Safety in Numbers?

During this past week’s class, I asked if an overwhelming black population could dissuade whites from carrying out lynchings. Without being able to talk about any specific studies, we deferred to the age-old example of a powerful but numerically inferior elite exerting control over the masses.

I decided to look into spatial distributions of lynchings compared to population demographics.  Let’s just say the findings were not what I was hoping for. In Mississippi there was no protection in numbers. Instead, there seemed to be more targets for lynch mobs.

With 539 blacks lynched, Mississippi had the largest total number of any state from 1882-1968. Screen shot via "The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow" interactive maps.

PBS’s “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow” has a wonderful interactive maps feature. Population maps from 1870-1960 for both whites and blacks are available. Also, total lynchings by state (on both whites and blacks) are mapped from 1882-1968. The maps allowed me to find states that had black majorities for time frames longer than 20 or 30 years.  South Carolina and Mississippi both fit into that category. South Carolina, the prototypical state I tend to think of as one with a historical black majority, did not have nearly as many lynchings of blacks as Mississippi, with “only” 156 recorded.

What can we draw from these numbers? I would argue that a county-by-county study would be necessary to really delve into any correlation between black population and lynchings. These maps do offer a broad view of the numbers, which unfortunately suggests that there was probably not safety in numbers for blacks in the Jim Crow South when face-to-face with lynch mobs.

One thought on “Safety in Numbers?

  1. This was a really fascinating map! It was one of those things that I couldn’t stop looking and rolling over and over, watching the number increase and decrease. A single number, representing the totality, is sometimes hard to comprehend. That’s why I think PBS’s map is particularly effective–by breaking down the numbers and showing numbers state by state…suddenly things seem a whole lot more understandable. People can grasp numbers like 16, 257, and 539.

    It inspired me to do research into my own state’s history of lynching and I found some things I’d rather not know. But, it also inspired me to look to see what the Smithsonian had on record about lynching and I found something I think will interest everyone! If you go to the American Memory site (http://memory.loc.gov), type in “lynching” in the search box, and the ninth item down is a map showing the lynchings in the United States from 1900-1930.

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