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Winter 1995

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Winter 95 > Article

Power, Politics & Prejudice
by C. Melodie Taylor

There is a tendency to discard the ugly events of the past and shove them onto the scrap heap of history. But some of the most unsettling memories in America demand to be acknowledged -- both for what they reveal about the past and what they portend for the future.

"The era of lynchings in the South is something that's hidden. It's basically ignored," said UGA sociologist E.M. (Woody) Beck. "It's not a part of Southern history which most people are proud of. It brings back too many negative images of the South's past."

Even now, generations later, scars remain. It still hurts to talk about historic lynchings, and yet they continue to color perspectives, spark controversy and touch off heated debates.

"When you dig into American history, you find some very ugly episodes," concedes Beck's colleague, Stewart Tolnay, a former UGA associate professor of sociology.

To get a clearer picture, Beck and Tolnay studied individual lynchings that occurred in the South during the "lynching era," about a 50-year period that followed Reconstruction after the Civil War. In A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930, their research reveals the sinister side of human nature and the power of an idea: two insights they say they hope will help us understand such atrocities.

In the minds of some, "the power of racist ideology can justify torture and brutal treatment of other human beings," Beck said. He argues that it was that power that triggered the South's lynching era.

According to Tolnay, who now is a professor of sociology and the director of the Center for Social and Demographic Analysis at the State University of New York at Albany, some of those insights might shed light on current situations in other countries.

"One lesson we learned from the work we did was that when groups are distinguished from others, whether it's because of their race, religion or whatever, and there is economic stress, there is the potential for violence," Tolnay said. "You will probably find that in Bosnia and Rwanda there is underlying economic competition or stress and that it occurs on an ethnic dimension."

Beck described some of the lynchings they studied as "simple executions"; others, he said, "seemed to be like parties," from which the authors drew the ironic title of their book.

"The thing that surprised me the most when we were doing our research was learning just how vicious these mobs could be to other human beings," Tolnay said.

When Beck, Tolnay and former UGA assistant professor of sociology James Massey began researching the lynching era in 1986, they quickly discovered that their six-month project actually was going to take several years.

"The quality of the source of information was the biggest problem," Beck said. The data contained so many errors that the research team spent three years just verifying individual lynching incidents using newspaper articles of the times. Beck and Tolnay spent another three years analyzing the data and writing "Festival of Violence" based on their findings. In 1992, they were awarded the Social Science History Association President's Book Award for Unpublished Manuscripts.

The book, published earlier this year by the University of Illinois Press, is not meant to be a history but an analysis of American lynchings.

"Our book is very analytical as opposed to being a historical narrative," Beck said. "There has been study of lynching done by traditional historians in a narrative framework, which is fine, except that they didn't answer some of the questions we wanted to ask."

They focused their research on the Southeast, where the majority of lynchings occurred: Alabama, Arkansas, the Carolinas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee.

Based on their findings, Mississippi and Georgia had the largest overall number of lynchings, but Florida ranked highest in number of lynchings relative to the size of the state's black population. The sociologists also verified that between the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of the Great Depression, on average one black person per week was lynched in the South. Ninety-four percent of those victims died at the hands of white mobs.

Deadly Forces Underlie Lynching Era

In their book, Beck and Tolnay argue that several forces fueled the already heated relations between Southern blacks and whites. It was those forces, they say, that triggered the lynching era and kept the fire burning for almost five decades.

"You've got to have a racist ideology that says that another group deserves this kind of treatment," Beck said. "You have to have competition that is a threat in some form. You've got to have a situation where the government is very permissive, and you also have to have triggering events" or specific incidents in which mobs lash out at their victims.

All of these forces were at work in the South during the lynching era, he said. The racist ideology that supported slavery in the South didn't end with the demise of slavery. Readjusting their opinions of the black population was easier said than done for many white Southerners.

The mindset of white Southerners was a very important contributing factor during the lynching era, Beck said. Racist ideology "justified white mob action against blacks," he said. "I see that as the power of an idea, just like the idea of anti- Semitism gave the justification for the Holocaust.

"The late 1800s was a period when racist ideas were very, very common," he said. "Many whites sought a means of social control to ensure that the black population didn't carry the idea of freedom too far. It was a very strange form of freedom, a sort of quasi freedom in some ways."

