On April 26, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Ala. It is a museum to commemorate the thousands of black Americans lynched by mobs. Plinths are suspended from the roof of the memorial like hanged men, each one engraved with details of the victim and his (or in a handful of cases, her) death. One can agree or disagree with the proprietor’s message that these murders are contiguous with current penal issues and still recognize that lynching was a pervasive horror in the United States, especially in the decades following the end of Reconstruction.
Extra-judicial executions were common throughout the 19th century United States, especially in frontier areas, and in many cases these executions were whites executing other whites for suspected crimes. However, those behind the new memorial are correct that the lynching of blacks was qualitatively different from, say, cowboys hanging bandits or Hatfields forming an informal firing squad to execute a McCoy who had killed one of their own clan. There were two major differences between frontier rough justice and racial lynchings.
First, as a rule, whites were lynched only when suspected of a felony, but blacks could be lynched for minor crimes and breaches of etiquette. As Stewart E. Tolnay and E. M. Beck note in their book A Festival of Violence, 60 percent of white lynching victims, but only 39 percent of black lynching victims, were accused of murder. While two-thirds of black lynching victims were accused of capital crimes (rape or murder), the balance were accused of property crimes or minor offenses, and about a quarter were lynched for either unknown reasons or breaches of racial etiquette. The most infamous instance of this is the case of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who was tortured and murdered in 1955 for directing unwelcome flirtation towards a white woman in a Mississippi grocery store.
Second, white-on-white lynchings tended to be fairly expeditious extra-judicial executions. Lynchings of blacks were often gruesome affairs with torture preceding the murder and mutilation following it. Sometimes this torture was anticipated and even advertised in advance, as with the 1919 headline from a Tennessee newspaper, “3,000 Will Burn Negro,” the story accompanying which added that the burning was to occur at 5 p.m. and the further detail that the “Negro [was] Jerky and Sullen as Burning Hour Nears.” This torture was a primary reason for lynchings to occur even for capital crimes, since a state execution would occur without the requisite theater of degradation or the collecting of relics. Mobs often seized black men from courthouses awaiting trial and even black men who had already been sentenced to death, lest the state’s implementation of capital punishment be insufficiently painful, personal, or gruesome. About a third of attempted lynchings were thwarted by law enforcement, and these thwarted lynchings typically involved men already in custody, which both indicates how often lynching was intended to go beyond insufficiently horrible state justice and how lynching often represented a contest of authority between local elites out of office leading the mob and local elites in office staring it down.
Retributionary violence can be as much about the social status of the accused as the content of the allegation against him. American lynching’s practice of not only executing an accused criminal, but doing so through means whose brutality is inversely proportional to his social status, is something we see in other societies. Enter any Catholic or Orthodox church and you will see iconography depicting Jesus Christ and St. Paul, each depicted with the instrument of his martyrdom. Jesus is depicted nearly naked on a cross wearing a crown of thorns because as a provincial peasant he was executed by being tortured and then crucified, a slow and agonizing way to die. Such painful and theatrical means of execution as crucifixion were reserved for provincials and slaves — rendering them equivalent to slaves, which is why Phillipians 2:6–8 refers to Jesus as one. In contrast, Paul is depicted with a sword because as someone with the higher social status of a Roman citizen, he was entitled to appeal his sentence and then to be executed relatively painlessly by beheading. Later in Roman history, citizenship became universal throughout the empire but Roman law continued to distinguish between punishments appropriate to lowly humiliores and those appropriate to high-status honestiores, with the former being eligible for painful and humiliating punishments spared the latter.
It is not just the fact of death but the manner of death that tells us to whom we accord full human worth.
As Charles Seguin has shown, one of the things that turned the public against lynching was that mobs started applying the practice’s most gruesome methods to white honestiores, and not just black humiliores. Lynching became an international incident and a source of national embarrassment after a New Orleans mob stormed a prison and lynched eleven Italian citizens and left their bodies publicly displayed for hours. When a Georgia mob lynched Leo Frank, a Jew, in 1915, they debated desecrating his body but ultimately did not. However, they took relics from his clothing and the hanging tree and circulated postcards of the event, all of which was characteristic of racial lynchings. Journalists such as Ida B. Wells had long been attempting to frame lynchings as barbarism (as compared with the older understanding of rough justice for even more barbaric criminals), but it was not until the lynching of Italians that her efforts gained traction and the international and U.S. public turned against lynching, first for white victims, and from there to oppose lynching in general, even for victims marked by racial stigma.
It is not just the fact of death but the manner of death that tells us to whom we accord full human worth. Aside from the fact that men were lynched, or even the number of men who were lynched, the core meaning of this blessedly extinct American institution is revealed by the brutality with which men were lynched. Contemporaries understood the carnage and suffering as an affirmation that the lynched men were people entitled to such horrific treatment, as much for what they were as what they had done. The new museum serves to remind us of a practice, ubiquitous 120 years ago and still present 60 years ago, that served to degrade its victims and those who resemble them but eventually came to be understood to degrade its perpetrators and all members of a nation that tolerated mob violence. It raises the dignity of all of us that the tradition is extinct, but is a stain on our nation and our nature that it was common so recently.