Although the term’s definition has long been contested, “lynching” generally refers to an act of punishment (usually lethal) enacted without the official sanction of the law (though often with the complicity of the state) and carried out by a group of people (who usually claim to act in the name of justice, “the people,” or tradition). The earliest studies of lynching were undertaken amidst the massive wave of mob violence that lasted from Reconstruction through the mid-20th century. While scholars have explored the shifting definition of lynching and the variations in the nature of extralegal punishment across time and space, the scholarship of lynching is indelibly marked by the context in which it first took root. The word “lynching” is powerfully associated with the racialized violence that swept the southern United States after Reconstruction, killing thousands of people, predominantly African American men, between the 1870s and the 1940s. Scholars across the humanities and social sciences have investigated the causes and consequences of this violence. Through analysis of statistics, literature, newspapers, and photography, they have excavated the gender norms, sexual politics, political ideologies, legal frameworks, economic conditions, and racial antagonisms that formed essential contexts for lynching violence. They have also demonstrated the prevalence of lynching both beyond the South and before the Civil War, challenging nostalgic visions of Western “frontier justice” with the stark facts of murder, conquest, and racism. Scholars of lynching have shown how victims of lynching were men, women, and children, African Americans, Mexicans and Mexican Americans, Native Americans, and immigrants from Europe, China, and Latin America, as well as US-born whites. However, because African American men have been singularly prominent both in lynching statistics and in popular memories of mob violence, anti-black racism and Jim Crow loom large in lynching discourse through the present day. The study of lynching thus calls on scholars to engage with the relationship between the afterlife of slavery and the myriad forms, sites, and traditions of violence that have marred the history of the United States.
The very definition of “lynching” poses difficult questions for scholars. What kinds of extralegal punitive violence have historically been designated by this term, and what geographical and temporal frame is best suited for the study of lynching? Brundage 1993 seeks to shift attention away from idealized narratives of “frontier justice” in the West to focus on the racialized killings in the post-Reconstruction South. With a focus on African American testimony, Williams 2012 situates anti-black Southern lynchings within a larger narrative of racial violence since Emancipation. Waldrep 2002 offers an influential account of the term’s evolution since the colonial era, and how it came, increasingly, to designate anti-black mob killings in the Jim Crow South. Rushdy 2012 also tracks the definition of lynching, as well as the rationalizing rhetoric surrounding it. Dray 2002 and Equal Justice Initiative 2017 provide accessible overviews focused on the South, while Berg 2011 is a multiregional overview of lynching’s history in the United States.
Berg, Manfred. Popular Justice: A History of Lynching in America. Lanham, MD: Rowman Littlefield, 2011.
This synthetic and wide-ranging history of lynching in the United States moves from punishment in the colonial era through the politics of public memory in the early 21st century. Berg critiques the “frontier justice” narrative of lynching as communal self-defense carried out in the absence of a legal system, demonstrating instead how racism and antigovernment ideology have been essential to American mob violence across regions.
Brundage, W. Fitzhugh. Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880–1930. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
Approaches the period between Reconstruction and the Great Depression as a “distinct phase” in which US mob violence was both especially racialized and particularly concentrated in the South (p. 14). Comparing Virginia and Georgia, Brundage shows how differing conditions led to fewer lynchings in the Upper South than the Deep South. He also examines different forces contributing to the decline of lynching in each state. Additionally, the book draws on social anthropology to consider lynching as a social ritual.
Dray, Philip. At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America. New York: Random House, 2002.
An accessible and rich narrative history of Southern lynching and anti-lynching activism. In this synthetic study, Dray chronicles the rise and decline of lynching violence between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights era. Incorporating narratives of particular lynchings, the book describes activism from the early journalism of Ida B. Wells, to the decades-long effort to pass federal anti-lynching legislation, to the Civil Rights Congress’s 1951 petition to the United Nations.
Equal Justice Initiative. Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, Third Edition. 2017.
Created by the civil rights and criminal justice reform organization Equal Justice Initiative, this report narrates the history of “racial terror lynchings” as foundational to contemporary racial inequality. The report documents 4,084 racial terror lynchings between 1877 and 1950 (eight hundred more than previously reported) and calls for the establishment of public memorials to facilitate reckoning with the legacies of lynching.
Rushdy, Ashraf H. A. American Lynching. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.
Traces the emergence and development of lynching as practiced in the United States since the Revolutionary War, with particular attention to shifting definitions of and rationales for this violence. Rushdy examines how concepts of frontier justice and popular sovereignty have been employed to make sense of the violence by apologists and critics alike. The study attends especially to questions of national identity and the association of lynching with anti-black violence.
Waldrep, Christopher. The Many Faces of Judge Lynch: Extralegal Violence and Punishment in America. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.
This study narrates a history of the definition of “lynching” since the 18th century. Waldrep argues that lynching has consistently connoted community-sanctioned violence. This definition was used both by defenders, who claimed lynchings were a form of democratic action, and later by critics, who contended that lynchings implicated entire communities and regions. Waldrep also shows how African American activists such as Ida B. Wells forged a newly specific understanding of lynching as racialized killing.
Williams, Kidada. They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I. New York: New York University Press, 2012.
This history of anti-black violence since the Civil War recovers a narrative of terror, resistance, and collective identity from the testimonies of survivors and witnesses. Drawing on Freedman’s Bureau files, congressional records, and NAACP archives, Williams examines letters and oral testimony that bear witness to various forms of extralegal racial terror. The study attends to how “unknown” individuals, and not just high-profile leaders, “fueled” the NAACP’s celebrated anti-lynching campaigns (p. 14).
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