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Kimberly Dresbach, Ruhr-Universität Bochum


“Lynch law has become so common in the United States that the finding of a dead body of a Negro, suspended between heaven and earth to the limb of a tree is of so slight importance that neither the civil authorities nor the press agencies consider the matter worth investigating” (Wells, cited in Hill, 2008, p.112). The quote above by black anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells illustrates the regularity of Lynching incidents in the United States roughly between the 1880s and 1950s. Although the practice is highly associated with this period, its origin can be traced back hundreds of years. Incidents of lynching already occurred in European countries during medieval times, as proven by notations of a German hangman and a painting called “Steinigung des Schafrichters” from 1575 showing a lynch mob stoning a hangman after a failed execution. According to the author, lynch mobs and vigilantism were not uncommon but a danger to the public order and governmental authority (Harrington, 2014, pp.129-130). Therefore, the execution of delinquents was established to avenge the victim firstly, secondly terminate the danger on the part of the criminal, thirdly to set a warning example and lastly to prevent vigilantism in the form of lynch mobs (Harrington, 2014, p.38). European settlers allegedly found the practice’s way overseas. The term lynching, however, was established much later while the practice itself has been out there for centuries. People knew what to do and how to react without the necessity of labeling it. The term probably originated from American planter Charles Lynch (1736-1796) and was used to describe an extrajudicial punishment in abuse, torture or execution (Herrmann, 2018, p.149).

Before the American civil war and the end of slavery, lynching did not necessarily end in death. Nevertheless, as time progressed, lynching shifted its purpose and became more associated with killing African American people. Because of its long-running existence, people obtained the know-how to use lynching for their gains. Between the years of 1830 and 1860, white citizens feared possible slave uprisings. In Order to prevent them and to remain in control, about 130 white men and over 400 black men were lynched. The goal was to overpower the danger of possible uprising. At the same time, white victims were usually trialed and killed without any form of torture. Blacks were tortured mainly by causing burnings and mutilations before being decapitated, consumed by fire, shot or hanged. After the civil war ended in 1865, the practice of lynching and its numerous variations between different regions and different times gained popularity as a new kind of racial control mechanism in the following decades. Notably, lynchings were not just committed affectively or situationally. The event could last for days and could be followed publically. Typical for practices was a script or a routine that was carried on for decades in the same manner while also varying between regions and developing over time.

Lynching participants

White mobs of dynamic nature performed the kind of racially motivated lynching discussed in this article. Though lynching were highly practiced and followed a specific pattern, there was more than one way to do it. Therefore, it could be challenging to differentiate between murder or a lynching, especially regarding smaller mobs. The Posse, for example, was an alliance of authorities. This alliance had the right to arrest a suspect, which made the verification of lynching even more difficult. The suspect’s death was often justified with resistance against authorities in order to hide an unlawful killing. According to Vandiver (2006), mobs under fifty members were either called organized terrorist mobs who operated in secret and did not care whether their victim committed a crime or not. This kind of mob cared about suppressing and killing people. They deemed to be different and issuing a warning simultaneously. On the other hand, private mobs often longed for revenge for personal affronts like insults, perceived disrespect, or insubordination. During the peak of lynch law, the most common kind of mob was the mass mob. It included at least fifty members but would often expand to hundreds or even thousands of people. A lynching committed by a mass mob was easy to classify because the killings were of public, ritual and ceremonial character (Vandiver, 2006, pp.8-9).  In the center of the mob were highly motivated actors who carried the necessary weapons and tools like gasoline or ropes. From a praxeological point of view, their role can be regarded as the most important. This group allowed the mob to converge, prepared the practice and created a dynamic that directed the following actions of each mob member. The core dealt with the authorities who held the suspect in custody, abducted the latter and initiated the practice. Behind that core, one could find the active members who supported the lynching because of their wrath against the suspect or the crime the person allegedly committed. The metaphorical third row was reserved for the gentlemen of authority and social status. This procured a kind of legitimacy for the lynch crime itself with their attendance, following passive spectators who were both frightened and fascinated by the act at the same time. Finally, some uninvolved bystanders were not there because of the lynching itself but watched the act nevertheless, showing that the practice was generally accepted by the public (Rushdy, 2012, p.22). To summarize, lynch mobs were formed due to situational factors like an alleged crime committed by a black person or an insult. Hence these mobs usually did not last for longer than the lynching itself.

Furthermore, these were not the acts of extremists but ordinary civilians. From a praxeological view, the development of an incorporated dynamic of its own stands out. The participants in the core did not have to reflect on what to do next. They were guided by well-established routines and artefacts, making themselves as actors replaceable and illustrating the collective knowledge of the practice. Though the core initiated the practice itself, present authorities, active and passive spectators, are also of praxeological interest. Practices are highly based on established conventions and social norms. By being present and watching the lynching, they legitimated the practice and made it socially acceptable, guaranteeing its persistence.

