Lynching is the illegal execution of an accused person by a mob. The term lynching probably derived from the name Charles Lynch (1736-96), a justice of the peace who administered rough justice in Virginia. Lynching was originally a system of punishment used by whites against African American slaves. However, whites who protested against this were also in danger of being lynched. On 7th November, 1837, Elijah Parish Lovejoy, the editor of the Alton Observer, was killed by a white mob after he had published articles criticizing lynching and advocating the abolition of slavery.
After the establishment of the Ku Klux Klan in 1867 the number of lynching of African American increased dramatically. The main objective of the KKK was to maintain white supremacy in the South, which they felt was under threat after their defeat in the Civil War. It has been estimated that between 1880 and 1920, an average of two African Americans a week were lynched in the United States.
In 1884 Ida Wells, editor of Free Speech, a small newspaper in Memphis, carried out an investigation into lynching. She discovered during a short period 728 black men and women had been lynched by white mobs. Of these deaths, two-thirds were for small offences such as public drunkenness and shoplifting.
On 9th March, 1892, three African American businessmen were lynched in Memphis. When Ida Wells wrote an article condemning the lynchers, a white mob destroyed her printing press. They declared that they intended to lynch her but fortunately she was visiting Philadelphia at the time.
Unable to return to Memphis, Ida Wells was recruited by the progressive newspaper, New York Age. She continued her campaign against lynching and Jim Crow laws and in 1893 and 1894 made lecture tours of Britain. While there in 1894 she helped to establish the British Anti-Lynching Committee. Members included James Keir Hardie, Thomas Burt, John Clifford, Isabella Ford, Tom Mann, Joseph Pease, C. P. Scott, Ben Tillett and Mary Humphrey Ward.
George Henry White, the last former slave to serve in Congress and the only African American in the House of Representatives, proposed a bill in January, 1901 that would have made lynching of American citizens a federal crime. He argued that any person participating actively in or acting as an accessory in a lynching should be convicted of treason. White pointed out that lynching was being used by white mobs in the Deep South to terrorize African Americans. He illustrated this by showing that of the 109 people lynched in 1899, 87 were African Americans. Despite White’s passionate plea, the bill was easily defeated.
The NAACP also fought a long campaign against lynching. In 1919 it published Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States: 1889-1918. The NAACP also paid for large adverts in major newspapers presenting the facts about lynching. To show that the members of the organization would not be intimidated, it held its 1920 annual conference in Atlanta, considered at the time to be one of the most active Ku Klux Klan areas in America.
There was a decline in lynching during the First World War but more than seventy blacks were murdered in this way in the year after the war ended. Ten black soldiers, several still in their army uniforms, were amongst those lynched. Between 1919 and 1922, a further 239 blacks were lynched by white mobs and many more were killed by individual acts of violence and unrecorded lynchings. In none of these cases was a white person punished for these crimes. Several trade unionists were also lynched. This included two members of the Industrial Workers of the World, Frank Little (1917) and Wesley Everest (1919).
Dr. Arthur Raper was commissioned in 1930 to produce a report on lynching. He discovered that “3,724 people were lynched in the United States from 1889 through to 1930. Over four-fifths of these were Negroes, less than one-sixth of whom were accused of rape. Practically all of the lynchers were native whites. The fact that a number of the victims were tortured, mutilated, dragged, or burned suggests the presence of sadistic tendencies among the lynchers. Of the tens of thousands of lynchers and onlookers, only 49 were indicted and only 4 have been sentenced.”
The NAACP hoped that the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 would bring an end to lynching. Two African American campaigners against lynching, Mary McLeod Bethune and Walter Francis White, had been actively involved in helping Roosevelt to obtain victory. The president’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, had also been a long-time opponent of lynching.
Robert F. Wagner and Edward Costigan agreed to draft a bill that would punish the crime of lynching. In 1935 attempts were made to persuade Roosevelt to support the Costigan-Wagner bill. However, Roosevelt refused to speak out in favour of the bill that would punish sheriffs who failed to protect their prisoners from lynch mobs. He argued that the white voters in the South would never forgive him if he supported the bill and he would therefore lose the next election.
Even the appearance in the newspapers of the lynching of Rubin Stacy failed to change Roosevelt’s mind on the subject. Six deputies were escorting Stacy to Dade County jail in Miami on 19th July, 1935, when he was taken by a white mob and hanged by the side of the home of Marion Jones, the woman who had made the original complaint against him. The New York Times later revealed that “subsequent investigation revealed that Stacy, a homeless tenant farmer, had gone to the house to ask for food; the woman became frightened and screamed when she saw Stacy’s face.”
The Costian-Wagner Act received support from many members of Congress but the Southern opposition managed to defeat it. However, the national debate that took place over the issue helped to bring attention to the crime of lynching.
In 1937 Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from New York, saw a photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. Meeropol later recalled how the photograph “haunted me for days” and inspired the writing of the poem, Strange Fruit. Meeropol, a member of the American Communist Party, using the pseudonym, Lewis Allan, published the poem in the New York Teacher and later, the Marxist journal, New Masses.
After seeing Billie Holiday perform at the club, Café Society, in New York, Meeropol showed her the poem. Holiday liked it and after working on it with Sonny White made turned into the song, Strange Fruit. The record made it to No. 16 on the charts in July 1939. However, the song was denounced by Time Magazine as “a prime piece of musical propaganda” for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).
Between 1865 and 1965 over 2400 African Americans were lynched in the United States. Even after the passing of the Civil Rights Act (1964) lynchings continued in the Deep South. The most significant of these was the Michael Donald case. In 1981 the trial of Josephus Andersonan, an African American charged with the murder of a white policeman, took place in Mobile. At the end of the case the jury was unable to reach a verdict. This upset members of the Ku Klux Klan who believed that the reason for this was that some members of the jury were African Americans. At a meeting held after the trial, Bennie Hays, the second-highest ranking official in the Klan in Alabama said: “If a black man can get away with killing a white man, we ought to be able to get away with killing a black man.”
On Saturday 21st March, 1981, Bennie Hays’s son, Henry Hays, and James Knowles, decided they would get revenge for the failure of the courts to convict the man for killing a policeman. They travelled around Mobile in their car until they found nineteen year old Michael Donald walking home. After forcing him into the car Donald was taken into the next county where he was lynched.
A brief investigation took place and eventually the local police claimed that Donald had been murdered as a result of a disagreement over a drugs deal. Donald’s mother, Beulah Mae Donald, who knew that her son was not involved with drugs, was determined to obtain justice. She contacted Jessie Jackson who came to Mobile and led a protest march about the failed police investigation.
Thomas Figures, the assistant United States attorney in Mobile, managed to persuade the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to look into the case. James Bodman was sent to Mobile and it did not take him long to persuade James Knowles to confess to the killing of Michael Donald.
In June 1983, Knowles was found guilty of violating Donald’s civil rights and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Six months later, when Henry Hays was tried for murder, Knowles appeared as chief prosecution witness. Hays was found guilty and sentenced to death.
With the support of Morris Dees and Joseph J. Levin at the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC), Beulah Mae Donald decided that she would use this case to try and destroy the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama. Her civil suit against the United Klans of America took place in February 1987. The all-white jury found the Klan responsible for the lynching of Michael Donald and ordered it to pay 7 million dollars. This resulted the Klan having to hand over all its assets including its national headquarters in Tuscaloosa.
After a long-drawn out legal struggle, Henry Hayes was executed on 6th June, 1997. It was the first time a white man had been executed for a crime against an African American since 1913.