Rethinking Lynching in American History

Lynching in American history is often thought of as a phenomenon of the past, entrenched in the Civil Rights movement of the South. Although this is partially correct, both academics and the public need to expand the way we think of this difficult subject. There are far-reaching repercussions from these events that happened throughout time and space; lynching still affects us as a society and various projects and artists explore these effects.

For example, the Civil Rights Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University seeks to document all the examples of racially motivated killings in the South from 1930 to 1970. The project organizers hope their research will help bring justice not just to the victims, but also to their families – some of whom are still alive today. It is important to capture these families’ unique view on history because it is fading away. Director Margaret Burnham explains that in some cases the family wants to know what happened, but are unable or unwilling to hire a lawyer to find out. The project is able to “provide a legal service to communities [who] wouldn’t have otherwise have access to this [information]” [1] It is important to realize that this shameful part of American history happened relatively recently, and that there are still witnesses who were affected and have a story to tell. On the other hand, scholars and historians recognize that such research and seeking for justice should have started much earlier. This project helps bring the past into the present.

Historian Kidada E. Williams echoes this sentiment in her article “Regarding the Aftermaths of Lynching”. She argues that after perpetrators and the victims themselves, little attention and research is given to victims’ families and the devastating impact on them and their lives. She argues that “in not digging deeper, scholars of lynching render invisible the pain families endured living in a world where a loved one disappeared or was dragged screaming from their home…” [2] Williams contends that examining such nuances of the subject will allow historians to create a more well-rounded, accurate picture of how lynching affected not only individual people, but families and communities. She seeks to give a voice to an overlooked group of people.

Individual artists have also sought to change the way lynching is thought of in American history. Ken Gonzales-Day’s work focuses on lynching history in California. His Erased Lynching series (2000 – 2015) looked at the factor of race in California’s lynching history.

He discovered that lynching of minorities (African-Americans, Chinese, Latinos, and Native Americans) outnumbered lynching of white people two to one. Latinos experienced the most lynchings; I was surprised by this fact, as I had never learned it in my history classes when growing up in California. The project mostly used postcards with images of lynching on them, but with the victim and the rope removed from the picture. This was meant to “redirect the viewer’s attention away from the lifeless body of lynch victim…[and] allow viewers to see the crowd, the mechanism of the spectacle.” [3] He seeks to change the usual focus of lynching – the victim – to that of the perpetrators and environment surrounding the attack, thus altering history’s perception of these events.

Ken Gonzales-Day's image "Lynched  Erased"; taken from a postcard where he has removed the image of the lynch victim and the rope. Taken from http://www.kengonzalesday.com/projects/erasedlynching/
Ken Gonzales-Day’s image “Lynched Erased”; taken from a postcard where he has removed the image of the lynch victim and the rope. Taken from http://www.kengonzalesday.com/projects/erasedlynching/

In his related project Searching for California’s Hang Trees Gonzales-Day visited and photographed 300 lynching sites in California. This process helped him view lynching in a new way – through the physicality of the site, not just the event of the attack itself. He explains that he wanted to “expand and address the ways that lynching impacted race relations in the west, and continues to impact our understanding of race and violence in this country today.” [4] He very much accomplished this goal in my eyes. Growing up in California, I never thought about lynchings that may have happened in my home state – I had always thought of it as a white vs. black Southern phenomenon. But Gonzales-Day’s research revealed two lynchings in my home county in 1857, both Mexicans

There are gaps in the history and studying of lynching, but research, projects, and art such as this have started to fill in these gaps and change the way historians and the public view lynching. It is important to carefully think about and incorporate these new viewpoints in order to fully understand the repercussions of lynching and its place in American history.

[1] “The Goal: To Remember Each Jim Crow Killing, from the 30’s On” Accessed February 23, 2015. http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2015/01/03/374564307/the-goal-to-remember-each-jim-crow-killing-from-the-30s-on

[2] Williams, Kidada E. “Regarding the Aftermaths of Lynching,” Journal of American History 101, no. 3 (2014): 858. Accessed February 23, 2015

[3] Gonzales-Day, Ken. “Erased Lynching”. Accessed February 23, 2015. http://www.kengonzalesday.com/projects/erasedlynching/

[4] Gonzales-Day, Ken. “Hang Trees.” Accessed February 23, 2015. http://www.kengonzalesday.com/projects/hangtrees/index.htm

11 thoughts on “Rethinking Lynching in American History

  1. I think that you highlight two of the most important cumulative points from the readings: the aftermath of lynchings continues to have repercussions today and this violent phenomena is not isolated to the South or to white v. black racism. Endeavors such as the Civil Rights Restorative Justice Project are significant because they expose difficult periods in American history in a sensitive and healing way. For me, the act of lynching represents a way of thinking–the idea that a white person is allowed to mistreat anyone else for any reason. By learning about lynching we can strive to curtail this mindset and foster a safer environment for everyone.