Figure 1: Lynching of Henry Smith in 1893, Source:

The act of lynching

The enormous number of participants was often caused by announcements in the local newspapers or even by intentionally customized flyers as can be seen in the picture below.

Figure 2: The announcement of a Lynching, Source: DPLA

As soon as the news of lynching was published, the core of the mob proceeded to action by trying to get hold of the chosen victim. They often abducted them from police custody and even from jails. In the south, most people affected by lynch law were black members of the working and mid-class. The American west’s focus whereas was not racially biased. Social outsiders like immigrants, Jews or indigenous people and even whites were equally affected. White people were mostly killed quickly without additional torment, while others had to endure a Gethsemane until death. When abducting a person from jail or even his home, people did not fear possible legal consequences while no white official was injured. That is why mobs were willing to pursue a victim in custody and threaten the policemen in charge, but they rarely hurt them to prevent prosecution. On the other hand, even members of the black community were willing to reveal a suspect’s whereabouts. If they wanted to save their own and their family’s lives and their whole existence in the form of churches, stores or property, they had no other choice. In the case of an unknown suspect, even police would pressure witnesses to identify someone, guilty or not (Morrison, 2018, p.4). After finding and deporting the suspect, the initiators of the mob, often well-known and respected citizens, would suggest and announce an extrajudicial trial to force a confession from the abducted suspect, whether it was true or not. This trial was held to give the impression of legitimacy and judicial accuracy though no legal forces were involved. Beyond that, a confession would encourage the mob to do the right thing since the judicial system seemed to fail its cause. In some rare cases, the suspect did not confess to the accusations, which could lead to his release.

From the praxeological standpoint, the trial is interesting because of its significance for the ritualized practice instead of its purpose. Participants knew precisely how to act in court, although they had no juridical education. Their knowledge by experience and incorporated social norms allowed the actors to connect the legitimate practice of court trials with illegitimate lynching. Subsequently, the victim was brought to a place where many African Americans were settled to fan fear and terror in the black population. The abduction of Lation Scott is a primary example of how a lynching victim was abducted and trialed by the mob: In 1917, he was a twenty-four-year-old man from Holy Springs who made a living by working in a variety of jobs. One day he was accused of raping the farmhouse owner he was currently working at while her husband was at work in town. After she managed to report the crime, the reward of Scots arrest was set at 200 dollars, which is equivalent to about 4000 dollars today. Although police arrested him, his whereabouts were soon leaked to the public, which led to the fear of a possible violent gathering in front of the jail. For this reason, the decision was made to transfer Scott from the Union City Jail to Dyersburg. Along the way, however, the policemen were surprised by a mob of hundreds of men who forced them to hand over their prisoner. Since such events were not uncommon, it is likely to assume that the policemen knew what was awaiting them on the way to Dyersburg. After Scott was taken away by the mob, the idea of an informal trial was promoted, and the crowd agreed. As a result, he was brought to the courtroom and sat down before being asked whether he was guilty. Scott admitted to his crime which led to the question if he should hang or be burned. The man who was leading the trial, David Moss, pleaded to burn him because of the upcoming Sunday (Vandiver, 2006, pp.96). The Case of Lation Scott is not only a textbook example for the trial mentioned above but shows moreover how the practice was incorporated in the society at that time. It was so common that a prisoner transport was raided and that even police officers had to internalize how to react. Most often, they surrendered the prisoner without resisting and therefore helped to enforce the practice of lynching by showing the absence of executive protection. Furthermore, sheriffs were elected by the public. Hence, they usually shared common believes and conventions, sustaining the practice’s ongoing.

Figure 3: Wire report in the Salt Lake Telegram about Lation Scott’s lynching, Source:

Moreover, newly developed artefacts like cameras made it highly common in the south to force the abducted suspect to pose for photos before lynching. This part usually contained two elements in the same picture: The white perpetrators gathered around their victim smiling and looking confident, making it seem like an ordinary group or family photograph instead of a snapshot before a crime. However, the other side shows the black victim in between those men being forced to look at the camera. Here, white perpetrators had no fear of being held responsible for their actions which made wearing masks or hiding those photographs unnecessary.

Figure 4: White men pose for a picture with their black victim before lynching him, Source: Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).