Resentment and racism were represented at every level of white Southern society -- from poor tenant farmers to wealthy plantation owners and influential leaders, Beck said.

"Poor white hoodlums" most often were blamed for the lynchings. Beck said he believes, however, that "for the system to operate the way it did, it required both people in the mob and people who weren't in the direct mob but who sanctioned  [the killings]."

"The politicians who gave those glorious racist speeches didn't have to be in the mob to set the environment  [for violence]," he said. "The editorialists and the number of preachers who never said a word against lynching and all those people who shaped public opinion have a share of the responsibility."

Tolnay said he was shocked at "the extent to which the dominant society overlooked the behavior of the mob." The researchers place the bulk of the responsibility for creating the racist environment on the shoulders of Southern politicians.

"If I had to allocate responsibility for the overall trend, it would be to the local politicians of the period because so many of them used racism as their political tool," he said. "They may have said something like: 'Well sure, lynchings aren't nice, but you know we have to control these people.' What that does is send a message that says racist ideas and the inferior position of blacks are acceptable and moral, and then it becomes an accepted part of the culture."

For white tenant farmers, who frequently shared the same standard of living as blacks, violence was used as a means to allow poor whites to continue to feel superior, Beck said.

"The white farmer had been told all along that blacks are inferior," Beck said. "How can you demonstrate that status difference?" Mob violence was used to fashion such a difference, he said.

Violence also was supported by a profit motive. The ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment was the final nail in the coffin of the South's slave-based economy. The white elite -- mainly plantation owners -- still "needed to control a large black population which they had used to generate wealth," Beck said.

Racist views towards blacks may have been the cornerstone of the lynching era, but Beck doesn't subscribe to the theory that mob participants were "sociopaths or evil individuals." Rather, he thinks of them as basically average people whose racist views gave them "permission" to do horrible things.

"It comes back to the power of an idea," he said. "Most of these people went back home  [after a lynching]. They petted their puppies and loved their children. There was this idea that lynching was permissible because blacks were subhuman."

"What kept impressing me was the power of racist ideology to motivate people to do things that we would consider today to be totally unacceptable," Tolnay said.

The researchers argue that whites lynched when they felt threatened in some way by blacks. "Competition sets a climate that is very conducive to violence," Beck said. Lynching was used as a way of suppressing black competitors.

When blacks received the right to vote, white politicians from counties with black majorities faced black challengers for their jobs. Blacks were threatened, beaten and sometimes killed when they tried to vote for black politicians.

Economic competition also prompted violence by some white Southerners. "When whites felt threatened, especially economically, they were more likely to act out violently," Tolnay said.

Beck and Tolnay also found that traditional cotton-growing areas hit by hard economic times were especially susceptible to mob violence. In areas where cotton dominated the local economy, they found there was an especially high number of lynchings.

"When cotton prices would fall and inflation was bad, so that you were getting a greater economic squeeze, the lynchings went up," Beck said. The number of lynchings peaked when cotton prices plummeted in the 1890s.

Lynching was designed to send a message from the white community to the newly freed black population, Beck said.

"We're talking about huge numbers of lynchings which were in the newspaper on a weekly basis and sometimes on a daily basis," he said. "It was widespread and the message was 'See how vulnerable your community is to this informal means of social control? So don't get out of line.'"

According to Beck, two types of justice systems were at work in the South then: the formal court system and the informal lynching mobs.

"You might think that when lynch mob  [activity] was high it would be following low periods of  [legal] executions," he said. "We didn't find that to be true at all. In fact, our conclusion is that both justice systems were operating."

The researchers dispel the belief that "popular justice" was necessary to control the black community.

"The idea of popular justice stems from imagery dealing with the frontier mentality, where you didn't have established court systems, so people felt they had the right to establish their own informal system of social control," Beck said.

"The thing we were struck by was that this wasn't necessarily because of the absence of a legal system. The legal system in the South was well-established. There was this idea that the mob had the right to lynch and that it was acceptable to go outside the bounds of a legal statute," he said. "There were people who were lynched after being found innocent by courts. Some were even prevented from coming to trial. They would be arrested, then taken from the jail and executed. There was a sense in these racial incidents that justice was being served by the mob."

