thought to be in league with white racists)? And what about the other 80% of lynching victims who were not killed my members of their own race? Isn't it highly likely that those deaths were motivated by color? Lastly, have we forgotten about all of the innocent victims who were lynched in the South? After all, how many African American men were hanged for "slighting" a white person or for not knowing their "place". Are we to believe that the majority of these men were targeted because they were lawless vagrant workers? That appears a bit farfetched. I believe we owe it to ourselves, our history, and our future to uncover and discuss the truth surrounding the victims of Southern lynchings. Though I'm willing to consider that factors other than racial hatred (ignorance, power, greed, and politics just to name a few) played a part in such killings, I have yet to be convinced that African Americans should be held accountable for their own brutalization. Word Count: 850

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