As soon as the prearrangement was done, the victim was brought to the selected place. Large crowds started gathering because of the foregone announcement. Often thousands of people attended this carnival resembling mass spectacles, containing whole families with children, toddlers, and babies. Salesmen utilized the opportunity to expand their business by being present and selling food, beverages and chewing gum in addition to the photographs mentioned above in the form of postcards. Again, this public spectacle showed how socially integrated lynching was. The announced lynching of Ell Persons, who was accused of raping and beheading a young girl in 1917, even allured thousands of people due to total gridlock. To attend a lynching was not related to negative consequences. Instead, it could uplift the attendant’s status and consequently securing the practice’s survival. The involvement of children even led to lynching becoming a popular children’s game with sometimes fatal consequences. From an early age, they learned that the lynching of African Americans was, though legally forbidden, socially acceptable. By passing it to their children, they actively made sure the practice would outlive them. The belief of white supremacy against the backdrop of former slavery persisted. Consequently, lynched civilians were alienated as worthless creatures whose lives could be ended without legal or social consequences. The crowd celebrated the amusement granted by the following protracted mistreatment, torture and slow mutilation of the victim’s bodies before their deaths. They chopped off and pulled out body parts like ears, fingers, eyes or genitals, left brandings on the body and beat the accused without restraint.

This crucial part of the lynching process underlined the power dynamic between the involved parties as the following two examples illustrate: After Lation Scott was found guilty in his extralegal trial, he was brought to an empty property where the white core tied him to a pole that was tamped into the ground. They proceeded with the act by burning him with gleaming iron before using a knife to cut off his clothes in unison with his skin. After building the fireplace, they even burned his eyes out and silenced him with a burning hot poker once he tried to scream (Vandiver, 2006, p.96). Luther Holbert was accused of killing a white landowner in 1904 and was therefore captured and lynched together with his wife by a mob containing hundreds of people. The two were tied to a tree and forced to stretch out their fingers which were slowly cut off one after another, followed by their ears which were later distributed as souvenirs. Because he was severely beaten, Luther Holbert suffered from a broken skull, which resulted in one of his eyeballs being pulled from its socket. Before ending their suffering by burning, they used a screwdriver to cut parts of flesh from their bodies (EJI, 2017, p.33). Though the performance of torture varies in cases, intensity and tools, it was a crucial component in an African American lynching. Praxeologically thinking, the act of torture is meaningful as it shows the highly significant importance of the body regarding practices. While incorporating knowledge is also a crucial part, the use of the body becomes a tool to conduct the practice. The most involved participants of a lynching knew precisely how to implement pain without killing their victim too fast. They cut off extremities, used brandings and cut out the flesh, knowing that the lynched would suffer but not die until the actors decided.

Figure 5: Announcement of Luther Holbert’s lynching, Source:

After the civil war and the official end of slavery in 1865, lynching became deadlier. As stated before, the practice of lynching had been out there for many years. Consequently, actors knew how to react to regain the control they legally lost with the end of slavery. Therefore, to stop black emancipation, the practice was extended. Instead of simply punishing a criminal, the term became almost equivalent to different kinds of hanging with some exceptions like burnings or shootings to end the victim’s life. The most common artefacts used were trees, underlined by the numerous postcards featuring pictures of dead people hanging from branches. However, if the lynching took place without access to trees, it was usual to improvise by misusing commonplace items such as poles, bridges, livestock fence gates or wagons. Often the accused was placed on a horse, a wagon or a barrel while the rope was adjusted and secured. After that, the lifesaving backup was removed abruptly. The accused fell the short distance, which was often too low to break his neck at the first attempt. Consequently, the lynched suffocated slowly. In another variation, the person lynched was pulled up and frequently dropped until his neck finally broke, which underlines the difference to legal executions. In these cases, the hangman ought to kill the indicted as quickly and painlessly as possible. For this reason, gallows are equipped with a hatch and the rope’s knot is adjusted carefully to ensure the fall to be deadly. Once again, the importance of body knowledge and the know-how of doing something is highly significant in the case of hanging. Participants of a lynch mob were experienced enough to know that a short fall would not kill the accused quickly and painlessly. According to Gonzales-Day, a fall of six food (approximately 182 cm) would be necessary to break the neck of a 140-pound person (Gonzales-Day, 2006, p.48). Though it is unlikely they knew the exact requirements, they incorporated how far they could go without bringing a quick end to their victim.

Following the ritual of torture and death, photographs were taken once again. This time, however, they were reminded of hunting trophies instead of lighthearted group gatherings. Men stood next to their hanging prey, which they just succumbed to symbolize their success next to the savage beast. It is assumed that these photos aimed to downplay and normalize the horrific crime of lynching by making it seem like the accused deserved the treatment because of his natural bestiality and the crimes they have allegedly committed. Furthermore, those photographs became popular souvenirs that were sold comparable to landscape photographs to men, women and even children who were not able to attend the lynching in the front row, although they would have liked to be as close as possible. Souvenirs, in general, were in great demand, including not only the famous photographs but also body parts, flesh, bones, ashes, clothing of the deceased, as well as bloody ropes. They were highly demanded and proudly carried home or sold to shop owners, leaving undertakers searching for few remains to bury them properly.

