Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Carnival of Death: Lynching in America

The Beginning of the End

On January 23, 1906 a rape was committed on a white woman in Chattanooga, Tennessee. A few days later the local police arrested a black man, one Ed Johnson for the crime. He was kept in custody for the next few weeks away from Chattanooga for the fear of being lynched. From the time he was arrested to the day Johnson went on trial, there were two organized attempts made to lynch him. Both attempts failed because the prisoner could not be located. On February 6 Johnson went on trial for the sexual assault, was quickly convicted, and as was the custom for this type of crime, sentenced to death. The date of execution was set as March 13, later changed to March 20. His lawyers, fearful of mob violence, were reluctant to make an appeal. They felt "that the life of the defendant, even if the wrong man, could not be saved; that an appeal would so inflame the public that the jail would be attacked and perhaps other prisoners executed by violence" (U.S. v. Shipp, 214 U.S. 386 ,1909). However, on March 19, 1906 the Supreme Court allowed an appeal in the Johnson case and directed all proceedings against Johnson be stayed. That same night, a large crowd appeared at the city jail. They forcibly broke into Johnson's cell and abducted him. The jail was guarded by one deputy who offered no resistance. Johnson was beaten mercilessly and dragged into the city street where he was tortured by dozens of others. He was taken to a nearby bridge where hundreds of spectators had gathered. A rope was tied around his neck and he was thrown off the bridge. The rope broke however and Johnson fell to the ground. He was tied up again and tossed off the bridge as some in the crowd began firing shots. He fell again and was repeatedly shot while lying on the ground. Johnson was strung up again and shot dozens of times while he hung dead from the bridge. [12]

The United States Supreme Court became enraged. Since Johnson was considered a federal prisoner when granted an appeal, it was a clear and contemptuous challenge to the authority of the Court. For the one and only time in its history, the Supreme Court held a criminal trial. It decided Chattanooga Sheriff Shipp and two of his deputies were in contempt of court for allowing Johnson to be lynched (U.S. v. Shipp, 214 U.S. 386, 1909). It found all parties guilty and sentenced them to 60 days in jail. After 35 years of systematic murder, it was the first time a law enforcement official was held responsible for a lynching in their jurisdiction. The public attitude toward mob justice began to change, but ever so slowly. It would take the courageous voice of a black woman, the daughter of slaves, to awaken much of America to the horrors of lynching.

The remarkable Ida Wells was a journalist who became known for her outspoken political opinions and a strong commitment to human rights, especially as it applied to African Americans. Alone, she conducted an investigation into the practice of lynching and published the results in local newspapers. She discovered that out of 728 black men who were lynched by white mobs, almost seventy percent were killed for minor offenses. Wells later established her own newspaper and championed the cause of justice for blacks. Her life was threatened many times. Her office was demolished by unknown persons and eventually, she was forced out of the South. But she continued her work against Southern mob justice. In 1898 she wrote a letter to President McKinley appealing for federal intervention in the South to stop the illegal practice of lynching. She wrote "Nowhere in the civilized worlds save the United States of America do men, possessing all civil and political power, go out in bands of 50 to 5,000 to hunt down, shoot, hang or burn to death an individual, unarmed and absolutely powerless". In 1901, she published a book titled Lynching and the Excuse, which became widely circulated and well known for its articulate and passionate denunciation of lynching.

Then in 1909, on Lincoln's Birthday, in an event that would alter the path of social and cultural history in America, Ida Wells, W. E. B. DuBois and dozens of other prominent American blacks and whites formed an organization, partly in response to lynchings of blacks, and called it the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). After their first conference, the NAACP launched an anti-lynching campaign that would span thirty years. The group pressured local and federal politicians to recognize the racial nature and foundational injustice of lynching. They lobbied Washington to state publicly that lynching was a clear violation of constitutional guarantees. In 1915, the NAACP, recognizing the vast psychological damage of The Birth of a Nation, organized a nation-wide boycott of D.W. Griffith's racist film. Slowly, the tide began to turn.

The NAACP placed full page advertisements in the New York Times, The Atlanta Constitution and other newspapers denouncing the practice of lynching and calling it the "Shame of America" (November 23, 1922). People like Ida Wells and W.E.B. Dubois campaigned tirelessly against the violence. And the statistics were appalling. By 1918, at least 3,224 people were murdered by lynching (Library of Congress, Manuscript Collection). Undoubtedly, the real numbers were much higher for lynchings were often unreported by local authorities.

NAACP banner
NAACP banner

In New York City, the NAACP hung a large banner outside its headquarters announcing every time a man was lynched. Public outrage grew. As time passed, the lynchings steadily decreased with little help from Washington. The Supreme Court, as always, procrastinated and preferred to let the individual states handle the lynching crisis, which the court interpreted as a local problem. By 1932, lynchings had decreased to a new low of ten incidents and during the entire decade only 88 blacks were lynched (Tolnay and Beck, p. 202). In the early 1930s, members of Congress proposed a new bill, The Costigan-Wagner Act which attacked one of the main aspects of lynching. The legislation proposed federal trials for any law enforcement officers who failed to exercise their responsibilities during a lynching incident. Again, the bill was not passed despite overwhelming public support. A national poll that was taken in 1937 that "found 65 per cent of all southerners supported legislation that would have made lynching a federal crime" (Tolnay and Beck, p. 202).

And so with little or no help from Washington, the barbaric practice of lynching subsided. Over the next few decades there would be individual incidents that would shock the consciousness and remind the nation once again of the bitter racism that still existed in some areas of the country. One such incident, the Mississippi lynching of Emmett Till, a 14 year old boy in Mississippi in 1955, would help ignite the fires of social change that would sweep across the country during the 1960s. Till, on vacation in Mississippi from Chicago, was brutally beaten, mutilated and killed for the "offense" of insulting a white woman. He was unaccustomed to the ways and culture of rural Mississippi. But for the most part, lynching would fade unassisted into the shadows of history, an almost forgotten remnant of a distant past when terror reigned and justice was truly an illusion. An era when men could be murdered on a whim, mobs would kill with impunity and those in power would simply turn away, or in some cases, help toss the rope over the tree limb.

 

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