What follows is a paper that I originally wrote for a class called simply, The American South
. I am adding this brief introduction to explain my motivation
s for writing on such a controversial topic and also so that people will have no chance to misconstrue my words and thereby label me some sort of white-supremacist apologist
. I wrote this paper in order to accurately explain a set of data
appearing on page 158 of Major Problems in the History of the American South, Volume 2: The New South.
Said data reveals in short a sharp decline in lynching during the period 1893-1928. I felt that the simple explanation, i.e.
, that white people became less racist over that time period, would not accurately explain what I saw in the data, mostly because I don't believe that racism experienced a decline during that period. I also wanted to dispel a mistake that I'd seen made many times, namely the conflation
attitudes and discriminatory behavior like lynching and the Jim Crow laws
. In short, I wanted to make sure that people knew that simply because a society doesn't make a certain group of people feel afraid for their lives or feel like second class citizens
in an overt and/or official manner doesn't mean that that society is treating that group properly or that it intends to do so in the future. So, without further ado, here's the paper I wrote.
An Explanation of Observed Lynching Behavior in the U.S.
One major error committed by many a scholar is the ascription of complex phenomena such as lynchings and rioting to relatively simple causes, the overused term racism being chief among them. While there is no argument that race played some role in these events, one must look deeper than the oversimplification of racism if one is to come to a full understanding of the forces that caused them. Take, for instance, the especially large amount of racial violence committed from around 1880 to 1940. This paper will argue that this period of violence, and the change in frequency within it, is more indicative of the attitudes of people concerning death than concerning race.
Many large-scale changes were taking place throughout this time, both in the South and in the world at large. The medical profession was gradually discovering effective means of saving lives. The average life expectancy at birth rose substantially over the course of this period, as well, partially because of the newfound effectiveness of medicine, but more likely because of generally more sanitary conditions and improvements in infrastructure, both physical and social. Both of these changes can be seen in Nate Shaw's narrative, All God's Dangers. For instance, when talking about the deaths of his mother and brother, he says, "Well, the country wasn't full of doctors at that time... (p.10)," implying that more doctors existed in the 1960's when Nate was narrating than in the first decade of the twentieth century, the period about which Nate was talking. With less access to doctors comes less access to health care and higher mortality from disease and accident, as further evidenced by the fact that one third of Nate's mother's children were dead by the time that she died (p.11). The doctors to whom the people had access apparently were relatively ineffective, as well: "he (the doctor) was a nice, kind man, but as far as his practiceship, I don't know whether he was on the dot or not (p.12)." Nate's lack of faith in this doctor seems to be fairly well founded, since at least two of his patients that Nate knew of died of diseases that would now be considered annoyances at best. Keep in mind, too, that this was the state of relative advancement of the medical profession forty years after the civil war, during which such antiquated techniques as amputations without anesthesia and the use of leeches were commonplace. By the end of the period, medicine had seen a substantial advance, though, since what we now know as modern medicine became relatively widespread before the end of the Great Depression.
The reason that this is important is because society historically has placed a premium on human life according to the amount of resources that it percieves to be invested in that life. The lynching data (pp.158-159) in Problems in the History of the American South reflects this tendency. If one looks at the data for black lynchings versus white lynchings over time, black lynchings are invariably higher. This is a symptom of a thought process that accomplishes a social fact over time stating that blacks, being generally poorer than whites, invest less resources in themselves and are therefore less valuable to society. Approximately the same phenomena can be seen in action any time one person is considered to be important when considered in contrast to another. The phenomenon of importance is one of perception of invested resources. There is no other explanation for the social success of Roark's "planter's revolution" (as explained in his book, Masters Without Slaves) in an environment where "the majority of Southerners were, after all, nonslaveholders (p.21)," according to a secessionist prior to the war. The planters, whose station in society was indicative of the amount of resources invested in them, were considered more important than nonslaveholders and their opinions and ideas were therefore accorded more respect and were acted upon. This tendency to value individuals whose in whose being were invested more resources than most carries over to death, as well. Speaking of some officers from her own planter class, a Georgia woman said, "Their deaths have brought the war home to me more forceably (sic) than could the deaths of a regiment of soldiers... (p.86)." So more invested resources in a human life implies greater societal value placed upon that life.
With that having been established, let us look again at the aforementioned hanging data from 1882-1930 again. Although it is obvious from the higher number of black hangings throughout the period that race was a motivator in many of the events, one cannot explain the reductions in rate and number simply by saying that either people were becoming less racist or that black people were somehow becoming less black. Anti-black discrimination remained strong enough in the South to inspire the backlash of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950's of which Lillian Smith was a key proponent, and the continuation of social definitions of blackness through the end of the period show the continued distinctiveness, if not necessarily by choice, of blacks from whites. The reduction is therefore not a racial phenomenon. Also telling in this data is the much sharper drop in white lynchings. Both drops are symptomatic of the same change in overall societal feeling toward life and its general value. With the increase in investment in individuals, both by society and by themselves, that occurs after the end of the transition to lower overall mortality comes the establishment of a social fact that life is more important and that the taking of it is an event to be embarked upon with more thought than had previously been used. White lynchings were all but eliminated due to the fact that there was not as much potential incentive to practice vigilante justice against white men. Black hangings continued because they served ends other than simple murder. They were also a tool to keep blacks in check, as well as an outlet for the social rage felt by whites. As such, when other, more legitimate outlets for these feelings eventually began to arise in the form of official discrimination in the more widespread public sphere afforded by greater governmental presence, lynchings were virtually eliminated since there was no reason to lynch a man who could just as easily be put in jail, like Nate Shaw, or otherwise legitimately disposed of, like his friends (p.317). So vigilante violence, because of its dependence on certain cultural attitudes regarding the relatively low worth of human life, ended when those attitudes changed and other avenues for the expression of racial anger opened.
With the rise of the social fact of the worth of human life, more legitimate means of expression of racial animosity opened up for whites, a fact which ironically opened the way for the black civil rights movement of later years by moving the majority of overt racial conflict from rural forest clearings to federal courtrooms.