In another possible scenario, the people were content with the photographs they had taken and left the body literally hanging as a warning for other criminals who could be next. Most often, civilians found the body by the following day, spreading the news quickly. Journalists and photographers were lured to the scene who published the news to the broad public. However, the reporting depended on the side it was coming from. White journalists defended and justified the act of lynching and often lied about the background, indicating that the violence originated from the black community against white people to create the image of necessary self-defense. The Barnwell massacre, for instance, showed how this misreporting led to immunity from prosecution on behalf of the white offenders. On December 28th, 1889, hundreds of people overran the Barnwell prison and kidnapped eight black people from police custody. They were brought to the edge of town, tied to trees and shot many times while their families tried to collect money to defray the court fees. The eight men never had a legal trial which convulsed the black community. Because of the increasing rage of black civilians, the white population feared acts of vengeance. It was expected that the African Americans would fight back if the news broke that the victims had not been trialed. Therefore, to prevent a possible uprising against white citizens, journalists did their best to paint a false picture. They argued that the massacre was a justified answer to violent acts and uprisings against innocent white citizens. Caused by these false narratives, politicians were convinced that violent riots by the black community against white people were likely to happen. In an attempt to protect their voters and prevent rioting, they requested the military to assist them. Though black journalists, publishers and later on, white allies tried their best to counter the misinformation that spread rapidly, they did not have the required resources yet. Consequently, most lynchings resulted in impunity for the culprits, although their identities were well-known by law enforcement in many cases.

Many black people accused of a crime were killed without receiving a legal trial to prove or refute their guild. In 1918, for example, Peter Bazemore was accused of raping a white woman and was therefore lynched without any legal trial. Later it was revealed that the actual rapist was a white man that wore black make-up. They knew that white people had the monopoly of committing violence while blacks had no other chance but to live in fear without being protected by authorities. Whereas lynching itself was illegal, it was most often inconsequential.

Artefacts used during the process of lynching

In order to emerge, develop and be performed, practices are mostly highly dependent on artefacts (Reckwitz, 2003, p.291). In lynching, they played a highly significant role, starting with the emergence of the practice. Artefacts are not only tools but can also be placed, which were carefully chosen during a lynching. Most often, the lynchers searched for big and stable trees whose branches could carry a human body without breaking. However, if a tree was not available at the chosen place, they quickly found substitutes: telephone poles, bridges, wagons or corral gates were misused to hang the accused (Gonzales-Day, 2006, p.15). Of course, the mentioned artefacts are usually not used to hang a person. However, during a lynching, many tools were misused in order to harm the accused.

Speaking of tools, the participants used knives and screwdrivers to cause stabbings or cut off body parts such as fingers and gleaming pokers to cause severe burnings on the lynched body. This illustrates how everything could become a possible weapon, even if collectively not seen as such. Animals, too, like horses, were used during lynching to support the lynched before hanging him.

Regarding the survival of the practice, the various newspaper articles and photographs need to be regarded. Newspapers announced lynchings, informing people and, therefore, guaranteeing that the mob itself could be formed. If they did not announce alleged crimes by black people, many of them would not have been taken from prison and lynched. Taken photographs or postcards with the victim between them or after the lynching enforced the dehumanization of the person lynched. They were sent like regular postcards and shown without shame to everyone who wanted to see them (Berg, 2006, p.590). Keeping those photographs at home and showing them to their children kept the practice going and stabilized current norm systems. After the lynching was done, souvenirs were collected. They also contained parts of the dead body. Whether it was flesh, skin, body parts, teeth or bloody ropes, these souvenirs found a place in homes or even shops, making the practice’s aftermath visible for everyone. Subsequently, newspapers reported again, propagating that justice had been served (Hill, 2008, p.112). If only some of the mentioned artefacts had not been available, the practice of lynching would probably not have survived for long. Of course, people also used their bodies to inflict pain on their victims, but killing them without ropes, guns, or knives would have been more difficult. In summary, it can be said that the actors often misused commonplace items in order to conduct a lynching and ensure its continuation. Without supporting artefacts, the practice would most likely not have been retained for so many years.

What caused lynch law?

The reasons and goals behind the numerous lynchings were manifestations of the Zeitgeist and political climate during this period. Lynch-law was based on socio-structural values like submissive employees, social and especially race hierarchy and the willingness to maintain this power asymmetry with violence. After the end of plantation sovereignty due to the end of the civil war in 1865, those much-appreciated values were endangered by uprising legal rights for black citizens in the forms of the 13., 14. and 15. amendments were introduced to protect black people’s newly gained formal equality (Parks & Hughey, 2020, p.7). Not only were they freed from slavery, but they also had the right to buy and cultivate the land, establish their businesses, vote and stand for election themselves. Because of the uprising status and the emancipation of the black community, white citizens felt threatened. They were not used to their former slaves suddenly having legal rights and wealth. Consequently, the narrative of black inferiority was propagated while the superiority of whites was stated as an unquestionable principle. Southern plantation owners, industrials, judges and southern politicians started using their influence to weaken the newfound amendments while simultaneously creating structures to deny African Americans their political and civil rights.

