Women and Race: An Examination of the Death Penalty Throughout American History

The Lynching Era

Entry 8: The Lynching Era

The Lynching era, which spanned from the end of the Civil War (1865) to 1930 was one of the most controversial times in United States history. Not only did the abolition of slavery and then the adoption of the Jim Crow Laws demonstrate the tug of war for power over

Observers pose for a postcard picture after a lynching in Texas (Lynching in America)

the social hierarchy, but they also highlight the racial tensions in the United States. These racial tensions reached to every facet of life which also included the criminal justice system and the use of the death penalty. The era brought about the arbitrary sentencing of African Americans and included crimes other than death such as rape as death-eligible crimes. Not surprisingly, many African Americans were executed by hanging, the primary method of execution during this time, based on little to no evidence of wrongdoing; the principle of innocent before proven guilty was not applied. Over the course of the Lynching Era, an estimated 2,400 men, women and children were the victims of lynch mobs (Lynching, 2005).


The bodies of six African American men who fell victim to a lynch mob in Lee County, Georgia on January 20, 1916 (EJI).

The Lynching Era occurred due to ill feelings toward African Americans and minorities after the loss of the Civil War freed slaves in the South and made soon after made them eligible to vote and hold public office, tipping the social hierarchy. In return, the ideology of “separate but equal” coined by the Jim Crow laws first implemented in 1877 in accordance with the Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, served as the basis for legal segregation and subsequently resulted in arbitrary use of the death penalty in the United States (Urofsky, 2015). This was especially true in the South as over 70% of lynchings during this time, occurred there (Lynching, 2005).


In the article, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror the author estimates “between 1877 and 1950 – at least 800 lynching’s of black people” (EJI). This suggesting that the lynching era lasted far beyond 1930 and continued throughout the 40s and 50s, especially in the Southern states such as Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Texas (EIJ). From 1882 to 1968, “nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress, and three passed the House. Seven presidents between 1890 and 1952 petitioned Congress to pass a federal law” but unfortunately, the domination of the Senate by white Southern men made them impossible to pass (Fox News). In the South, desegregation was not on the agenda and there are recorded lynching’s in some states such as Mississippi and Georgia up until the 1960s. As seen in figure 1, the lynching era was over by 1930 for most of Americans but this does not mean the practice was completely stopped. This was true of some Southern states, in particular, Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama.

(Equal Justice Initiative)


A prime example of this is the Freedom Summer project in 1964 where a group of college students traveled to Mississippi to assist with voter registration of African American residents. When three of the volunteers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner went missing two weeks before the project was launched, the extreme danger of the venture was obvious. With no protection promised by the government and threats of brutality and police intervention if the CORE volunteers entered Mississippi, it was clear there would be bloodshed. Upon searching for the missing volunteers, two white and one

fbi wanted.png
FBI poster depicting three missing Freedom Summer volunteers (Norman, 2014)

black, investigators found several bodies of African Americans in a local Bayou. To the whole of America watching at home on their television sets, the events unfolding before their eyes in Mississippi was a complete shock. While the rest of the United States was adjusting to desegregated lives, the South remained in a Jim Crow stopper which proved to be a difficult ideology to break. The bodies of the volunteers were found, their car burned and lives taken by members of Georgia’s Klu Klux Klan (Norman, 2014).


In the end, Freedom Summer was a turning point in Civil Rights history and was the last straw in the tolerance for “separate but equal”. The atrocities carried out in the South during Freedom Summer as well as during the lynching era were in the end, lit the match that started the fire to put a stop to unlawful and arbitrary executions.


project summer.png
Some of the volunteers in Mississippi for project Freedom Summer (PBS).




Associated Press. (2005, June 13). Senate Apologizes for Not Passing Anti-Lynching Laws. In FOX News. Retrieved from http://www.foxnews.com/story/2005/06/13/senate-apologizes-for-not-passing-anti-lynching-laws.html

Lynching (2005). In West’s Encyclopedia of American Law. Retrieved from http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences-and-law/law/crime-and-law-enforcement/lynching

Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror (2015). In Equal Justice Initiative. Retrieved April 17, 2017, from http://eji.org/sites/default/files/lynching-in-america-second-edition-summary.pdf

Lynching in the United States (n.d.). In National Great Blacks in Wax Museum [Photograph]. Retrieved April 17, 2017, from http://www.greatblacksinwax.org/Exhibits/lynching.htm

The Mississippi Summer Project [Photograph] (n.d.). In PBS. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/freedomsummer-project/

Norman, B. (2014). What Are These Bodies Doing in the River? Freedom summer and the Cultural Imagination. The Southern Quarterly, 52(1). 174-178. Retrieved from https://muse.jhu.edu/article/567259

Urofsky, M. I. (2015, April 21). Jim Crow law UNITED STATES [1877-1954]. In Encyclopedia    Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/event/Jim-Crow-law

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