In his 2003 work, The Contradiction of American Capital Punishment, University of California law professor Franklin E. Zimring suggested that a correlation existed between lynchings and capital punishment; states with more of the former participated at higher rates in the latter. Zimring’s statistics, Elaine Cassel argued, “should give pause to anyone who believes that the death penalty is somehow the product of reasoned deliberation, rather than simple mob vengeance.”
The connection between vigilantism, specifically lynching, and state sanctioned executions points to the possibility that America’s judicial and law enforcement infrastructure has internalized a disturbing set of values that have historically been shaped discriminatorily by race and class. Despite this possibility, no real database accounting for the nation’s history of lynching exists. A new a joint project between Northeastern University and its Civil Rights and Restorative Justice clinic is attempting to create a public digital accounting of this history.
Though the project is ongoing, historian and lead researcher Jay W. Driskell believes not only have historians not fully identified the number of lychings that occurred throughout U.S. history but that the practice might have been subsumed and obscured by the nation’s law enforcement structures. The Metropole sat down with Driskell to discuss the role of lynching in our national history, the methods used in documenting this violent past, and what the results of his study might mean in regard to the American legal system.
Can you tell us a little about yourself, how you ended up doing this kind of research? How has it informed your own views on history?
I am a historical consultant and researcher based in Washington D.C. I got involved in this project because my first book was a history of the Atlanta NAACP in its early years, so I was familiar with the organization and its records. This project is being jointly conducted between the Northeastern University School of Law and its Civil Rights and Restorative Justice (CRRJ) clinic. It is the result of a 2007 conference organized by NEU Law Professor Margaret Burnham on cold cases of the 1960s. After that conference, Prof. Burnham and MIT political science professor Melissa Nobles decided to look backwards to the Jim Crow era. The scope of the research covers 13 southern states chronologically from 1930 to 1954 picking up from where Stewart Tolnay and E. M. Beck left off in their widely-used inventory of lynchings. This database is part of each scholar’s respective research on racial violence in the Jim Crow period.
My part in this project is to uncover every lynching I could discover between 1930 and 1954. We are initially focusing on three main repositories: the NAACP Papers in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress; Department of Justice (DOJ) records located at the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA); and eventually records of the FBI. So far I am deep into the first two; the F.B.I., however, is of course it’s own beast.
What have I learned about history from all this? As somebody who has studied both labor and African American history, I always knew history was really violent. It wasn’t until I looked at the history of lynching in a very concentrated way that I came to reckon with the brutal nature of our nation’s history. Through this research, more than ever I understand what this violence looks like on an individual basis, case after case after case—and I’ve looked at hundreds of cases. When I uncover a new case, I sometimes think about my father and how old he was at the time of this killing. For example, in 1948, a political activist named Robert Mallard was murdered by a mob in Toombs County, GA for driving black voters to the polls in the recent gubernatorial election. In 1948, my dad was 14 years old. This was not that long ago. There have been mobs of thousands of angry white people, attacking a jail and killing an African American man and this happened in our parents’ lifetimes. Some of the perpetrators and participants in these lynch mobs are still alive – and unpunished. The kind of violence that the Ku Klux Klan and others unleashed was really just yesterday, and I am nowhere near certain that it won’t come back. This sort of history makes the world seem very fragile to me.
What have you learned about navigating these collections and these archives? Do you have any tips for other historians in regard to archival research?
Let me start with the NAACP. The thing I’ve learned about the NAACP is that when you get to the 1930s and early 1940s, every week they are about to close their doors because it’s run on a shoestring. Yet, there’s this moment where they realize in many parts of the country, they are the only organization doing civil rights work. Sure there’s the International Labor Defense (ILD), the Communist Party, and other groups, but the NAACP is often the only game in town. And this means that everyone is writing the NAACP asking them to take their case. Their resources are stretched so incredibly thin that they can’t do it all. For example, in 1934 NAACP president Walter White read an account of an oil field worker named Ed Lovelace, who was beaten and then burned alive in the town of Wink, TX. White wired the president of the San Antonio branch to investigate. Given that Wink is nearly 400 miles from San Antonio, and it was the site of a violent mob murder of a black man, it would take a tremendous amount of courage for another black man to take this risky journey. Instead, the San Antonio branch looked in the local newspapers for any coverage. Finding none, the case was closed as far as the NAACP was concerned. But, I can’t help but wonder had the local branch made the journey or if the national office had the resources to send an investigator, the murder of Ed Lovelace might well have been counted as one of the fourteen lynchings that the NAACP recorded in 1934.
After World War II, the organization has almost the opposite problem. The relative prosperity of the war years and the impact of the Great Migration caused the NAACP’s membership to surge. They grow so quickly that the bureaucracy sustaining the organization becomes so complex that things get misfiled, overlooked and lost in the records. So even though the papers look like they are in order – and in many ways they are—there is a lot of chaos in them. If you are patient and willing to do the work, there is a lot of new material to be harvested.
Also, many researchers focus too much on the microfilmed portion of the NAACP papers. What’s available on microfilm is really a small slice of the larger collection.
