Photo Essay - Jim Crow Justice

Nameless Victim Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The names of most lynching victims have been lost to history, along with all record of their lives. While many lynchings were dramatic public outbursts fueled by the anger and excitement of the participating crowd, others were instigated by a handful of people and took place out of the public eye. "Souvenir" photographs commemorating the events were nevertheless common. This picture of an unnamed victim was taken around 1928.

William Brown Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Accusations of sexual assault against white women were very often the catalyst for the formation of lynch mobs. At times, the rage generated by these accusations could lead to full-scale riots. This photograph shows the corpse of William Brown, who was accused of raping a white woman named Agnes Loebeck in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1919. Despite the efforts of local police to protect Brown in his cell at the Douglas County Court House, a mob of about 4,000 citizens besieged the building on 28 September, eventually setting it on fire in a frenzied rush to capture Brown. Anarchy continued to spread even after Brown was handed over and killed. In addition to Brown, two white men died, Mayor Edward Smith was hanged from a telephone pole (which he survived), the courthouse was destroyed, and numerous other buildings were damaged before federal troops from Fort Omaha and Fort Crook arrived to restore order on the morning of 29 September.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett Courtesy of Oscar B. Willis, Chicago, IL.

A teacher-turned-journalist and co-owner of the Memphis Free Speech, Ida B. Wells-Barnett launched the first phase of the antilynching movement in 1892, after a mob murdered three Memphis storeowners, one of whom was a close friend. The fact that the victims were prosperous businessmen prompted Wells-Barnett to question the common assumption that black men were lynched in retribution for sexual assaults on white women. She began investigating other lynchings, discovering that many lynch victims were not accused of rape and that behind many rape charges lay interracial affairs. Wells-Barnett published her findings in the New York Age with "Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases" (1892), which analyzed the economic roots of lynching and linked violence against black men with the sexual exploitation of black women. The most ardent voice to begin speaking out against lynching, Wells-Barnett challenged white stereotypes about lynching both in America and abroad and was a tireless advocate for civil rights and women's suffrage.

Antilynching Women Courtesy of the Library of Congress, NAACP Collection; photograph by M. Smith.

Wells-Barnett was also instrumental in organizing other black women and helping to found the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896. The NACW argued that negative stereotypes of African Americans, especially of women, served to justify rape and lynching. Redeeming the image of black womanhood and dispelling the myth of the black rapist was for many black clubwomen the first step in eradicating sexual and racial violence. Focusing on morality, education, and temperance, the NACW created antilynching committees at the local and national levels and made a special point of publicizing lynching and violence against black women. In 1899 Pauline E. Hopkins, a Boston journalist, published an antilynching novel titled Contending Forces. By 1908, Mary Church Terrell was delivering antilynching lectures, calling for white support and demanding federal protection against rape and lynching. In 1922, black clubwomen under the leadership of Mary B. Talbert formed the Antilynching Crusaders in partnership with the NAACP. This photograph shows women of Harlem crusading against lynching. Their sashes read, "Buy an antilynching button. NAACP. "

Jesse Washington Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The 1916 lynching of seventeen year-old Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas, has come to be known as the "Waco Horror. " Washington was arrested for the murder of Lucy Fryer, the white wife of a farmer in nearby Robinson, Texas. Eventually confessing to charges of rape and murder while in custody, he received a trial and was found guilty by an all-white jury after only four minutes of deliberation. Before sentence could be passed, the audience seized Washington and dragged him outside, where he was beaten, mutilated, and burnt alive in front of the Waco city hall. No members of the mob were prosecuted. However, the incident was widely condemned in the press and became a rallying cry for the then-recently formed NAACP in its struggle to pass a federal antilynching bill.

NAACP Headquarters Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Founded in 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people was the most powerful organization fighting against lynching during Jim Crow. The NAACP attempted to keep national statistics on lynchings and investigated many specific incidents. It published pamphlets such as Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889–1918 (1919) and a book-length study of the problem by future NAACP executive director Walter F. White entitled Rope and Faggot: A Biography of Judge Lynch (1929). Federal antilynching legislation remained one of the NAACP's highest priorities, a goal it came close to achieving three times, in 1922, 1937, and 1940. Although a bill seemed within grasp during the New Deal, neither Congress nor President Franklin D. Roosevelt proved willing to embrace such a measure because of the opposition of Southern Democrats. This photograph was taken at the NAACP headquarters on 69 Fifth Avenue, New York City, in 1936.