The reason this informal justice system was allowed to operate, Beck said, was because of the South's "permissive government," which he cited as another force behind the lynching era. "Racist ideas extended far beyond the borders of the South," he said. "It's only in the South where the lynch mob took a more activist role. I think that's because Southern states were much more permissive of  [lynch mob] behavior."

The Demise Of The Lynching Era

The number of lynchings dropped dramatically after the mid- 1920s, and by the '30s five bloody decades of lynching finally began to taper off. According to Beck, two important factors led to the demise of lynching: states' action against mob violence and the migration of thousands of blacks from the South.

"Lynching became increasingly bad PR for state governments," he said. "The Lynch Victims and the Price of King Cottonlawlessness of lynchings wasn't compatible with the imagery of the New South and so states turned from a permissive stance toward mob violence to one of non- permissiveness. They wanted to show that the New South was not the old cotton plantation. The New South was industrial. The New South had different race relations."

Gradually more and more people began to speak out against mob violence.

"I'm not saying these were racial liberals saying 'We ought to love our fellow man,' but some were saying that that particular manifestation  [mob violence] was inappropriate. We start seeing states intervening and preventing it."

The migration of blacks from the South also played a part in the decline of mob violence. This migration, which began during World War I, peaked between 1920 and 1930. According to Beck and Tolnay's research, Southern states lost almost 700,000 blacks during that time. The percentage of blacks who lived in urban areas also leaped from 17 percent in 1900 to 33 percent by 1930.

"Those areas where there were high numbers of lynchings tend to be in the areas where most blacks left," he said. Georgia, for example, lost 22 percent of its black population.

Violence, of course, was not the only reason blacks fled the South. "In terms of the overall migration period, the lynchings were only one part of a much larger picture of the declining agricultural economics of the South and the increasing lure of Northern jobs," Beck said.

During the period of black migration, the white Southern elite began to feel the effects of the loss of the black labor force.

"In those areas where they began to realize that the black labor force was leaving and there was still a need for them, you begin to see some editorials condemning lynchings and saying  [to mob participants], 'Look, you're driving our people away,' Beck said. "The need for social control  [of blacks] was not as great anymore."

The combination of these factors caused the number of lynchings in the South to drop dramatically. Beck and Tolnay discovered that in the 1890s, 799 blacks lost their lives because of mob violence, while during the 1930s, 88 blacks were lynched.

Lessons For Today

Their research does more than answer questions about the causes of the lynching era; it also provides insights for today's ethnic, racial and religious intolerance, Beck said.

"I see two big lessons from this whole study: One is about the state taking a permissive role and how that influences [violence] and second, how important ideology is when it starts to dehumanize and what it gives us license to do," he said.

Even though lynchings are rare in the United States today, the "underlying processes" that helped to create the lynching era are still at work; racial violence has just taken on "different manifestations," said Tolnay, who points out that different races all over the world still are inflicting pain on other races.

"There is nothing about human nature that prevents this kind of violence. That's what is going on in Bosnia and Rwanda. It takes a special effort from individuals to prevent us from doing these kinds of horrendous things to each other," Tolnay said.

Even in America today the potential for mob violence still exists, Beck said.

"People ask me if we could have mob violence again. I say, 'Sure, of course we could.' But it's not acceptable," he said. "You don't see politicians advocating or justifying mob violence. State governments have taken typically a very hard line against mob violence and if people are involved, they will be prosecuted today."

Another reason mob violence is not as prevalent today is because now people view mob violence very differently.

"The mindset is very, very different. The overt racism that was perfectly acceptable up until the mid 1960s is now less publicly acceptable," Beck said. "There is always the potential for mob violence, whether it's at a football game or soccer match or anyplace; it's just a question of how  [the government] responds to the violence."

While much has changed since the lynching era in the South, vigilance for racist ideology is still important, the researchers say -- and not only on a regional basis.

"I don't think racism is any stronger here than it is any place outside this region," he said. "The historical legacy is very different, but I don't see the South as unique in its racist ideas by any stretch of the imagination. It's a national problem."

For more information please check out http://www.uga.edu/soc/Beck.htm or e-mail wbeck@arches.uga.edu


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