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Lynching: Definition & History

Instructor: David White
Through this lesson, you will learn what defines the practice of lynching, and gain insight into how it has been used throughout the United States during 19th and 20th centuries.

What is Lynching?

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, white people frequently used violence as a means of controlling African Americans. For example, lynching was a popular way of punishing African Americans who were believed to have committed a crime. Lynching is an informal punishment enforced by a group who do not have the legal authority to do so. In many cases, lynching occurs when a group believes a person has committed a crime, even though they have not been tried or convicted. Economic resentment and attempts to prevent black citizens from participating in the political process were also factors in lynching. Examples of lynching include public hangings, tarring and feathering, or other forms of extreme punishment or execution performed in public.

In earlier centuries, tarring and feathering was a popular form of lynching in Europe
tarred and feathered

Lynching differs from other forms of punishment because it is carried out by the public outside of the legal system and is often committed by a group of people, rather than ordered by a judge or law enforcement officer. Lynching is a kind of mob justice, in which ordinary people come together to terrorize or punish someone that they feel has violated a legal, moral, or social standard.

Although the origins of the word 'lynching' are not very clear, it's widely attributed to a late 18th century Virginia court judge named Charles Lynch, who was known to have regularly imprisoned British loyalists without a trial. Because they were never given a trial, and he didn't have the authority to imprison them, the practice became known as 'lynching'.

Lynching in the United States

In the years before the American Civil War, lynching was a common way in which white Southerners would punish those who expressed opposition to slavery. For example, if a person advocated putting an end to slavery, or was believed to have helped slaves escape captivity, they might be lynched in order to discourage others from doing the same.

In the United States, lynching was often motivated by feelings of white supremacy, which is the belief that white people are superior to other races. Following the abolition of slavery and the end of the Civil War, white supremacists, like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), frequently used the threat of lynching in order to keep the newly freed slaves from demanding pay, or from exercising any of their newly established.

White supremacist groups, like the Ku Klux Klan often used lynching to maintain control of African Americans in the South
Klan

In some cases, white supremacists simply fabricated reasons for lynching that would justify the torture or murder of minorities. While these reasons included anything from gambling to raping white women, they were often false accusations with no basis in reality. The real reason for the lynching was to maintain control of African Americans and protect white privilege through the use of terrorism.

Lynching in the 20th Century

Although lynching was never a legal practice, many Southern judges often looked the other way, and few people were ever tried or convicted for their participation in lynching. As a result, the practice continued into the 20th century.

For example, the last confirmed case of lynching in the Northern United States occurred in Indiana in 1930, when two African American men were arrested in connection with the murder of a factory worker. The men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, were accused of killing a white man and raping his girlfriend. Before they could be tried, a white mob, which included police officers, broke into the jail and dragged the men out of the jailhouse, after which, they were hanged.

In what is most likely the last documented lynching in the United States, 19-year-old Michael Donald was killed by members of the KKK in Mobile, AL, after which they hung him from a tree outside his family's home.

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