White Terrorism: From Post-Civil-War Lynchings to the PresentNews at Home
tags: terrorism, lynching, White Supremacy, Capitol Riots
Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University, a Contributing Editor of HNN, and author of An Age of Progress? Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (2008). For a list of his recent books and online publications click here.
Detail of Lawrence Beitler's photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, Marion, Indiana. August 7, 1930.
The violent occupation of the U. S. Capitol building on January 6 shocked many people into realizing White terrorism is scary. Soon afterward, D. C. Mayor Muriel Bowser told “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd that the essential question was how seriously our country will take threats of “domestic white extremism” and terrorism. Todd later added that “right-wing [White] terrorists perpetrated the majority of all plots and attacks in the United States from 1994 to 2020. Over the past six years, these attacks have occurred in 42 states. In other words, the violence we witnessed on January 6th has been hiding in plain sight.”
But right-wing White terrorism has long been a U. S. problem. Witness the examples of the Ku Klux Klan and lynchings, which were sometimes perpetrated by Klansmen. As historian Ron Chernow has written “Klan violence [of the post-Civil War period] was unquestionably the worst outbreak of domestic terrorism in American history.” Heretofore, however, most Americans have paid no more attention to Klan activities and lynchings than to old cowboy movies. Now, though, media is offering us more reminders. Take, for example, Hulu’s recent “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” in which the song she made famous, “Strange Fruit,” has a central role. That song was based on a poem of the late 1930s written by teacher, writer, and songwriter Abel Meeropol, who said that he wrote it after seeing a photo of the 1930 lynching of two Black men in Marion, Indiana (more on this lynching later).
Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” which in 1999 Time magazine selected as the “song of the century,” reveals graphically the horror of such lynchings.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
A report on lynching (2017) by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) documented over 5000 “racial terror lynchings” between 1877 and 1950, overwhelmingly in the South, where until 1910 about 90 percent of Black people lived. (Such lynchings were often hangings, but could also include other forms of illegal killing.) Both before and after this period Black people were also lynched.
The EJI lynching report states, “These lynchings were terrorism”--defined here as the non-governmental use of violence, or threat of its use, for political purposes. The report adds, “Terror lynchings fueled the mass migration of millions of Black people from the South into urban ghettos in the North and West throughout the first half of the twentieth century.”
Heavily involved in the early post-Civil-War lynchings was the Ku Klux Klan, founded in Tennessee in 1866. Historian Jill Lepore writes that it “was a resurrection . . . of the armed militias that had long served as slave patrols” and “for decades had terrorized men, women, and children with fires, ropes, and guns, instruments of intimidation, torture, and murder.”
From 1866 to 1871 the newly-born Klan terrorized southern Blacks. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, it “engaged in a violent campaign of deadly voter intimidation during the 1868 presidential election. . . . Similar campaigns of lynchings, tar-and-featherings, rapes and other violent attacks on those challenging white supremacy became a hallmark of the Klan.” The victor in that election, however, was former Union General Ulysses Grant, and he set out vigorously to end Klan terrorism.
Prior to his election, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (overriding President Andrew Johnson’s veto) and the Fourteenth Amendment aided Black males to vote. Where they could do so without illegal white interference, which was widespread in the Deep South, they voted overwhelmingly for Grant. Once in office he signed (1870) the Fifteenth Amendment, which forbade denying the vote to Blacks. In 1870-71 he approved of three Enforcement Acts to help protect that right. The third, also sometimes referred to as the Ku Klux Klan Act, empowered the president to enforce the act.
About the Klan Act, Chernow has written that the “law stood as a magnificent achievement for Grant, who had initiated and rallied support for it, never wavering,” and “by 1872, under Grant’s leadership, the Ku Klux Klan had been smashed in the South.”
But Elaine Frantz Parsons’ book on the birth of the Klan during Reconstruction states that by the time Grant had destroyed the Klan, it “had already done a great deal to increase the power and prosperity of white Democratic southerners at the expense of freedpeople and their allies.” Klansmen had lynched and shot hundreds, driven many thousands from their homes and official positions, scared off many Black voters, taken over Black properties, and committed various crimes against them, including rape. Nor did the destruction of the KKK end White terror in the South. An EJI Reconstruction report, for example, lists lynchings between 1873 and 1876 that killed over 350 southern Blacks.
The decade from 1891-1901 witnessed the most lynchings of African Americans, with over 100 being lynched in every year but two. This was also the decade when the Supreme Court ruled that segregation, by then enacted in most of the South, was legal.
One of these Black lynchings was of Sam Hose in Georgia in 1899. He was accused of killing his employer, a farmer, and raping his wife. After Hose was chained to a tree, the mob cut off his ears, fingers, and genitals, stacked kerosene-soaked wood around him, and then set him afire. After his agonizing death, his body was further carved up and parts taken away as souvenirs. The famous Black leader W. E. B. Du Bois saw Hose’s knuckles displayed in an Atlanta store window. Atlanta’s leading newspaper justified “a people intensely religious, home-loving and just” who were outraged at a murder and rape--later evidence indicated the “murder” was in self-defense and the “rape” never occurred.
The second Klan began in Georgia in 1915, but soon spread across the USA, becoming strong in non-southern states like Indiana. After the 1919-1922 period when at least 239 Black lynchings occurred, the frequency of lynchings began to recede, with no year exceeding 29, and from 1935 to 1951 numbering between 1 to 8 per year, and from 1952-1968 an average of less than one per year. And most later lynchings did not directly implicate the Klan, though their earlier example helped create the toxic mix that sustained the lynching climate.
