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  • Judge Lynch DeniedCombating Mob Violence in the American South, 1877–1950
  • E. M. Beck (bio)

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[I]n the years from the end of Reconstruction through the mid twentieth century, threats of extra-legal retribution were commonplace, and mobs often formed and plans were laid for Judge Lynch to hold court. It is sobering that if only the gravest threats had been successful, the South would have experienced a 49 percent increase in actual lynching events.

Anti-lynching cartoon, “Start the Recall of Judges with This One,” by W. Crawford, Puck 71, February 21, 1913, Library of Congress.

[End Page 117]

The rough dimensions of southern mob violence are well known: between 1877 and 1950 the American South witnessed over 3,100 incidents of lynching in which more than 3,800 southerners died through lynch mob violence.1 The annual toll of lynching episodes grew until the mid 1890s and then began a general decline. The overwhelming majority of victims, 84 percent, were African Americans who met their fate at the hands of white lynchers. Men were vastly more likely to be the target of Judge Lynch’s vengeance, with 3.1 percent of the victims being women of either race. Although all southern states experienced lynching, Georgia and Mississippi together accounted for over one third of the victims of southern mob violence during this period.

In over half of the incidents, the victim had been removed from the custody of the authorities, sometimes by force and other times through acquiescence. Most victims were hanged from trees or telephone poles and riddled with bullets, under the cover of night by relatively small numbers of vigilantes. In some notable and horrific instances, however, victims were brutalized and tortured to death in front of hundreds of spectators in broad daylight. This story of the era of the southern lynch mob has been documented, analyzed, and theorized for over a hundred years.2

Scholars and activists have long noted that while lynchers roamed the southern landscape, they weren’t always successful in meting out their form of “justice.” Early in the twentieth century, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Tuskegee Institute, Commission on Interracial Cooperation, and the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching kept newspaper clipping files on reported mob violence and near-lynchings, but most of their archival efforts were aimed at documenting actual lynchings, and much of their work focused on the 1920s and 1930s in attempt to promote proposed federal anti-lynching legislation.3 In his groundbreaking book Rope & Faggot: A Biography of Judge Lynch (1929), Walter White noted that since the end of World War I there had been shifting public opinion against mob violence and an apparent increase in lynchings averted. In 1933 James H. Chadbourn reported on the many means by which lynchings were foiled including the use of militia to frustrate mobs, or removing threatened suspects from the local area to a safer venue. Arthur Raper provided a list of threatened lynchings for the years 1930–1933 as part of his influential study of southern mob violence.4

Some of those thwarted lynchings were widely reported and documented. Over a two-day period in mid July 1920, a mob of over 1,000 threatened to lynch three black men accused of attacking a married white woman in Alamance County, North Carolina.5 Initially, Sheriff C. B. Story and his deputies stalled the mob as it moved toward the jail in Graham, the county seat, but recognizing the extreme danger of the situation Sheriff Story requested that Governor Thomas W. Bickett send troops to protect the prisoners and restore order. The troops arrived the next [End Page 118] day, armed with rifles and machine guns, and were stationed around the jail. When a smaller mob of masked men attacked, the troops opened fire, driving off the attackers with at least one killed and several wounded.6

Even better known was the plight of the “Scottsboro Boys.” In March 1931, nine black Alabama teenagers were being held in the Jackson County jail on a charge of raping two white women aboard a train that ran...


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