*WARNING: Images displayed below are highly disturbing and should be viewed with caution.*

Every February Americans celebrate “Black History Month,” and today I want to recall a segment of Black history that few in American schools or churches discuss. I want to remember the 3,200+ Black Americans who were lynched by racially motivated white mobs from 1880-1940. Our schools and churches so often remember great figures and advances of Black history such as the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Brown vs. Board of Education yet gloss over, or avoid altogether, one of America’s most repulsive periods, the “Lynching Era.” I not only want to examine important historical information concerning the “Lynching Era,” but also its religious dimensions.

“Lynching” as defined by the NAACP is “An extralegal killing perpetrated by three or more individuals who claimed their murderous actions were intended to uphold justice or tradition.” The years from 1880-1940 demarcate a dark time in American history when mob violence was steeped in racial indignation causing the death of thousands of Black Americans and otherwise called, the “Lynching Era.” The American South was the breeding ground for these racial tensions. The war-torn South had recently undergone numerous changes, from the emancipation of slaves to political and gender struggles. The South’s loss of the civil war forced them to adjust as slaves were being set free (13th Amendment), given status as U.S. citizens (14th Amendment), and allotted voting rights (15th Amendment).  The white South saw this modernization as a threat to home, government, and economy. Much like the aftermath of 9/11, the economic disasters of civil war created an influx of religious adherents flocking to churches. Additionally, missionizing efforts in the South brought a renewed sense of moral responsibility that many parishioners felt were slipping away in the face of progress. The ideas of “purity” and “holiness” were regularly preached together with the Protestant teaching of propitiation and expiation (Propitiation recalls the appeasement of God’s wrath through Jesus’ blood sacrifice while the latter denotes the removal of sin). As such, many in the South found Blacks to be the key cause of demoralization in their society and felt responsible to atone for the sins of the community by scapegoating its Black citizens. For many whites, the impetus to lynch Blacks was partially motivated by an effort to protect the “honor” of Southern women. Two news clippings make this point:

 “Sam Holt, the negro who is thought to have murdered Alfred Cranford and assailed Cranford’s wife, was burned at the stake one mile and a quarter from Newnan…Fully 2,000 people surrounded the small sapling to which he was fastened and watched the flames eat away his flesh, saw his body mutilated by knives and witnessed the contortions of his body in his extreme agony….Not even the bones of the negro were left in peace, but were eagerly snatched by a crowd of people drawn from all directions, who almost fought over the burning body of the man, carving it with their knives and seeking souvenirs of the occurrence…Masks played no part of the lynching. There was no secrecy; no effort to prevent anyone seeing who lighted the fire, who cut off the ears or who took the head. On the trunk of a tree nearby was pinned the following placard: “We must protect our Southern women’” (emphasis mine).

– Kissimmee Valley (Flordia) Gazette, April 28, 1899.

Lije Strickland Newspaper clipping (In connection with Holt)

 “The body of “Lije” Strickland, a negro preacher, who was implicated in the Cranford murder by ‘Sam’ Holt, was found swinging to the limb of a persimmon tree within a mile and a quarter of Palmetto, Ga., early today. Before death was allowed to end the sufferings of the negro, his ears were cut off and the small finger of his left hand was severed at the second joint. These trophies were in Palmetto yesterday. On the chest of the negro was a piece of blood-stained paper, attached by an ordinary pin. On one side of this paper was written: “We must protect our ladies.” The other side of the paper contained a warning to the negroes of the neighborhood. It read as follows: “Beware all darkies! You will be treated the same way” (emphasis mine).

-Palmetto, Ga., Apr. 24 (Ginzberg)

Further, below I’ve attached a postcard featuring an unknown Black male’s charred remains on one side while the other side had this writing: “Warning: the answer of the anglo-saxon race to black brutes who would attack the womanhood of the south” (emphasis mine).

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To circulate these widespread lies about “black sins”—i.e. sins that needed expiation from white folks—whites portrayed Blacks as ignorant, uneducated, and animal-like. Blacks were also presented as thieves, savages, murderers, and rapists. From kid’s toys and children’s books to pulpits and widespread media these views were propagated throughout the South (See images below). These false claims helped solidify the vision of blacks as dangerous and created a deep fear within Southern people, especially white women, and justified the actions of white males who sought to “protect” their women and restore the virtue and purity of their community by murdering Blacks. For whites, these actions were religious judgment rather than violence or criminal activity. Whites argued God’s wrath needed satisfaction, and without it communities would unravel into disorder and moral corruption. Therefore, as Jesus’ sacrificial death put social disorder into order, so black expatiation would remove sin and restore stability to the community…so the argument went (See, for example, the last line of the Richard Coleman news clip below).