Ku Klux Klan Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The NAACP was opposed by terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, which targeted African Americans with harassment and violence in a quest to uphold white supremacy and the racist status quo. This illustration from Harpers magazine, titled "The Union as It Was: The Lost Cause, " was published in 1874. It shows a man labeled "White League" shaking hands with a Ku Klux Klan member under an American eagle bearing the phrase "This is a white man's government. " Both white men are armed, and the Klansman smiles widely. Below them, black parents huddle in fear with their stricken child, flanked by a burning schoolhouse and a lynched man hanging from a tree. The Klan went through several incarnations and entered into decline after the imprisonment of "Grand Dragon" D.C. Stephenson on rape and manslaughter charges in 1925, but persisted in a diminished form and spawned offshoot groups that continued to terrorize blacks, Jews, Catholics, and other groups throughout the twentieth century, even to the present day.

Strange Fruit Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Not all protests involve slogans and speeches. This photograph by Lawrence Bitler shows the corpses of Thomas Schipp and Abram Smith, two men who were lynched in Marion, Indiana, on 7 August 1930. The image inspired Abel Meerpool, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx, to publish a poem titled "Strange Fruit" under the pen name Lewis Allen. Meerpool/Allen later set the song to music, and it was first performed by the jazz singer Billie Holiday at Cafe Society in New York's Greenwich Village in 1939. The song became one of her most popular recordings and her signature closing number; it also became an anthem of the antilynching movement. Many critics still consider Holiday's rendition of "Strange Fruit" to be one of the most powerful, understated commentaries on prejudice ever committed to music.

Cleo Wright Courtesy of the Library of Congress

This photograph, taken in Sikeston, Missouri, in 1942, probably shows the body of Cleo Wright. A young drifter with a criminal record, Wright was arrested by two white police officers shortly after the sexual assault and stabbing of Grace Sturgeon, a white woman who lived nearby. During the arrest Wright stabbed one of the police officers in the face and was himself shot four times. A white mob of around 700 people soon gathered, determined there would be no trial, and stormed the cell where Wright was being held. They tied Wright's legs to the rear bumper of a Ford automobile and drove to a black Baptist church in Sikeston, where they stopped, doused him in five gallons of gasoline, and set their victim ablaze as the astonished black parishioners looked on in horror. Wright mercifully died within minutes of being set on fire. In March 1942 a grand jury established to investigate the lynching handed down no indictments.

Emmett TillCourtesy of the Library of Congress

Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till is pictured here with his mother Mamie, shortly before he left his home in Chicago for vacation in the Mississippi Delta in late summer 1955. On the evening of 24 August, Till and seven other black teenagers entered a store in Money, a hamlet in Leflore County. Although witnesses disagreed about what happened next, at the other boys' instigation Till approached Carolyn Bryant, the young wife of the shop's owner, asked her for a date, allegedly whistled at her, and possibly squeezed her hand. Two days later he was dead—beaten, mutilated (some witnesses have said the fourteen-year-old was castrated), shot, and sunk in the Tallahatchie River. Despite a witness account incriminating shop owner Roy Bryant and his half brother, J. W., and wrenching testimony from Mamie Till, an all-white jury acquitted the two defendants after less than an hour of deliberation. The verdict sent shockwaves of editorial criticism and protest throughout the country as well as abroad, and inspired works by novelists Toni Morrison and James Baldwin (both of whom wrote plays), scenarist Rod Serling (who wrote a television drama), singer Bob Dylan (who wrote a song), and poet Gwendolyn Brooks (who wrote a ballad). Till's murder put a spotlight on the travesties of Jim Crow justice and became a rallying cry for the growing civil rights movement. In 2004, shortly after the death of Mamie Till-Bradley and due largely to the efforts of the documentary filmmaker Keith Beauchamp, federal authorities reopened the case to determine whether others were involved in Till's kidnapping and brutal slaying.