Why We Must Confront America’s History of Racial Terrorism
In the period between the Civil War and World War II, nearly 4,000 African-American men, women, and children were lynched in the American South during our country’s shameful era of racial terrorism.
Today, the violence and horror of these murders may have been erased from civic memory, but a new report by the Equal Justice Initiative, released last week, urges America to begin a conversation about this history of horror and the injustice and anguish that it bred. “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror” examines how this era of racial terrorism shaped the geographic, economic, and political conditions of African Americans in the 20th century, and how this period’s legacy of racial inequality persists today. The report highlights how problems shaped by this period of racial terrorism are especially apparent in today’s criminal justice system, where people of color disproportionately experience excessive sentencing, capital punishment, and police abuse.
“Lynching in America” is the product of the Equal Justice Initiative’s multi-year investigation into lynching in the 12 most active lynching states during the period between the Civil War and World War II. Between 1877 and 1950, the report documents 3,959 racial terror lynchings of African Americans in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. The report found at least 700 more lynchings in these states than previously reported in the most recent comprehensive research done on the subject.
Lynchings were not uncommon, isolated events solely carried out by extremists and vigilantes. Rather, the report details how terror lynching was widespread, many times committed in front of officials and the entire community in broad daylight. The report describes how lynching of African Americans was racial terrorism, a phenomenon used to enforce racial subordination and segregation, and one that was widely supported or tolerated by government officials and the community. Victims of terror lynchings were not convicted of any crime; in fact, many times they were tortured and murdered in front of spectators for committing seemingly harmless, innocuous offenses such as bumping into a White person or not addressing someone properly.
Although episodes of lynching were widespread, barbaric, and abominable, not a single White person was ever convicted of murder for lynching a Black person during this period. No prominent public memorial or monument commemorates the thousands of African Americans who were lynched in our country. “Lynching in America” argues that this speaks to our country’s collective failure to value the Black lives lost in this period of racial terror.
“We cannot heal the deep wounds inflicted during the era of racial terrorism until we tell the truth about it,” said Bryan Stevenson, director of Equal Justice Initiative. “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.”