Professional studies of lynching and its tragic history, especially its unique American character, depth, and dynamics, evolved in critically important ways from the pioneering scholarship of W. E. B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells in the 1890s and 1900s across the 20th century and into the 21st century, their different stages introducing fresh categories of analysis amidst moments of dramatic civil rights protests. The first stage was heralded by pioneering research by African American intellectuals, such as Du Bois and Wells, and growing black demands for an end to discrimination in the late 19th century. Joining them in the early 20th century was a small group of social scientists whose case studies of lynching illuminated race relations in local communities or, from a very different vantage, saw them as symptoms of the violence so common in American society. The push to end racial and gender segregation and the passage of civil rights laws in the 1960s and 1970s encouraged historians to review lynchings from new perspectives, including gender, sexuality, religion, memory, and black community formation and resistance, stressing their centrality to modern southern history. The late 20th century saw a comparative turn. Historians evaluated lynching across America to identify common patterns of racial subjugation, but also to see how it was used to punish a wide range of Americans, including Asian Americans, Mexican Americans, and Native Americans. By 2000, the field shifted again, this time toward memorialization and community remembrance. Scholars and lawyers recalculated the total number of lynchings in America and found a large number of unrecorded killings, asked why so little was known about them, and created memorials to the victims. They demanded, too, that the causes and long-term consequences of the nation’s history of racial violence be discussed openly and taught in public schools. This effort is of particular resonance in 2020 as America confronts rising protests over a culture of mass incarceration and police brutality that disproportionately affects men and women of color. Indeed, the historical study of lynching has never been so vital as it is in the early 21st century.
Old and New Directions in the History of Lynching
John Giggie and Emma Jackson Pepperman
The New South
W. Fitzhugh Brundage
Rapid and far-reaching environmental, economic, and social transformations marked the New South (1880–1910). Substantial industrialization and urbanization followed the expansion of rail networks across the region, and produced unprecedented changes in daily life for both urban and rural residents. White southern elites embraced these innovations and worked to ensure that state governments evolved in order to advance them. One of their most significant endeavors was the institutionalization of white supremacy in virtually every facet of public life. Black and white voluntary organizations complemented, and sometimes contested, the emerging economic and social order in the New South. Similarly, while many contemporary representations of the region in national culture trivialized the scale and costs of the changes underway, some artists offered revelatory portraits of a region consumed by upheaval.
Women and Sexual Assault in the United States, 1900–1940
In the United States, the history of sexual assault in the first half of the 20th century involves multiple contradictions between the ordinary, almost invisible accounts of women of all colors who were raped by fathers, husbands, neighbors, boarders, bosses, hired hands, and other known individuals versus the sensational myths that involved rapacious black men, sly white slavers, libertine elites, and virginal white female victims. Much of the debate about sexual assault revolved around the “unwritten law” that justified “honorable” white men avenging the “defilement” of their women. Both North and South, white people defended lynching and the murder of presumed rapists as “honor killings.” In courtrooms, defense attorneys linked the unwritten law to insanity pleas, arguing that after hearing women tell about their assault, husbands and fathers experienced an irresistible compulsion to avenge the rape of their women. Over time, however, notorious court cases from New York to San Francisco, Indianapolis and Honolulu, to Scottsboro, Alabama, shifted the discourse away from the unwritten law and extralegal “justice” to a more complicated script that demonized unreliable women and absolved imperfect men. National coverage of these cases, made possible by wire services and the Hearst newspaper empire, spurred heated debates concerning the proper roles of men and women. Blockbuster movies like The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind and Book of the Month Club selections such as John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Richard Wright’s Native Son joined the sensationalized media coverage of high-profile court cases to create new national stereotypes about sexual violence and its causes and culprits. During the 1930s, journalists, novelists, playwrights, and moviemakers increasingly emphasized the culpability of women who, according to this narrative, made themselves vulnerable to assault by stepping outside of their appropriate sphere and tempting men into harming them.