According to an unofficial finding, between 1836 to 1879, at least two African-Americans were lynched in the United States every week . It was a barbaric way of treating one’s fellow citizens.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Strange Fruit, by Abel Meeropol
Lynching was an extreme and illegal act of punishment by self-appointed vigilantes, resulting in the death of the accused. The term lynching has been named after Charles Lynch, a Virginia Justice of the Peace, who would mete out justice to an accused. This supposed act of ‘justice’ was carried out by and in front of a mob, who would later gather souvenirs.
Lynching was a punishment system and a symbol of domination used by white Americans against the African-American community. It was also used against members of the abolitionist movement and all those who opposed slavery and inequality. The veracity of the crime did not matter and the African-Americans received legal or illegal death sentences more often than other non-white American communities.
They were frequently accused of robbery, rape, attempted rapes or murders. They were also accused of petty offenses such as looking at a white woman, talking back or not being able to repay interest to a white money lender. There were many victims of lynching including the white editor of the Alton Observer, Elijah Parish Lovejoy who was killed for publishing articles criticizing lynching and advocating the abolition of slavery.
The Ku Klux Klans were one of the many groups formed to intimidate the African-Americans. This group was first formed in 1865 by some Tennessee veterans of the Confederate Army. The purpose of these groups was to protect the rights and maintain white supremacy in the South. Their iconic white robes, masks, conical hats and use of burning crosses combined with harsh crimes and violent acts, struck fear in many African-Americans, Jews and other minorities. Their defeat in the Civil War further aggravated their anxiety and the fear of losing their supremacy haunted them.
These groups vehemently resisted the Reconstruction Era between 1865 and 1877 and increased their brutalities, even forcing the freed slaves to work on plantations. Southern conservatives who now were part of the national party, got restless with the group and disowned the Klan by 1870. However, that did not stop the lynching, it just became more subtle. It was carried out privately in the prisons where the offenders were held.
This was also a period when the victim African-American communities grew in political stature and started putting up resistance to mob lynching and started pushing for an anti-lynching bill. The lynching of three African-American businessmen in Memphis and the burning of Ida Wells printing press, which had reported this incident, led to a global anti-lynching campaign that raised awareness of this social injustice.
In 1901, George Henry White, the last former slave to serve in Congress, proposed a bill to outlaw lynching, making it a federal crime. But the strong Southern conservatives in the Congress did not allow the bill to get passed. The African-American community formed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 and continued to be active against lynching.
In 1918, Republican Congressman Leonidas C. Dyer introduced the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill in the United States Congress, but it was again not allowed to pass because of stiff opposition from white Democratic senators from the South. However, the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill became the basis of all anti-lynching bills that were passed over the years.
Finally, in 1946, under the Civil Rights Act, a result of the Civil Rights Movement, the federal government was able to bring criminal lawsuits against Klan and other similar groups. By this time, lynchings had almost ceased to exist. Many states in the U.S. now have specific anti-lynching statutes.
The number of people who were persecuted in the relentless race for white supremacy and domination largely remains unknown, but not forgotten. Although lynching is nonexistent today, it remains the darkest period of American history.