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  • "A Law Abiding People":Alabama's 1901 Constitution and the Attempted Lynching of Jim Brown
  • James L. Baggett (bio)

Dell garrett finished classes at spring lake college in Springville, Alabama, at about 3:00 in the afternoon on Tuesday, May 7, 1901. Garrett reported later that as she walked home she noticed Jim Brown, a local African American farmhand, following her along a wooded stretch of road. Garrett, who was white, said Brown caught up to her, forced her into the woods, raped her, and tried to drown her in a pond. As Garrett lay in the water semiconscious, Brown pulled off his old work shoes and threw them into the pond, put on a better pair of shoes, changed his clothing, and fled. Bruised and drenched, Garrett stumbled to the house where she lived with her parents and fainted just inside the front door. Her father alerted neighbors and notified the sheriff. The authorities sent telegrams to surrounding towns and several groups of local white men searched the woods around Springville throughout the night. If Jim Brown had been found, he would have surely been lynched because he was accused, and assumed guilty, of raping a white woman. Most lynchings [End Page 200] that occurred from the 1880s to the 1900s did not involve accusations of interracial sexual assault, but that is the crime most associated with lynching. And such accusations often sent white mobs into violent frenzies.1

While white mobs chased Jim Brown hoping to lynch him, other Alabama whites looked to end the practice. Many white southerners still viewed lynching as necessary to maintain white supremacy. An appalling number of whites considered lynching entertainment. But a vocal group of white political leaders, newspaper editors, and community leaders came to view lynching as a barbarous act that stained the reputation and honor of their states, drew the unwanted attention of the federal government, encouraged contempt for the law and the legal process, and chased away the cheap black laborers that white landowners and industrialists exploited. White leaders recognized that as they disfranchised blacks, white supremacy could be maintained without mob violence. This article will explore white opposition to lynching at the turn of the twentieth century, the efforts of Alabama's political leaders to prevent lynching though the mechanism of the 1901 state constitution, and case of Jim Brown and Dell Garrett. While the Brown case was not specifically discussed at the constitutional convention, it was covered extensively in Alabama's newspapers. It is likely that most delegates were aware of the case, and their debates show that they were aware of earlier lynchings and of lynchings that had been prevented. The Brown case, which unfolded on the ground as the convention was in session, provides a contemporaneous illustration of the debates going on inside and outside the convention. That debate among whites was only incidentally about [End Page 201] saving black lives, and not at all about how to prevent interracial rape; the debate was over how to maintain white supremacy without the ugly and degrading spectacle of mob murder.

In the decade preceding Alabama's constitutional convention, African American activists kept the issue of lynching before the public. In 1893, crusading Memphis journalist Ida B. Wells published a series of anti-lynching editorials in the pamphlet Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. In the pamphlet and later writings, Wells demonstrated that most southern lynchings did not involve charges of rape, but instead occurred to assert white racial control and retard black economic advancement. Organizations like the National Afro-American Council and the National Negro Business League denounced lynching and called on states and the federal government to prosecute lynchers. These efforts were reported in newspapers throughout the country, including in Alabama. In addition to such activism, some black communities fought back against mobs. In Cleveland, Mississippi, a "band of armed negroes" on horseback rode into the town and exchanged gunfire with a group of white men. The raid was assumed to be retaliation for a lynching that occurred earlier that night. Less than one year before the constitutional convention, on July 30, 1900, whites in Huntsville, Alabama, armed themselves with "a consignment...


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