This Mob Will Surely Take My Life: Lynchings in the Carolinas, 1871-1947
"We need to pay attention to the context and background of individual lynchings if we are to understand the phenomenon as a whole" (4), argues historian Bruce E. Baker. Accordingly, he emphasizes the "power of narrative" (5) in stimulating the formation of lynch mobs and in justifying or challenging the carnage inflicted. Historiographically, he builds upon a scholarship stressing the importance of language and rhetoric to mob violence, as epitomized by the groundbreaking work of Christopher Waldrep in The Many Faces of Judge Lynch (Palgrave, 2002). Baker pursues this objective through an investigation of seven lynchings in North and South Carolina between 1871 and 1947.
Though race relations are central to this study, Baker addresses several incidents which do not conform to "the classic storyline our culture has come to associate with the term" (121), including the 1887 black-led lynching of a white man accused of raping a black woman, the 1906 lynching of a white man by a white mob, and the 1917 lynching of a black minister by a mob composed principally of blacks. With this selection, he can undertake a broader analysis of mob violence than is permitted by those more numerous studies which view lynching as synonymous with racist violence. Into this analysis, Baker interweaves larger patterns of state and national political support for and, increasingly, opposition to lynch law, finding that officials in North Carolina moved effectively to crush mob violence by the early 1920s but that those in South Carolina hesitated for another two decades.
In his effort to "split the difference between [the] two dominant modes of writing about lynching" (6), Baker provides insights often overlooked in state-level studies, which can treat specific incidents superficially, and in monograph-length case studies, which can bury larger themes in unnecessary detail. By focusing on the history of race relations in Union and York Counties, South Carolina, for example, he illustrates that whites lynched black men in Yorkville in 1887 not simply because of their alleged offenses at that time but because of their continuing resistance to white supremacy for nearly two decades. This finding, he argues, suggests that scholars must dig deeper into the history of the communities where lynchings occurred to determine whether these killings resulted from longstanding animosities rather than the discrete incidents which scholars have long assumed. To see it otherwise, he argues, "is simplistic, and underrates the ability of people, perhaps especially people in relatively stable rural communities, to hold a grudge" (49).
Despite its insights, this study has several problems. In addition to some unduly casual language and some awkward sentence constructions, This Mob often loses track of its stated objective: the power of narrative in mob violence. Even when focused on this objective, it fails to impress upon readers what is truly new or significant in [End Page 287] its conclusions. In a discussion of a 1930 lynching, for instance, the study effectively demonstrates that the black narrative—suppressed for decades—starkly contradicts the one put forth at the time by whites. Yet, in the final analysis, it seems to do little more than reaffirm the point that powerful groups—usually white—controlled the narrative and told the story which supported their interests, a point already well-known to scholars of this subject.