"I wasn't born yet so I don't know" said Meghan McCain on Bill Maher's show. For those who do not understand the historical references to lynching being made when explaining Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., treatment at the hands of the Cambridge Police Department, here's Dr. Leroy Vaughn's piece on the subject from his book BLACK PEOPLE AND THEIR PLACE IN WORLD HISTORY.
Lynching is defined as mob execution, usually by hanging, without the benefit of trial and often accompanied with torture and body mutilation. The usual scenario included a mob of up to 5,000 White men attacking a single, defenseless Black man and executing him for a crime he was never convicted of or even charged with in most cases. Lynching is considered one of the most horrific chapters in African American history and is only exceeded by slavery in cruelty and savagery toward another human being.
Ironically, the term "lynch" is derived from the name of Charles Lynch, a Virginia planter and patriot during the American Revolution, who directed violence toward White British loyalists. After the Civil War and emancipation, lynching became almost synonymous with hanging and torturing African American males. Between 1882 and 1930 more than 3,300 Black male victims were hanged, burned alive, castrated, and mutilated by mostly southern White mobs who have never faced any charges for these criminal acts. Coroners and law officials typically attributed the murders to "parties unknown." Most historians and sociologists agree that mob executions was really about social control and to maintain the status quo of White superiority and had little to due with crime control.
Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) could easily be called the mother of the anti-lynching movement. She was the first of eight children born to slave parents in HollySprings, Mississippi. After emancipation, she attended several schools run by northern Methodist missionaries including RustCollege. In 1879, after the yellow fever epidemic claimed the lives of both her parents, she moved to Memphis, Tennessee with the younger children and accepted a teaching position. Because of her great concern for racial injustice, Wells was invited to write for a local church paper. As her fame increased, she was asked to contribute to several Baptist newspapers. She eventually became editor and partner of the "Free Speech and Headlight" Baptist newspaper.
In 1892, the brutal lynching of three close friends in Memphis started Ida B. Wells on a militant, uncompromising, single-minded crusade against lynching from which she would never retreat. Her three friends committed the crime of opening a grocery store, which successfully competed with a White grocer directly across the street. For the crime of becoming too "uppity", a large White mob took the three proprietors from their grocery store, tortured and killed them. Ms. Wells wrote angry editorials in her newspaper encouraging Blacks to leave Memphis if possible and to boycott White businesses, which left several White companies including the newly opened streetcar line on the verge of bankruptcy.
Ida B. Wells decided to launch her anti-lynching movement on several fronts. She first wanted to explode the myth that lynching was primarily to protect White women from rape by Black men. She published detailed statistics on lynching, which demonstrated that less than one-fifth of the victims of lynch mobs were even accused of rape by their killers. She said that racist southern White mobs "cry rape" to brand their victims as "moral monsters" and to place them "beyond the pale of human sympathy." She wrote that while Southern White men raped Black women and children with impunity, they considered any liaison between a Black man and a White woman as involuntary by definition. She pointed out that children produced by White-Black relationships were called "mulatto" from the Spanish word for mule because racist Whites believed that mixed-race children, like the offspring of donkeys and horses, were an inferior breed that could not reproduce. When Ms. Wells suggested in print that White women were often willing participants with Black men, a large White mob destroyed the presses of her newspaper and would have killed her had she not been visiting friends in New York. Thomas Fortune invited her to stay in New York and write for the "New York Age". She was also allowed to exchange the circulation list of the "Free Speech" for a one fourth interest in the "Age" and immediately began to write a series on lynching.
The second approach of Ida B. Wells in her anti-lynching movement was to appeal to the Christian conscience of powerful non-southern Whites. She published two pamphlets ("Southern Horror" in 1892 and "A Red Book" in 1895) in hopes that extensive statistical analyses of lynching would clearly point out that the southern rape fantasy was merely "an excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property." She pointed out that the same lynch mob that killed a Nashville Black man accused of visiting a White woman left unharmed a White man convicted of raping an eight year old girl. Since Ms. Well's viewed lynching as primarily an economic issue, she hoped that economic pressure from the "ruling-class Whites" could produce southern social change. She began a lecture tour in the Northeast in 1892 and in 1894 she lectured in England where she helped organize the British Anti-Lynching Society. Ms. Wells was able to effect a curtailment of British investment in the South by suggesting that this could influence American sentiment. In 1895, Ida B. Wells toured the northern and western states organizing American anti-lynching societies.
Ida B. Wells told African Americans that her analysis of mob violence suggested that it abated whenever Blacks exercised "manly self-defense." In "Southern Horrors" she suggested, "a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every Black home." She also told Blacks that they must retaliate with their economic power. She urged Blacks to boycott White businesses or to migrate to Oklahoma since Black labor was the industrial strength of the South. She said: "The more the Afro-American yields and cringes and begs, the more he has to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged, and lynched."
Since Southern courts would not punish lynching participants, Ms. Wells lobbied for legislation that would make lynching a federal crime. In 1901, Ida B. Wells met with President William McKinley and pressed for his support with anti-lynching legislation. However, she could not get McKinley or Theodore Roosevelt to support an anti-lynching bill that was introduced in Congress in 1902. As one of the founding members of the NAACP in 1909, she made her anti-lynching campaign including anti-lynching legislation among the NAACP's highest priorities. The NAACP investigated specific incidents and published national statistics on lynching in an attempt to sway public support to put a stop to lynching. In 1918, the NAACP was able to get Republican Congressman Leonidas Dyer to introduce a bill that subjected lynch mobs to a charge of capital murder for their actions. The Dyer Bill passed in the House of Representatives but failed in the Senate because southern Democrats never allowed the bill out of committee. Congressman Dyer re-introduced the bill each year for the next ten years, but it never again passed either house.
As a result of the life-long crusade of Ida B. Wells against lynching, she became the inspiration for organizations throughout the country that opposed lynching. For example, The American Civil Liberties Union, The Commission on Interracial Cooperation, and The Communist Party of the United States all played a role in the anti-lynching campaign. Ironically, White middle class Southern women for whom lynching was suppose to protect, formed the Jessie Daniel Ames Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching in 1930. In honor of her legacy, a low-income housing project in Chicago was named after Ida B. Wells in 1941; and in 1990, the U.S. Postal Service issued an Ida B. Wells commemorative stamp. The "militant," "uncompromising," "outspoken," and "fearless" Ida B. Wells can surely look back upon her life as a genuine success in helping to end one of the most horrific chapters in African American history.
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