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How polite people defended lynching

One of the enduring mysteries surrounding the post-Reconstruction and Jim Crow culture of lynching, which in the south actively continued into the 1950s, is how (or perhaps, rather, why) local acts of mob violence often benefitted from regular wider social approbation.  Even as late as the 1930s, despite widespread national coverage of racially-motivated lynchings in the south, the federal government denied it even had the authority to investigate them, and to the extent it permitted its agents to get involved in investigations it was black militancy and not white vigilantism they tended to pursue.  Postcards made at lynchings were mailed across the country without apparent embarrassment.  How could, say, northern elites who had made abolitionism a moral crusade, have been rendered so ineffective for so long in warning against the evils of lynching?

One common explanation for the national refusal to get involved (even after the passage of anti-lynching laws and at least until the 1940s, when the FBI switched course and sent investigative teams south) relates to the sense of national fatigue that saw both the end of Reconstruction and the emergence of a national willingness to let the South handle its own racial affairs even as evidence of atrocity mounted.  But lynching also had its advocates, which I suppose should not come as a surprise but does.  When concerned outsiders raised questions about the morality of lynching, these were not simply and too often ignored but were implicitly or positively answered, which is to say that active arguments were for many years advanced whose implications resulted in a refusal to get involved and a tendency to see lynchings as exceptional conduct whose apparent rarity was seen as a rationale for the infrequent but sometimes urgent need for a town to take the law into its own hands.

The legal history which gave rise to the case for mob justice is recounted in Christopher Waldrep’s new essay, “National Policing, Lynching, and Constitutional Change,” in the Journal of Southern History 74.3 (August 2008): 589-626.  Prof. Waldrep (the Jamie and Phyllis Pasker Professor of History at San Francisco State University) is mainly interested in the historical process which finally resulted in a more assertive and publicly legitimated role for the federal government to combat localized crime, a halting evolution in elite thinking that attempted but failed to implement national policing with Prohibition and then roughly a decade later enabled prosecutorial and policing intervention to stymie lynching.

As Waldrep notes (591),

In the nineteenth century the authority to control crime lay in neighborhoods and communities.  In this highly localized world where local jurisdictions struggled to maintain order with little outside help, Americans sometimes rationalized lynching as so-called lynch law, a constitutionally legitimate expression of popular sovereignty outside statutory law.

The idea, variously expressed by some judges and more assertively in elite commentary, was that the law has its final or foundational validation in the will of the people:  the people made the Constitution, and the Constitution made the courts, and so if the courts fail to do justice, then the people have the right to take matters into their own hands.  In the novel The Virginian, one character defends the view that (as Waldrep puts it), “when citizens take back the law, they do not defy the law but actually assert it.”

I suppose I can understand how such a view might (for a time) enjoy some currency but wonder why it would not have been automatically dismissed elsewhere in the United States as self-serving vigilantism, especially in an age that also saw the full emergence of a national press and systems of mass communication that enabled the stripping away of euphemism and the publication of the awful details in close to real time.  It was the fast adoption of the telegraph, itself a mass medium overlaying the trains (which might also be considered a mass medium), that powered the Atlanta career of Henry Grady, who made the paper he edited a regional powerhouse in part because he established a network of local correspondents able to telegram their reports right into the news room (it was not coincidental that the Atlanta newspaper’s headquarters were situated within only a couple blocks of the city’s main railway terminus).  So as news was more quickly and accurately gathered, all in a context where one might have expected barbarism to have been identified and attacked, how could lynching continue?

Southern elites eager to preserve their newly re-won prerogatives were obviously not eager to showcase the south as backward, and so one might expect a regional tendency to frame lynchings as exceptional, and there are indications of this in the way lynching events were reported.  After all, as Grady was articulating it to adoring and influential corporate audiences in Boston and New York salons, the South had realized the errors of its ways and  could now be trusted to transition in a New South.

But beyond this fact, which undoubtedly contributed to the curious national reception to lynching news when it was conveyed, Waldrep’s account also calls attention to how the new instruments of mass communication may actually have perpetuated local extremes as opposed to calling wider attention to the need for greater outside oversight, at least for a time.  The influence of the new mass media was thus paradoxical.  There is some sense of this in Sherwood Anderson’s description, appearing in his widely noted Winesburg, Ohio, study (published in 1919): “Much of the old brutal ignorance that had in it also a kind of beautiful childlike innocence is gone forever.”  As a network for the widespread dissemination of information was created, its potential for education was also accompanied by the new challenges of judging events far away, and the temptation given an emerging national identity not to regularly disparage other Americans as somehow or irreducibly different.  Reporting done across wide distances could thus both hype judgmentalism and, in the case of lynching, often suppress or rationalize it.  As Waldrep puts it:

No national polling existed to contradict locally based sources of information…  [And so, national] newspapers regularly judged the legitimacy of lynchings based on the degree of community support.  The volume of journalists’ affirmations of community support for lynchings is extensive, but a few well-known instances illustrate the point.  When residents of Vicksburg, Mississippi, lynched five gamblers in 1835, their newspaper pronounced the killings legitimate because “We have never known the public so unanimous on any subject.”  The New York Times had a long history of denouncing mob violence, but in 1873 the Times reprinted an article from the San Francisco Chronicle describing the lynching of James McCrory, a “noted desperado” and a “fiend.”  The California newspaper concluded, “The unanimous verdict of the people is ‘well done.’”  Months later another California lynching appeared in the New York Times via the Chronicle, which emphasized the great crime committed by the lynched man and again stressed public unanimity behind the lynching.  As the men gathered, “not a voice was raised in opposition.”  According to the newspapers, at least through the 1870s and into the 1880s, white men joined with black men from all conditions and stations of life to carry out lynchings as community justice.

When the local reporting is produced in a climate of such interpellated unanimity (Waldrep rightly points out that the only voices likely listened to were white ones), when local editors have little interest in condemning their neighbors as terrorists, and when the emerging protocols of journalism are gravitating to reportage of the individual story (which meant that the particularities of a given crime were likely to come at the expense of calling attention to broader structures of racism and community-sanctioned violence that disproportionately singled out men of color), it is a little easier to see how the gruesome killings ended up not ignored, but worse, valorized.


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