African American Lynching,
the Ku Klux Klan, and Hate Crimes
African-American lynching happened all over the United States. South
and north—African-American lynching claimed a high percentage
of victims at the same time that African-Americans were legally executed
in high percentages.
African-Americans received a legal or illegal death sentence more
often than European Americans who were accused of the same offenses.
Common accusations resulting in death for African-Americans included
rape, attempted rape, robbery, and second-degree murder. Many others
is, accused, convicted, and executed without a trial, without rules
of evidence, without a defender—for offenses such as "talking
back," "looking at a white woman," or not being able
to repay 10 cents interest to a white lender.
The sheer number of African Americans lynched or legally executed
in the South was much higher than outside the South—some 4,921
in 10 Southern states between 1882 and 1930 alone, compared to 572
European-Americans lynched or executed. These numbers partly reflect
high African-American populations in Southern states. The disproportion
in the numbers points to active community support for collective violence
against African Americans.
When it comes to African-American lynching, many people attribute
community support to the work of the "Ku Klux Klan." But
this title doesn't mean much unless we know that there's been more
than one Klan. Different Klans over time have had different impacts
- African American lynching
- lynching of non-African-Americans
- the assaults, bombings, and assassinations of the Civil Rights
- the hate crimes of today.
African-American Lynching and the Ku Klux Klan:
Members of the first Ku Klux Klan were domestic terrorists with a
focused objective: to intimidate freed former slaves and their white
supporters. Burning down houses and businesses, administering beatings,
whippings, shootings, and hangings—Klan terrorism succeeded in
preventing African-Americans from using their newly won rights. The
Klan's aim was to prevent African-Americans from voting, getting an
education, competing for jobs—and owning property instead of
being legally considered as property.
This first Klan was orchestrated in 1866 by Southern political conservatives
as part of their strategy to take back government in former Confederate
states. In a few short years, Southern blacks found themselves excluded
from almost every kind of opportunity we as Americans take for granted
now. The first KKK as a formal organization did not last long. It was
investigated by Congress, and Southern conservatives as a national
party seem to have disowned the Klan by about 1870.
But this ending doesn't mean that African-American lynching stopped.
Instead, lynchings came to be presented differently—a theatrical
spectacle that said, "The community has come together in a spontaneous
outpouring of outrage against an African-American who committed an
atrocity." Rather than receiving a secretive visit from the KKK
at night, victims of terrorism were lynched in public by a mob. Often
the victims were taken from a jail where they awaited legal punishment.
No doubt the ordinary citizens who carried out the killing, or simply
showed up for the spectacle, did support the hanging or burning of
an African-American. The cover photo on the dust jacket of The
Hangman's Knot shows the crowd when it has turned away from its
victim, hanging from a tree, in order to pose for the camera. Most
of the photo is taken up by this sea of self-satisfied faces.
But close investigation of individual lynching cases has shown that
the guiding hand was the community's local leadership of cotton planters,
merchants, bankers. Both elite and lower-income European-Americans
felt threatened after slavery ended. African-Americans were only able
to improve their lot when they began to migrate north in great numbers
between 1900 and 1930. No longer were they the South's most abundant
and most intimidated labor force.
Lynching of a European-American in the South, 1915
Southern whites had another reason for economic fear—industries
controlled by corporations outside the South. These firms too could
compete for scarce labor, and they didn't necessarily care about the
interests of either local leaders or local workers.
In 1913, Southern hostility to outsiders was dramatically demonstrated
when Leo Frank, manager of the National Pencil Factory in Atlanta ,
Georgia , was convicted of the murder of factory employee Mary Phagan.
Evidence against Frank rested heavily on the testimony of a factory
janitor who may in fact have been the real killer. However, Leo Frank
was sentenced to hang. Two years later, when the governor commuted
Frank's sentence to life, a band of armed men kidnapped Frank from
the state penitentiary and hanged him from a tree.
Tom Watson, a Georgia landowner and politician, played a part in
the drama of Leo Frank. After Frank's sentence was commuted, Watson's
fiery speeches and written diatribes implied that anyone who lynched
Frank would simply be carrying out the death penalty Frank deserved.
Watson raged against "outside interests" of any kind, and
also denounced the Roman Catholic Church and Jews (such as Leo Frank)
as well as African-Americans. During Watson's era, many whites besides
Frank were lynched. They were often immigrant labor organizers or contenders
for local political power.