Though black people were technically allowed to buy land, it was not uncommon that the white elite denied the necessary credits, preventing them from benefitting from their newly acquired freedom. Back in the era of slavery, plantation owners and businessmen were used to cheap workers as their property which did not need to be paid. After their loss of legal control and being confronted with demands of justice by black workers, they started to fuel hatred against black citizens by spreading pseudoscientific race theories and stereotypes. Moreover, strengthened by the lack of governmental aid or political reinforcement, black kept being informally enslaved. Historians call the following years Nadir. It described the tense post emancipatory relations, strong segregation, more precisely the exclusion of blacks from public institutions, and disenfranchisement between black and white citizens that enforced their dominant supremacy (Williams, 2012, p.101). Regarding the praxeological standpoint, the term is essential because it granted impunity on behalf of the lynchers, allowing the practice to expand further and evolve. The laws to assert this extralegal form of political control were called Jim Crow. Any infringement of these rules and informal etiquettes was seen as an open invitation to lynch someone to persist in this condition (Okihiro, 2001, pp.45).

Consequently, African American people were not allowed to enter or leave the house of a white person they were working for through the front door, and it was mandatory to use titles like Boss, Sir, Mister or Missus. At the same time, they were addressed by their forename to avoid a connection between the two parties. During tenancies, they often slept and lived in the same old slave pens as before, and even the simple wish of wanting to be adequately paid for one’s work could cause outrage and lead to acts of violence. Furthermore, even though African Americans were allowed to vote, they had to fear for their lives by using this right, leaving political control in the hands of white supremacists. Every action which contradicted the rigorously guarded social order endangered mostly innocent black people. Thereby it did not matter how ridiculous the violation may have seemed: Many African Americans became victims of lynch-law simply because of racial prejudice. Andy Ford, for example, was killed in 1891 by a Mob in Florida, only because his reputation did not match the belief on how a black person should act. Louis Rice was lynched for testifying in court to the advantage of someone from his community, and James Perry was killed because of the accusation of introducing smallpox. S. G. Garner was lynched for economic reasons because he refused to give up his farm in 1917 (Vandiver, 2006, p.10).

At first, lynch law was an attempt to regain political power and weaken the strengthening black population. The cases above illustrate that this practice of violence was strongly divided into two parties: The primarily white participants of the mob and the mostly black victims of arbitrary violence. Louis Rice was testifying in court, which was his legal right. Still, he was lynched for daring to speak in favor of another black person. James Perry fell ill and was killed, although it probably was not his fault. Moreover, S. G. Garner also dared to insist on his legal rights to own property. Cases like these illustrate the strong internal dynamics of lynching and its arbitrariness which was encouraged by existing social narratives and conventions. The people mentioned above were not lynched because their alleged guilt was proven, but for the inconsequential possibility to do so itself since lynchers had the necessary know-how, the artefacts and the support of social norms. By law, black people were no longer slaves. However, the belief of white superiority was so profound and unquestioned that the law became negligible. With time and an increasing number of sympathizers, however, the focus soon diverted to crime accusations as a reason to lynch someone without harvesting criticism. The most common crimes black people were accused of as well as popular headlines in white newspapers among many others were: murder, theft, robbery, incendiarism and morally seen as most severe were rape, sexual assault as well as interracial relationships (Zamalin, 2017, p.72). While few more people were accused of murder, the accusations of rape crimes became a highly significant reason for lynch law. It originated from the thought that a white woman would never voluntarily sleep with an African American male. They were portrayed as weak, pure and in need of protection by white knights against alleged dangerous hypersexualized black perpetrators who longed for their seemingly innocent bodies. In order to be accused of a rape crime, the act itself was not even essential. A simple smile, accidental collisions on the street or the expression of interest in a white woman in writing letters or proposing to them was already defined as rape. Relationships between a black man and a white woman were seen as an even bigger abomination since they did not match the female purity culture mentioned above and were therefore punished severely. Although people made it seem to be criminal control as a counterpart of a weak legal system that could not cope with the amount of crime and criminals, it was racial control by whites against black communities. As victims of the system, lynching acts without a specific reason were not uncommon, which can be seen in the case of Ballie Crutchfield. In 1901, Tennessee, her brother, found a wallet and decided to keep the money. Before he was lynched, the man was able to break free and escape the raging mob, much to the disfavor of his sister Ballie. Since they could not lynch the real thief, they lynched Ballie Crutchfield in her brother’s stead, although she was not accused of any crime or wrongdoing (Eji, 2017, p.29). The lynching of Ballie Crutchfield could be reasoned by the random desire to satisfy the bloodthirst the escape of her brother left behind. However, the attempt to analyze the case from a praxeological view could be even more promising: Practices of collective violence are highly dynamic and often self-fulfilling since its actors operate supra-individual and guided by incorporated norms while also being equipped with guiding artefacts. Miss Crutchfield’s brother escaped the mob with all those mentioned attributes already present and ready for use. Guided by its dynamic the mob, the ropes and weapons they had with them, the death of Ballie Crutchfield itself was a praxeological self-fulfilling prophecy. They probably did not see her as an individual who was not accused of any crime. It can be alleged that their incorporated need for compensation along with the possibility (through the mob, ropes and weapons) to lynch her was reason enough to do so.