Increasingly, however, the KKK used other terrorist methods against Black people, as they did in 1921 in the case of a Dallas, Texas bellhop named Alex Johnson, whom Klansmen accused of having sex with a white woman. They branded KKK onto his forehead, but, as usual, the Klansmen responsible were not prosecuted.
The Klan reached its apex in the mid-1920s and then began to decline. In 1925 over a quarter of “native-born, white Indiana males belonged to the Klan,” but that November the head of Indiana’s KKK, David Stephenson, was convicted of raping and murdering a young woman. By 1930, due to that and various other factors, Klan membership, which had numbered maybe 4-5 million in 1925, dropped to an estimated 30,000.
The situation in Marion was similar, and in the lynching of two young Black men in 1930 the KKK, as an organization, had no direct part. But that did not mean that it had not contributed to the deadly attitudes that launched the lynching.
The two lynched men were Abram Smith and Tom Shipp, both accused of murdering Claude Deeter and raping his companion, 18 year-old Mary Ball. Also accused was another black teenager, James Cameron. But, after having had a rope placed around his neck, he was returned to jail.
Later investigations, as was the case with Sam Hose in 1899, cast serious doubts about the stories the mob believed when they lynched Smith and Shipp, especially the occurrence of any “rape.” In fact, such false accusations against Black men were quite common preceding many lynchings.
The Marion lynchings became so significant partly because of Lawrence Beitler's famous photograph which influenced both songwriter Abel Meeropol and singer Billie Holiday in their composition of her song “Strange Fruit.” In addition the photo was widely displayed in newspapers and other publications. As Leon F. Litwack indicated in his book of photos often reproduced on postcards, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, such photos could be displayed not only in publications critical of such lynchings, but by defenders and apologists of them, partly as a warning to Black people not to challenge the gospel of White supremacy. The book and its pictures suggest that many lynch mobs and onlookers were composed of “ordinary people,” and both Madison’s book on the Marion lynching and Beitler’s photo suggest the same.
From 1930 until the present, both lynchings and the Klan declined. One report of the 1981 Alabama lynching of Michael Donald refers to it as the “Last lynching in America.” A 2016 report on the KKK by the Anti-Defamation League states that it remains a collection of mostly small, disjointed groups that continually change in name and leadership. . . . There are currently just over thirty active Klan groups in the United States, most of them very small. However, the association of Klan members with criminal activity has remained consistent.” Klan members have, however, been active in some recent right-wing protests, including the “Unite the Right” rally in 2017 in Charlottesville. In 2020 a Klan member drove his truck through a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters near Richmond, Virginia.
Most white terrorist activities in recent decades, like the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 or the shooting deaths of nine Black congregants in 2015 in a Charleston S. C. church, were not KKK directed, but still reflected a similar white supremacist mindset. It was often mixed with hostility to the federal government and its perceived infringement on citizen rights--for example, in regard to any type of gun control.
In its mixed motives, one of which was demonstrating white supremacy (note the Capitol-occupier carrying the Confederate flag), those who used terrorist means to occupy the U. S. Capitol building in January 2021 were typical of recent right-wing protests. The FBI recently noted that two right-wing groups, the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, “were in the vanguard” of the occupiers. Although both groups deny being racist, the Southern Poverty Law Center indicates that white supremacy is part of their ideologies (see here and here).
Most occupiers, however, were not members of right-wing extremist groups, but simply Trump followers. Three characteristics that they had in common with many who supported or failed to protest historical lynchings were 1) an us vs. them perspective, 2) a belief in their vision of Christianity, and 3) a willingness to believe rumored falsehoods.
In his book on the Marion lynchings, Madison writes of white crowds’ “us and them” outlook; and in observing Trump supporters in 2016, writer George Saunders has written that many of them suffered from “usurpation anxiety syndrome.” He defined it as “the feeling that one is, or is about to be, scooped, overrun, or taken advantage of by some Other with questionable intentions.” The “some Other” could be such groupings as Blacks, illegal immigrants, or big government.
Regarding the 1920s Klan, “the bedrock of [it] remained its commitment to the continuation of native-born white Protestant hegemony in American culture and governance.” In addition to opposing Black equality, the Klan supported Prohibition and targeted Catholics, Jews, and non-Protestant immigrants. Trump’s largest group of loyal supporters in both 2016 and 2020 were White Protestant evangelicals. Neither in the 1920s nor in Trumpian times did such Protestants believe that opposing racism was central to the Christian message.
In many of the lynchings of earlier times, we are struck by the gullibility of lynch mobs--their willingness for example to accept as truth that a Black man had committed rape. Many 2021 Capitol occupiers, and even many other Trump supporters, also were willing to believe in unfounded rumors, especially about the 2020 election being “stolen” from Trump. A smaller percentage of occupiers were even willing to believe in some of QAnon’s more outlandish conspiracy theories.
Although many Trump supporters were unwilling to countenance violent means to overturn the 2020 presidential election, the Capitol occupiers, like lynch mobs before them, were willing to employ such means. And still other Trumpians, like Marion citizens viewing the 1930 lynchings, were insufficiently outraged by such behavior. Such a lack of indignation can only help White terrorism to continue.