Archive for August, 2009

Where’s lynching?

Some important references on American lynching history

  • U.S. Congress  Senate resolution of 2005Apologizing to the victims of lynching and the descendants of those victims for the failure of the Senate to enact anti-lynching legislation. S. Res. 39. 109th Cong., 1st sess. Congressional Record (February 7, 2005): S RES 39 IS.

Two hundred anti-lynching legislation bills were introduced in the House of Representatives. Three were approved and referred to the Senate.  However, the Senate which was controlled by southern segregationists rejected the bills. In 2005 the U.S. made a formal apology for systematically preventing the enactment of legislation to make lynching a federal crime.  Even though this admission of regret was groundbreaking, it did not result from a unanimous decision.  Only eighty of the one hundred senators sponsored the resolution.  Moreover, the resolution was passed by a voice vote so there is no written record to indicate who approved.
To review the resolution, see:,

News articles:
New York Times, “Senate Issues Apology over Failure on Lynching Law,” by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, June 14, 2005,

Washington Post, “A Senate Apology for History on Lynching, “ by Avis Thomas-Lester, June 14, 2005.

PBS Online NewsHour, “Senate Lynching Apology,” June 13, 2005,

Robert Siegel, “Anti-Lynching Law in U.S.” All Things Considered, National Public Radio, June 13, 2005,

BBC News, “Senate Apologises over Lynchings,” June 14, 2005,

  • James Cameron’s autobiography, A Time of Terror: A Survivor’s Story, published by Black Classic Press, 1994.  In 1930 Cameron was nearly lynched by a Marion, Indiana mob.  His companions Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith were lynched and are the subjects of an infamous lynching photograph by Lawrence Beitler. A reproduction of the photo is in Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America.
    Cameron later founded America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The museum is currently closed.
  • In the essay “How Come Nobody Told Me About the Lynching?” published in Picturing Us: African American Identity in Photography, edited by Deborah Willis, The New Press, 1994, author and filmmaker Jacquie Jones recounts how her sense of identity was profoundly changed by viewing a lynching photograph.
  • The 1960 American literary classic To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is a fictional account but it offers some insight into the various social factors involved with lynching culture.
  • Langston Hughes‘ 1927 poem Song for a Dark Girl offers a poignant, personal description of lynching.
  • In the 1986 mixed media work Accused/Blowtorch/Padlock, artist Pat Ward Williams deconstructs a lynching photograph and challenges viewers to question the imagery and the psychology that allowed this violence to occur.
    Images of this work can be found online by searching Google.

Accused/Blowtorch/Padlock is mentioned in many books and articles on art and culture.  Here’s just a few:  Elizabeth Alexander includes an interesting interpretation of this work in her article, “Can You Be Black and Look at This? Reading the Rodney King Video(s),” published in Public Culture, 1994.  Sharon Patton also includes a brief discussion on this work in African-American Art, published by Oxford History of Art, 1998.
There’s also an informative video about this work on YouTube:

  • Billy Holiday’s haunting 1939 recording, Strange Fruit strikes the heart.  The song lyrics were actually written by Abel Meeropol.  However, most people attribute the power of the song to Holiday’s performances.  Strange Fruit became a pivotal inspiration for later civil rights activists.

August 31, 2009 at 7:12 am 3 comments

Why Lynching?

I often talk about my studies of American lynching memorials with people from various walks of life: students, professors, museum curators, artists, administrative assistants, bus drivers, and hairdressers.

I’m often asked why I chose to study this topic and what does this have to do with art history.  Many people are shocked to learn that lynching scenes were once featured on postcards.  Many of these people were unaware of the existence of present day lynching memorials.  They ask me about the imagery used on the structures.  And they sometimes question why communities chose to highlight this type of history.

People frequently quickly associate lynching with terms such as “frontier justice” and link it with popular culture references such as films like Hang ‘Em High.

And a few folks admit that they aren’t certain as to exactly what lynching is.

While these types of responses encourage me to clarify my focus and advance my efforts to share my work with the public, I have been most affected by the lack of knowledge concerning the meaning of lynching.  I’ve found that this confusion surrounding the topic is central to the contemporary creation of lynching memorials.