The motives for lynching  

Regarding the intentions and justifications behind the numerous lynching incidents, it is necessary to differentiate between the exterior motives shown to the public and the intrinsic motivations. White civilians explained the lynchings as a necessary consequence of the weak legal system, which was reportedly unable to cope with black criminals. In order to punish them, people took the law into their own hands to avenge the victims and restore the social order and their proper values. Lynchings were thought to be a warning sign to every potential delinquent who dared to threaten the law. However, their intrinsic motives originated from the desire to reintegrate their superiority and the concept of slavery into their everyday life (Hill, 2008, S.118). Black citizens were dehumanized and propagated as compulsive and less civilized than white people, denying their integrity. Consequently, the public impression was manipulated, which led to the justice system frequently withdrawing and leaving the punishment to the mob regardless of whether the accusations were evidenced.

Furthermore, it was the desire for white supremacy that motivated men to lynch someone and the feeling of sexual inferiority and bruised manliness caused by repressive sexual morals. Despite the attempt to demonize black people, a black journalist and resistance fighter Ida B. Wells was confident that white women often voluntarily accepted African Americans as their partners (Eji, 2017, S.30). By trespassing the racially constructed boundaries in sexual nature, it was feared that social transgressions would follow, whether it was by gained political power or achieved wealth. Consequently, it is alleged that white males felt overpowered by black potency, which needed to be compensated through the act of lynching (Berg, 2006, p.529). Simultaneously acting as a collective gave them the chance to earn both each other’s and society’s recognition while also becoming part of solidarity, forming a collective identity that led to mutual encouragement. The concept of white supremacy was mainly present in the rural and urban underclass, while reformers of the middle class preferred governmental prosecution instead of vigilantism. In summary, it can be said that the white population tried to use the weak legal system as a justification and therefore insisted on the necessity of lynchings to provide a deterrent example.

However, the intrinsic motive can be reasoned by the desire to preserve the condition of white supremacy they have known from before the abolition of slavery. Critics say the accusations that colored citizens raped white women behind closed doors were simply an instrument for their political, social and economic suppression (Berg, 2006, p.593). As discussed, there were many reasons why the practice of lynching survived for so many years. Though black people were legally equal to white citizens, their equality was not recognized, devaluing them. Lynch mobs contained hundreds or thousands of people, watching them act in great amusement, making the practice socially acceptable. Furthermore, there were no legal consequences after a lynching, leaving the black community at the mercy of white supremacists.

Lynching variations and development

The typical and well-established act of lynching usually comprised a large mob of white actors and few predominantly black victims who were accused of a crime or who dared to overstep social etiquettes during the peak of lynch law in the 1890s. Another scenario was lynchings that escalated in its intensity to race riots concerning whole communities. They were prevalent in the first third of the twentieth century and not limited to the American south, where most lynchings occurred. Most often, these riots took place as a consequence of a confrontation between the established values that granted the white citizen’s superiority and the desire of black people to enforce their legal rights, as was the case with about twenty-five racial disturbances during the red summer that caused hundreds of deaths because of white mobs who fought against black resistance (Parks & Hughey, 2020, p.23; Williams, 2012, pp.138-139). 

