Did lynching give way to more justice for African Americans?

In Popular Justice: A History of Lynching in America, Manfred Berg gives an intriguing and depressing explanation for the decline of lynching in the 1930s.

Lynching was possible because of weak (or, in some cases, colluding) law enforcement and community support for the lynch mobs. Apart from the obvious racial hatred, the motivation behind it was the belief that the justice system was lenient and slow, that the community needed to enforce justice themselves.

Several anti-lynching activists like Ida B. Wells risked their lives to oppose lynching. Other groups like the NAACP and the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching also led the fight by promoting education, compiling statistics and case reports, and pushing for anti-lynching legislation on both the local and the national level.

But the moral appeals were relatively ineffective and the few anti-lynching laws that were passed were not enforced. Not that these efforts were useless. The anti-lynching cause mobilized African Americans and the threat of federal intervention may have encouraged local law enforcement to prevent lynching. Around 1920 the number of prevented lynchings finally overtook the number of completed lynchings, mostly due to the efforts of sheriffs. Why the change in behavior?

Part of it may have been public pressure. Part of it may have been pressure from planters who were losing cheap laborers to the Great Migration, which was itself a reaction to lynching and the Jim Crow regime generally. Part of it may have been advances in radio technology which facilitated law enforcement.

But Berg says we must not attribute it to a fundamental change in race relations. The specter of the “black beast” who presented an imminent danger to white women continued to haunt white minds.

Berg contends that the key may be the correlation between lynching and capital punishment. If one of the motivations for lynching was the belief that the justice system was lenient and slow, then an increase in speedily executed death sentences could quell that anger. Thus legal executions arguably became a substitute for lynching. There is indication of this in the statistics. The ratio of lynchings to legal executions moved from 2.1 in the 1890s to 0.4 in the 1920s. In the 1930s there were 60% fewer lynchings than in the 1920s, but a 44% increase in the legal executions of African Americans. By the 1940s lynchings declined to a total of 30, but African Americans represented 61% of all victims of legal execution. These numbers become even more stark when you consider rape alone, which was the most often cited cause for lynching.

The threat of mob violence during trials of African Americans accused of rape or murder often led to a complete disregard for due process. And legal executions were most effective as a substitute for lynchings when they were done publicly. Some of these executions drew massive crowds, just as lynchings had done. If legal executions did become a substitute for lynching, there was no appreciable increase in justice for accused African Americans.

Reformers who sought to arouse Americans to the evil of lynching entertained an optimistic faith in the power of reason, morality, and education. Social critics condemned mob violence as a blot on American civilization but continued to hope that Americans would eventually reconcile their practices with their ideals. The brave struggle of anti-lynching crusaders deserves admiration; whether their optimism was justified is a different question. The tireless propaganda campaign of the NAACP, the ASWPL, and many other groups and individuals probably contributed to the gradual change in public awareness. Yet lynching did not decline because American society generally, and Southern society in particular, underwent a moral catharsis. Rather, a combination of enhanced law enforcement, both against lynchers and criminal suspects, and the expansion of the death penalty gradually curtailed lynch law. For African Americans, the main victims of mob killings, the effects of this transition proved highly ambivalent. All too often a lynching prevented by the police merely presaged a legal lynching by a kangaroo court. Blacks thus faced a double bind: while weak legal institutions failed to protect them against lynching, strict and “efficient” law enforcement hit them harder than any other racial or ethnic group.

At the beginning of this post I characterized this explanation for the decline of lynching as “depressing”. I say that, first, because it appears that, while it had some effect, moral argumentation was not what led to the abandonment of lynching. It may have been the threatened application of federal power, or economic interests, or the simple satisfaction of mob anger with a more orderly, but equally unjust, legal lynching. We liberals want to believe that more education or moral exhortation will be sufficient to address social justice concerns – but it may not be.

Second, this is depressing because – one hundred years later – our justice system is still racially biased. Michelle Alexander calls the present mass incarceration of black men the “new Jim Crow“.

A new study by the ACLU clearly shows the racial disparity in marijuana arrests. That is, despite the nearly equal rates of marijuana usage by black and whites there is a remarkable gap in arrest rates.

Is our justice system any more just?

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