Before I began my scholarly studies of the material culture of American lynchings, my understanding of the subject was shaped by my readings of African American literature, watching films, and the stories my grandmother shared about her life as a young girl in Mississippi.  I didn’t learn about lynching in my high school history classes.  I grew up thinking of lynching as a particularly racialized practice that occurred in the South during the late 19th and early 20th century.


Various scholars such as William D. Carrigan, author of The Making of a Lynching Culture: Violence and Vigilantism in Central Texas, 1836-1916 and Jacqueline Goldsby, author of A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature, start their books by defining lynching.  And yet even these experts have noted that it is difficult to succinctly delineate lynching.  Moreover, scholars usually highlight that the term lynching meant different things at different times.

Lynchings were not unique to the United States.  People throughout the world in various time periods resorted to mob action.  The characteristics of the violence vary immensely from place to place and time to time.  Thus it is important to consider lynching history carefully and specifically in terms of region and era.

Since the founding of the U.S., lynching was a form of social control used against people of various ethnic groups accused of criminal offenses.  Most lynchings involved some form of hanging the accused person(s) from trees, streetlamps, or bridges.  Some of these incidents included torture, burning, and mutilation of the corpse.  Between the 1880s to the late 1960s racism was a dominant factor in lynchings throughout the U.S.  During this time about 4700 people were lynched.  Most of these people were black men killed by white mobs.

For my research, I have found the work of sociologist Roberta Senechal de la Roche particularly useful because she describes how lynching is similar and dissimilar to the other forms of collective violence: vigilantism, rioting, and terrorism.
Senechal de la Roche, Roberta, “Collective Violence as Social Control,” Sociological Forum, 11, 1 (March 1996): 97-128. Available on JSTOR.
Senechal de la Roche, Roberta, “Why is Collective Violence Collective?,” Sociological Theory, 19, 2 (July 2001): 126-144.  Available on JSTOR.

Senechal de la Roche argues that lynch mobs were often made up of various individuals who were not part of an organized group as in the case of vigilante posses.

Moreover, she focuses on how social factors such as relational distance, cultural distance, functional independence, and inequality correlate with forms of collective violence.  She notes that lynchings became more prevalent as segregation became rampant after the Reconstruction era.


One friend remarked that this topic must be hard to work on because of its very emotional nature.

Indeed lynching is a challenging subject to study.  I spend a lot of time reading horrific accounts and examining ghastly images.  But this isn’t the most disquieting aspect of my research.  I find the contemporary misunderstandings about lynching and vigilantism to be particularly troublesome.  Conflating these forms of mob violence collapses all lynchings with the myths surrounding frontier history.  The idea of western vigilantes has become a romanticized trope that seems to discourage rather than encourage serious study of lynching history.  Moreover, this tendency ignores the particularly racist and gendered practices associated with lynching.


Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, 2003
Duluth, Minnesota

Closeup of Scultures, Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, photo by author, 7-09

Closeup of Sculptures, Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, 2003, photo by author, 7-09

Interestingly the historical text on the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial in Duluth, Minnesota does not include the term lynching.

Detail of the historical text near the figures, Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, photo by author, 7-09.

Detail of the historical text near the figures, Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, 2003, photo by author, 7-09.

On June 15, 1920, following the alleged rape of a young woman, Duluth police locked up a number of men who worked for a traveling circus.  That evening, thousands of Duluthians gathered outside the city jail. The police were under orders not to shoot, and they obeyed.
With Timbers and rails as battering rams, the mob broke down the doors of the jail and staged a trial of six of the men. They convicted Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie, who had been held as a witness. The crowd dragged the young men about a block, beat them as viciously as you may imagine, and hanged them from a light pole that stood diagonally across the street from where you are now.  Some brave people spoke out in protest, but they were few against thousands. One man took a photograph that was later distributed as postcards. This memorial is dedicated to the memories of the murdered here and everywhere.

The word lynching is also not included in the various quotes listed on the walls.

The killing of the men is classified under the broader term- murder rather than lynching.

This memorial is dedicated to the memories of the murdered here and everywhere.

Additionally, the race of the lynched men and the mob members is not mentioned. Although the memorial website and the various newspaper articles about the memorial explicitly demarcate this incident as a lynching based on racism, the monument suggests that race was not a primary factor in the killing of these men.

As I continue my studies of these memorials I will delve deeper into the significance of the presence and absence of the word lynching.

August 31, 2009 at 6:52 am Leave a comment


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