The Second Ku Klux Klan, 1915-1944
Tom Watson advocated reorganizing the Ku Klux Klan. It isn't clear
that he actively took part, but a new KKK was born in November, 1915,
with one William J. Simmons as Imperial Wizard. The Klan's platform
was a smorgasbord of equal-opportunity bigotry similar to Tom Watson's—but
it also advocated moral precepts such as sobriety, marital fidelity,
and church-going. There is no doubt that the second Klan spread and
institutionalized bigotry, and justified intimidation and violence.
But documented fatalities are few. The second Klan played to widespread
American racism and resentment of all who threatened white Protestant
The Klan's overwhelming influence during the early 1920s, in states
from Colorado and California to Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, to
Texas and Alabama, was due not to terrorism but to political lobbying
and backing of political candidates—paid for by commercially
stimulated Klan "initiation fees." The Klan's estimated membership
of 2.5 million by 1924 would never have been reached had not William
Simmons hired a publicity team who—in exchange for 80 per cent
of profits—carried out a massive advertising and recruiting campaign
and organized the Klan by sales regions. Klan hirelings also ran spinoff
companies selling KKK regalia and managed the Klan's real estate holdings.
In the late 1920s, the Klan's largely middle-class membership—neither
elite nor "white trash"—defected after criminal cases
and lawsuits began to be brought against Klan leaders. The second Klan
came to a sticky end when the federal government brought a ruinous
suit for taxes in 1944.
The Civil Rights Era and the Klan:
Lynching, or Just Plain Murder?
In 1955, an African-American teenager from Chicago was murdered while
visiting family in Money, Mississippi , a town with a population of
55. Emmett Till's "capital" offense: trying to flirt with
a store owner's European-American wife.
Till had acted on a dare from his cousins and their friends, but
four days later he was dead. After his beaten, unclothed body was found
in the Tallahatchie River , two men were charged with his murder: Roy
Bryant, husband of the store clerk, and Bryant's half brother. It was
unusual that the men were even prosecuted in court but, in 1950s Mississippi
, their acquittal was a done deal. Emmett
Till's murder closely followed the 1954 school desegregation ruling, Brown
v. Board of Education. Till was furtively murdered by only two
men for reasons that were not political, but it was Till's death and
the national publicity it received that galvanized both violent white
racists and the Civil Rights movement.
This time around, white racists, whether Klan members or not, were
on the defensive. Once again the "Klan" was a secret society—in
reality, a composite of local groups with only a loose affiliation
across the South. Klans created a deadly synergy with "White Citizens
Councils" that sprang up to resist integration after Brown.
The Citizens Councils supplied the rhetoric and applied political and
economic pressure in preference to openly advocating violence, but
local Klans stood ready at hand to carry out assaults, bombings, and
As in the case of the second KKK, "respectable" European
Americans began to dissociate themselves from the Klans once they realized
that the federal government had tardily become serious about prosecuting
civil rights crimes. At this time, many local Klans consolidated as
the anti-black terrorist group "United Klans of America"—with
the notorious Robert Shelton as their Imperial Wizard. But in 1979,
13 of Shelton 's Klansmen were sentenced to federal prison for perpetrating
violence in Talladega County, Alabama. The death blow to the UKA came
after they lynched a randomly chosen African-American teenager, Michael
Donald, in 1981. The UKA was ruined financially when Donald's family
sued for damages and in 1987 received ownership of the UKA's 6.5 acre
national headquarters in Tuscaloosa . Several Klansmen were convicted
of Donald's murder. One—in an unprecedented example—was
Hate Crimes and the Legacy of the Klan
Lynching terrorized and intimidated because it was backed by the community.
Where federal and state governments didn't step in, and local law was
compliant or helpless, lynching could be a powerful public spectacle.
African-Americans made ready targets both within and outside the legal
system. The Klan name sometimes stood for real perpetrators, at other
times was a shorthand way to describe any violent enforcers of white
entitlement. Now "the Klan" has become a reference point for
some of the least entitled—uneducated and barely employed European-Americans,
especially young males who maintain their belief that their "whiteness" should
be privileged. Some are ready to take out their resentment on random
victims. Hate killings are committed by unaffiliated individuals, as
was the case with Matthew Shepherd's murder; or by prison-bred "Klan" members,
as in the dragging to death of James Byrd, Jr. Or they are committed
by the followers of violence-advocating white supremacists who have killed
several Asian-Americans in recent years. Ironically, impoverished and
friendless European-Americans have finally joined their African-American
counterparts—by becoming the usual targets of legal execution in
the United States today.