  2. I totally agree with you Meghan; it is problematic that lynching is thought of as being a phenomenon of the past. Even though they aren’t happening in this country now, the ripple effects of such violent behavior continue to be felt and are sure to permeate our future generations. I also liked seeing Kidada Williams’ work of looking into the effects on victim’s families. I would be very interested to hear more of their stories and see if and how they are related to those of people that experienced other types of emotional trauma.

  3. I have to admit that I was equally shocked when I learned of the lynchings of different races in the west. I had never learned about lynchings having happened really anywhere other than the south during the Jim Crow era. I also found the photography project, where the victims where removed from the picture, extremely moving. The idea that so many people participated in, and viewed, these acts is horrifying. I was especially disturbed by the images of children who were brought to watch the extreme violence. It is just heartbreaking to study trends and cases of lynching, but they are stories that must be studied and explored.

  4. I agree, I was completely shocked to learn that lynching occurred outside of the South as well as outside the black/white racial dynamic. I find it interesting that both Gonzales-Day and Williams both seek to focus attention on different aspects on lynching. Gonzales-Day takes out the victim and the rope so the view focuses on the mob and environment, while Williams shifts her focus to the effect on the non-visible victims: the families. Each believes a different perspective sheds new light on the terrible legacy of lynching. I think that although they each chose differing views, they both demonstrate the power of historical perspective,

  5. What I found most compelling about the Civil Rights Restorative Justice Project is how painful these histories have been, not just in the violence itself but in how it was erased and covered up, never talked about. It reminds me of what Archbishop Desmond Tutu said after the end of apartheid in South Africa; he pointed out that to truly close the book on the past, first we have to open the book and really look at what happened. You have to recognize what happened before you can move on. The Restorative Justice Project is performing a very valuable service for those affected by lynchings; it’s bringing those stories to light and acknowledging the injustices that occurred, which is the most important step to beginning the healing process.

    I also thought the Erased Lynching series was very interesting, in that it deliberately removes the victims. So much of what the Restorative Justice Project is doing is highlighting the victims’ stories, but Gonzales-Day removes the victims entirely. I admit that makes me somewhat uncomfortable; I understand that he wants to focus on the mob and the spectacle aspect, but an unintended side-effect seems to be erasing the victims’ suffering. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

  6. Meghan, I followed a very similar thought process while doing the readings for this week. It is startling to think that lynching perpetrators are still alive and a part of our society. History class has always taught us that lynching was a very secluded act for a small period of time that seems like so long ago. The families of lynching victims deserve to be acknowledged for their suffering and it is our duty as historians and museum professionals to make sure that their stories are told in a respectful, truthful, and thought-provoking way.

    1. Sammy, I had the same reaction – I can’t believe that actual people who lynched other humans are still alive and likely will never answer for their crimes. One of the most shocking parts of the Civil Rights Restorative Justice Project for me was how close the crimes really are to us, chronologically. But the project is really groundbreaking and admirable because it seeks to gain a measure of healing right now in the present.

  7. It’s always shocking to hear what we didn’t really learn. I think the work done by Gonzales-Day is fascinating. Going around and documenting lynching sites and finding some of them have been erased. How can we as professional teach people lynching wasn’t limited to the south? Maybe making a map? It’s scary but it could be useful and create a more personal connection.

  8. Meghan, I liked your analysis of Ken Gonzales-Day’s work. Today Will and I discussed the pros and cons of approaching this topic as an artist vs. historian. Creating for an art exhibit, Gonzales-Day had certain freedoms to, as you said, look at lynchings through the physicality of the site. The problem I found with his work is that it lacks the context a historian would normally provide. I did not understand how his billboards were able to portray that the trees presented were used for lynchings. If I were to drive down the street, I would not understand what Gonzales-Day was trying to say. What do you all think about this approach vs. the historical approach we are accustomed to?

  9. I agree, learning about racial tension in the South after the Civil War in our textbooks, it seemed like lynching was a part of the distant past and that they were only against blacks in the South. However, learning about the Gonzales-Day’s art of lynching environments brings out the harsh realities of the effects of lynching on families. The fact that families did not have a chance to have closure in being able to mourn for their family members who were lynched, and that until recently the families could not have justice is a critical issue that needs to be addressed. Lynching raids affected the victims, but also the families and the communities. The end scene of Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s children the story of the three boys who were swimming in the lake and how the racial violence towards them makes for a very dark and powerful image of racial hatred. The men, women, and community members who gathered to watch the lynchings demonstrate that racial violence and lynchings was part of their goals of intimidating blacks and making sure they knew their place after the Civil War.

  10. Meghan, I agree that there are gaps in the history and studying of lynching, especially in American history books. I remember that I did not learn about the full depth of lynching until college, because my history classes in high school barely mentioned it. I’ll never forget, in one of my history classes in school the only people who knew what NAACP stood for was me and another black classmate. It’s import for everyone to learn about the gravity of lynching and the effect it has on family members long after their loved is gone.

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