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Black lynchings were celebrated in large crowds often numbering in the thousands. These “lynch mobs” were typically made up of women, children, and church members (See image below). And church grounds were usual locations for lynching. For example, John Foreman, a black youth accused of killing a Deputy Sheriff, was abducted from police custody by a mob and taken to a church where a member of the mob stated, “Let’s lynch the nigger on holy ground.” [1] The news clipping telling of Richard Coleman’s murder below further reveals the group dynamic and sordid[2] nature of these mobs.

“Richard Coleman, a twenty year-old colored boy was burned at the stake at noon today within the limits of this city, in the presence of thousands of men and hundreds of women and children. Tortures almost unbelievable were inflicted upon the wretched negro…when some new torture was inflicted upon the shrieking, burning boy, the crowd cheered and cheered, the shrill voices of women and the piping tones of children surround high above the roar of the men…the population of the whole city and country for miles around, church men and church women…not a single regret for the horrible tragedy can be heard tonight from one end of the town to the other. He was the target of hundreds of missiles…the crowd pressed forward striking at him with clubs, sticks, and whips until his head and body were scarcely recognizable. One man had in his hand the same pepper-box which Coleman had used to throw pepper in the eyes of Mrs. Lashbrook when he first attacked her. This man had filled the box with cayenne pepper. He stepped close to the shrieking wretch, whose eyes were almost bursting from his head with pain and calmly threw the pepper into the eyes of the negro, again and again. Relic-hunters visited the scene and carried away pieces of flesh and the negro’s teeth. Others got pieces of fingers and toes and proudly exhibit the ghastly souvenirs tonight…Several of the women who witnessed the burning said to The World (i.e. a newspaper) correspondent that they now feel as if they could walk the loneliest country road at midnight without being molested by a black man.”

– New York World, December 7, 1899.

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Notice the presence of numerous children, but also the sneering look on the young girl’s face in the front.

 

The silence of churches in the early stages of the Lynching Era is staggering. It is not until 1930 that nearly all mainstream denominations had denounced lynching practices, though some denominations (e.g. Methodists and Episcopalians) took stronger measures than others. Still, in a 1935 questionnaire answered by some 5,000 ministers it showed that only 3.3% had preached or actively worked against lynching.[3] This is not to dismiss the many active ministers who risked their lives to save black men and women during the Lynching Era. In John Foreman’s case (see above), for example, it was a Methodist minister who talked down a mob by pleading, “Men, I beseech you in the name of God not to desecrate this holy ground…Do not stain the name of our city by going into this terrible affair” (Atlanta Constitution, September 30, 1916). However, we must also recognize the culpability of the church, her influence on this period, and her continued failure to address racism presently. In 1929, NAACP leader Walter White noted, “It is exceedingly doubtful if lynching could possibly exist under any other religion than Christianity.” Professor Amy Woods in Lynching and Spectacle succinctly sums it up: “Christianity was the primary lens through which most southerners conceptualized and made sense of suffering and death of any sort. It would be inconceivable that they could inflict pain and torment on the bodies of black men without imagining that violence as a religious act, laden with Christian symbolism and significance” (48).

The history of the Lynching Era was birthed, in part, out of religious conviction and among those who believed their cause was God-willed. They used their Bibles to confirm their convictions and preached (or heard) this message in their congregations. In many cases, these were normal people: children, mothers, fathers, and churchgoers yet a smear campaign of fear and hate translated into the loss of innocent lives for many years. The silence of church leaders and churchgoers who failed to condemn lynching in its early stages is a marked stain on America as well as American Christianity. It is a stain we must take responsibility for and repent of daily. It is a stain we must ensure never happens again by refusing to be silent when similar patterns reappear in the present. We must remember that we are no less susceptible to the failures of those before us and must check and challenge our own prejudices regularly. We must continually remember the stories and lives of those lost in the Lynching Era so that evil and injustice never get the final word.

And finally, I leave you with this moving video of “Strange Fruit” performed by Billie Holliday:

 

“Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black body swinging in the southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth

Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh

And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop.”

 

Additional Reading:

Berg, Manfred.  Popular justice: a history of lynching in America. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2011.

Tolnay, Stewart Emory, and E. M. Beck. A festival of violence: an analysis of Southern lynchings, 1882-1930. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.

Wood, Amy Louise. Lynching and spectacle: witnessing racial violence in America, 1890-1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Pfeifer, Michael J. The roots of rough justice: origins of American lynching. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011.

 

Notes:

[1] Ralph Ginzburg, 100 Years of Lynchings (1988), 109.

[2] Often the crowds would refer to lynchings as “parties” or “barbeques.” See Ginzburg 100 Years of Lynching, 202; James Allen and John Littlefield, Without Sanctuary: Photographs and Postcards of Lynching in America, (Vienna, Va.: James Allen and John Littlefield, 2000): Picture 25, 26).

[3] Robert Miller, “The Protestant Churches and Lynching, 1919-1939,” Journal of Negro History 42, no. 1 (1957): 120.