With that in mind, everything I said about the NAACP goes double for the DOJ at NARA. The DOJ is a vast, vast, agency and NARA is a massive archive. What gets recorded often depended upon how much the secretary or clerk working that day felt like filing. The main thing about working at NARA is that you have to work with the archivists. There is no way to productively navigate NARA’s holdings without the help of these archivists and their highly specialized knowledge of their subject areas. No historian, no matter how smart, will have mastered these records as they have. The NARA archvist I’ve been working with most, Haley Maynard, has been indispensable to the success of this project so far.
Why is MIT creating this lynching database?
The CRRJ intends it to become a public history resource.
How does a historian go about gathering and organizing all this data? What has been your method? Did it change as you visited different archives?
When I started this project, I thought the NAACP had done a very good job of reporting on lynchings. In many ways they had. For its time, the organization was very thorough. The problem, however, was that the character of lynching changes over the course of the 1920 and 1930s. In the words of Howard Kester who worked with the NAACP as a white southerner and thus could do undercover investigations of lynchings, it went “underground.” It became less spectacular and ritualistic and, as a result, harder to find because these killings are no longer showing up in press accounts.
So to address this part of my methodology involves recreating the event itself in my head. When you do this it really reveals how lynchings, despite their horrific nature, could be obscured. For example, who are the people who knew the most about this event? First, obviously, the victim, but unless they survived, that voice is forever silenced. The second tier is the perpetrators. When lynching was brazen and public, you can find the perpetrators in the press bragging about it. Sometimes, knowing when they are going to get off, they even sell it to the media as in 1955 when J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant killed Emmett Till and sold their story to Look Magazine. Over the course of the 1920s and 1930s as the NAACP ratchets up public pressure for anti-lynching legislation, lynchers fall silent and stop bragging.
This brings us to the third tier of people who are paying relatively close attention to who is being killed and by whom. This comprises the universe of law enforcement officials, at both the local and the federal level. There are two big reasons that law enforcement is paying attention. First, are those cases where law enforcement is either sanctioning or participating in the lynching. Second, they opposed lynching because it interrupted their monopoly on violence. While lynchers were technically breaking the law by committing murder, this act of killing was also a direct challenge to police prerogatives as the only legitimate purveyors of such violence. That’s the police. Notice, we haven’t even gotten to the NAACP yet.
The fourth tier is the press, often newspaper reporters. Small town reporters were often members of the community committing the lynching and were often members of these lynch mobs – either as participants or observers – so they give very detailed accounts. This is where modern newspaper databases have really helped my research. Chronicling America, ProQuest historical newspapers, and other newspaper digitization projects have really changed the game. For example, the NAACP had to depend on local townspeople sending them clippings; otherwise the organization had no real way to know about lynchings that occurred. So today we have access to identified lynchings that appeared in the local press at the time but the NAACP did not know about because maybe they didn’t have a branch in that town or no one in the town was brave enough to go the post office to mail a clipping to a New York address. You get the idea. This includes the black press too; shockingly the NAACP did not have full access to the black press. In fact the black press was harder to get at since they were often under-capitalized and over-extended, perhaps only issuing one publication a week. Also, even if there were lynchings, the local black press might not have covered it because these presses operated under local conditions and were sometimes unable to report freely.
Then finally, at last you get to the outer tier comprising groups like the Tuskegee Institute and the NAACP, but as you can see they are all very removed from the center of the event. It’s almost like they are the external valence shells on this historical atom. So my goal as a researcher became not to bounce around the outer most orbit of that atom, but rather to determine how to get to the center. The key has turned out to be tier three, the police and law enforcement, because they are the ones, for reasons explained already, paying attention and–crucially–keeping records. If those records wind up in the FBI or DOJ, they are at NARA. That’s the road that will take you to the center of that atom.
In turn, that changed the way I structured the research project. To begin, I went through all the names of lynchings we had already collected. I then made a name database of lynching victims, but as I discovered in the newspapers, they also often listed the names of the perpetrators, more frequently than one would think. In addition, the DOJ often lists cases under the name of the killer, so in some places you only have th name of the killer. You can then use the DOJ litigation index at NARA to find the case number that is linked to that particular killer’s name, which hopefully reveals something about the event that was otherwise lost to time. So far, it has proven pretty fruitful; I’ve even discovered a number of cases the NAACP did not know about.
For example, I found a file in the DOJ records with a 1933 letter from Corinne Banks to FDR. Banks, who lived in Chicago, was the sister of Hirsch Lee, who had been lynched earlier that year. Lee was a 14 year old boy who lived with (and possibly worked for) a white family and had a friendship with a white girl in that family. A rumor spread that it was more than friendship and the family (along with other white men in the area) took Lee to the woods and killed him. They dismembered his body and left it in the woods. The DOJ wrote back to Banks to say they had no jurisdiction in this murder case. There is no indication that the NAACP or any other civil rights group ever found out. What struck me the most was the similarities to the 1955 Emmett Till case. How many Emmett Tills were there?