Figure 6: proud white children after they set an African American residence on fire, source:

The most prominent race riot is the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, although it was hushed up for decades. In the 1920th Tulsa was described as a flourishing city with rapid growth and generous oil deposit. Black people worked as maids, shoe shiners, barbers, chefs, waiters or chauffeurs, and because of the strict segregation in the country, black entrepreneurs had the chance to establish their businesses. Therefore, they built schools, churches, dancing halls, grocery stores, medical institutions, law offices, two prominent journals, and guesthouses, pool rooms and funeral homes. The predominately black Greenwood district hence became highly affluent and was soon described as Black Wall Street. This rapidly increasing wealth led to jealousy amongst the white districts, who feared for their influence and aroused the desire to put the black community in their place by publishing denigrating articles. The incident that determined the massacre occurred on Mai 30th, 1921. Nineteen-year-old black shoe shiner Dick Rowland wanted to use the segregated bathroom, where he met the seventeen-year-old Sarah Page operating the elevator. Thenceforth it is unknown what exactly happened. Page told the police that Rowland grabbed her arm, which made her scream and led to him escaping the scene. Rowland, however, raced home and told the family that he tripped over the elevator’s threshold and took hold of her arm by accident. The next day he was arrested by both a black and a white officer. The Tulsa Tribune soon noticed the incident and published the headline “Nab Negro for attacking Girl in Elevator” (Johnson, 2020, p.182). Law enforcement forces already had difficulties keeping people calm, but the Tulsa Tribune continued to fuel the fire with another Headline: “To Lynch Negro Tonight” (Crowe & Thabiti, 2021). As a result, a mob gathered in front of the courthouse, intending to lynch Dick Rowland. Later that afternoon, guests of the Williams Dreamland theatre decided to protect Rowland, who is why about twenty-five black citizens went to the courthouse, only to be ordered away. The second gathering this evening contained a white mob of about a thousand against circa fifty black people. It is unclear what exactly escalated the situation that evening. Nevertheless, while Dick Rowland was secured in prison, the Mob’s rage transferred to the counter-reaction of Greenwood’s black citizens who wanted to defend Dick Rowland as well as their community. The nightly shootouts rapidly expanded to noninvolved citizens attacked in the early morning hours in their own houses. War technologies were used like machine guns, military rifles, bayonets and even airplanes that dropped incendiary bombs while trucks brought armed white citizens to the district (Simon, 2021, p.65). White people invaded houses, killed the residents, looted and destroyed everything inside before setting the houses on fire. If possible, women fled with their children while black men were tied to cars and dragged across the streets. Although the black community of Tulsa tried to defend their district and their families, they ran out of ammunition. They were dependent on the national guard, who only intervened after hours of violence. However, instead of protecting the remaining black community, they disarmed and arrested black Tulsans and brought them to detention centers. Meanwhile, white civilians kept looting houses and stole goods of value, for example, furniture, pianos or gramophones.

People were buried for days after the riots, but few black survivors could properly bury their relatives. Many citizens became homeless, and businesses and institutions like churches and hospitals were burnt to the ground because the white mob impeded the alarmed firefighters. The Tulsa Race Massacre commission announced one hundred to three hundred deaths, although the actual count is likely way higher and contains thousands. While black communities lived in fear for decades, the occurrence of race riots shows how norms and conventions have changed over time. After enduring the arbitrariness of white collective violence for years, African Americans started to fight back to protect themselves and their rights. In consequence, the practice needed to variate and adapt in order to keep existing.

Figure 7:  the destroyed William’s Dreamland Theatre, source: Simon 2021.

Numerous mass lynchings and black resistance brought light to the practice, causing the formation and growth of anti-lynching organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) or the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL). Though lynchings occurred in the whole country, the most happened in the south. Consequently, as the number of supporters increased, the southern states were confronted with reputational and economic damage.

Figure 8: “Stop lynching” metal pin ca. 1930 by the NAACP, source: Gonzales-Day 2006.

However, not only anti-lynching organizations condemned the practice. Weaponed communities gathered in front of prisons, guarding the inmates as soon as the rumors of a planned lynching occurred. Liberal reformers, mainly from the north, shamed the south for its constant use of the practice. Civilians boycotted white businesses and businessmen involved in lynching incidents (Berg, 2006, pp.558-559). Furthermore, primarily black Journalists, authors, editors and well-known Citizens, politicians, intellectuals and women’s associations spoke against lynching using discourse and well-established print culture. They interacted with victims, witnesses, relatives, and confidants to spread the news and publish fates and experiences of those affected (Williams, 2012, pp.104-105).

With their reputation severely affected, lynchers were forced to submerge into the underground. It was no longer guaranteed that they could get away without suffering legal consequences. Although law enforcers were rarely harmed, it was still a risk to interfere with the mob. With the changes mentioned above, they got more pressure to guard the accused instead of leaving them to vigilantes. These actions, however, were rewarded with public tributes and social appreciation. In 1940 the ASWPL, with about 40.000 supporters, celebrated the first year without a public lynching while the NAACP insisted that the practice of lynching did not just disappear but went into hiding (Berg, 2006, p.608).

At this point, history would repeat itself: To prevent lynching incidents, people tried to strengthen legal forces and inflicted the death penalty more often. Although the alleged criminals were granted a trial, it was often done before the crime victim itself was even buried. Speedy trials were held to prevent the mob from taking matters into its own hands and to illustrate social control by legal forces instead of vigilantism (Parks & Hughey, 2020, p.94). 