So in regard to what historians have argued, many historians suggest that lynchings peaked after WWI with another spike during the Great Depression, but then it goes into a long term decline. However, and please keep in mind this is still preliminary and based on this early research, while I think lynching did decline, it did not decline as much as we like to think it did.
Now I’m going to expand on this but keep in mind this is mostly just my opinion and not that of the CRRJ. That being said, I am willing to theorize that based on this research there is a baseline level of anti-black violence in US history that has proven very difficult to reduce. Some historians have discussed this, like Michael Pfeifer in his 2006 book, Rough Justice. He theorizes lynching declines because the death penalty takes its place. However, what I am discovering is that maybe the form of this baseline anti-black violence changes from lynchings to police killings. Lynch mobs became less necessary for the maintenance of white supremacy because officers of the law are serving the same function in killing mostly black or Latino men. When confronting black or Latino suspects they use excessive force that leads to death far more often than they do with whites. This was something very clear to those counting lynchings in the 1930s through the 1950s. A 1934 letter from a local NAACP investigator in Alabama to the NAACP describes this relationship:
“If we listed all of the cases where officers go with the intention of killing the man, we would have many more lynchings than any other organization lists. I was told by a teacher in Selma, Ala. that ‘the reason we have no lynchings around here is this: when a Negro gets out of line the officers go and bring him in dead – that is the general rule here’.”
So I am also looking at police brutality files in the NAACP and DOJ records. When the US goes from being predominantly rural to predominantly urban in the 1920s, it changes a great deal about American life particularly in how populations are surveilled and policed. You have the Great Migration bringing African Americans into cities in record numbers but also rural whites moving to urban America (to say nothing of European immigrants who came in the preceding decades). What used to get solved by lynching in the countryside starts getting addressed by professional or semi-professional police forces. Just to complicate this further, I think an older definition of lynching as popular justice, as spectacular, as carnivalesque, and this idea that historians have bracketed its era as ending in 1930, has prevented people from seeing the possible connection between the decline in lynchings and the increase in police killings and brutality. To test that out you would need a reliable adequate number of how many people killed by police over the past century and that work has not been done.
Is it safe to assume that the shift from lynchings to police brutality was due to political changes that resulted in anti-lynching campaigns (particularly by the NAACP) and the growing civil rights movement? Would you explain this shift another way or add to it?
Another complexity to think about is when lynchings do begin to decline, the NAACP and others link this decline to their repeated attempts to pass anti-lynching legislation. Though the NAACP never managed to pass an anti-lynching law, there is at least some evidence that keeping the issue of lynching before the public reduced the number of lynchings. In 1938, as Congress is debating an anti-lynching bill, at least four lynchings are averted by sheriffs explaining to the mob that a lynching would only empower the NAACP and other supposed enemies of the South.
But, there’s not enough solid evidence that it was the NAACP’s efforts to pass anti-lynching laws that led to lynching’s decline. It’s very possible that the NAACP increasingly needed to justify why it was prosecuting a fight, which they never win, at least in terms of legislative victories. Since the failure of the Dyer Bill in 1921, all attempts to pass anti-lynching legislation foundered in the face of a southern, white supremacist filibuster. But an anti-lynching law is NAACP President Walter White’s baby. The NAACP has a finite amount of resources and White must show his board of directors and others that there is a reason to pursue this anti-lynching campaign. White’s argument, at the risk of being too simplistic, is that the campaign, even if a failure legislatively, did marginalize lynching as an act such that it declined. White and the NAACP need to generate a narrative of success along the lines of “this hasn’t been a fruitless battle”; using these resources for anti-lynching makes sense particularly when for most of its history, the NAACP is a resource-strapped, zero sum institution. Because the NAACP starts to believe this narrative, I think they wind up undercounting the actual number of lynchings–particularly into the 1930s and 40s.
One last thing to add: I’d caution people who are doing this sort of research that it is emotionally impossible to distance yourself from the topic. You might see hundreds of dead bodies each week on television but it’s not the same. It’s case after case—and some cases go into great, disturbing detail. For instance, in NAACP investigative reports I came across the phrase “beaten to a pulp or jelly” again and again. I realized that this is not just a metaphor, but a literal physical state. I’ve asked some doctors I know if this was possible, and it is. If beaten hard enough, for a long enough time, flesh and blood and bone coagulates into a something like a jelly. That can make it hard to sleep at night. It’s something you can’t just harden yourself to; it takes a heavy emotional and physical toll. So, give yourself time to breathe, and carry on the work.
Jay Driskell is a historian whose work explores the relationship between race, gender and the forging of effective political solidarities in struggles for power within the urbanizing, segregating South. His first book, Schooling Jim Crow: the Fight for Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High School and the Roots of Black Protest Politics (University Press of Virginia, 2014), traces the changes in black political consciousness that transformed a reactionary politics of respectability into a militant force for change during the fight for black public schools in Atlanta, Georgia.
Driskell also runs a historical consulting business for institutions and individuals who require access to the wealth of historical resources in the DC-area. Major clients have included the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, the Smithsonian Institution Archives, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the National Labor College