From a praxeological point of view, this repetition of events illustrates how social practices are related to supra-individual norm systems. During the Middle Ages, lynching was prevented by offering public executions to avenge the victim and punish the culprit. In the United States, however, lynching became famous after an enormous social revulsion. Suddenly white planters felt restricted in their rights to act however they wanted. They resorted back to lynching, which was established in the United States as physical punishment for minor crimes and created their practice variation. As explained before, the mindset of the time outlined the principle of white supremacy and black inferiority as natural, creating a social justification to act. Next to their incorporated values, they learned how to act in order to keep their victim alive and to passed it down to their children with narratives and artefacts like photographs or postcards. Law enforcement used executions to reduce lynching, indirectly approving lynchers who saw their actions as necessary. Although the resistance fought continuously to establish an anti-lynching bill, anti-lynching legislation was not implemented. Only one percent of offenders were convicted, as stated by the Equal Justice Initiative (Eji, 2017, p.48).  

Practices and terms

As we have seen before, the practice of lynching existed long before it was given a name. After the slow decline of lynching incidents and the upcoming variations, it became difficult to differentiate between a lynching and murder. Therefore, the two most prominent anti-lynching organizations disputed a definition in order to make classification easier. Lynchings, however, were highly associated with accusations of rape which made it difficult to connect the practice to racially caused terrorism as wanted by the NAACP (Rushdy, 2012, p.100). The ASWPL, on the other hand, comprised of the southern white woman, preferred a restrictive definition. Their goal was to avoid more reputational damage for the south since anti-lynching movements gathered more supporters who condemned the large numbers of southern lynching incidents (Berg, 2006, p.588). Consequential, the ASWPL was focused on the form of the crime, while the NAACP was interested in the motive. According to these black civil rights activists, the above-mentioned Tulsa massacre would be classified as lynching because its reason was to attack the thriving black community of Greenwood. Therefore, as long as the incident targeted explicitly black people, the NAACP defined an attack as a lynching. . The ASWPL, on the other hand, argued that only the traditional form of lynching, as described above, can be called lynching. They did not accept that the practice could change its form. Consequently, murders that were not committed by mobs could not be lynchings (Rushdy, 2012, p.98). Though they were not able to resolve their disagreements, they managed to agree on a minimal standard by creating the following definition:

“There must be legal evidence that a person has been killed, and that he met his death illegally at the hands of a group acting under the pretext of service to justice, race or tradition” (Vandiver, 2006, p.4).

Still, there were many cases where it was unclear whether it was a lynching or not. The most prominent example is young Emmett Till, who was killed in 1955 by two white men in Mississippi (Fleetwood, 2015, pp.23-24). Although his killers confessed that they murdered him for racist reasons, the governor of Mississippi declared that Till was not the victim of lynching but a murder. The NAACP, on the other hand, is convinced that Till was lynched. Until this day, many cases are not classified as a lynching because of the established definition. As stated before: social practices are dynamic and able to vary severely in time and place. Trying to define something that is not cut in stone does not solve its purpose. The ASWPL was wrong by saying that only lynchings committed by mass mobs can be defined as a lynching, whereas the NAACP was wrong to classify every act of racial violence as lynching. Practices of violence are embodied acts of knowledge, strengthened by social norms. Since societies can change their values, so practice. Therefore, a definition cannot be seen as the only truth.

The legacy of lynching

In 1940 the ASWPL declared lynching to be a lost crime when in reality, incidents still occurred. Today whereas the typical lynching is no longer part of modern society, it could be discussed how its legacy continues to exist. First of all, the remaining artefacts need to be mentioned. Many trees which served as hanging trees are still out there. Moreover, pictures and postcards of the rituals still exist in museums and on the internet and in books. The amount of uncensored footage I found during my research was surprising at the same time. Memorials and statues were also established to remind today’s generation of the practice’s legacy and the pain black communities had to endure. Finally, the memories of the affected or their descendants turned the tables on how lynching was valuated. While lynchers firstly passed on the practice to their children to enforce its existence, the memories of those affected show how society’s values and conventions have changed. However, there are also negative examples that keep the legacy of lynching alive. In 2006, for example, a black boy sat under a tree at a High School, which primarily white students claimed. Later many nooses were found hanging from various trees in the area, hinting at the practice of lynching in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Also, murders like the one of Michael Donald in 1981 show how current the practice still is in people’s heads. He was murdered by a group of white men who actively searched for a black person to kill and later abandoned hanging from a tree (Sanders-Wells, 2020, p.13). Although large collectives no longer commit the practice, its history lives on.

Kimberly Dresbach studies in the master program Social Science (Culture & Person) at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum (September 2021)


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