What we can learn from the anti-lynching movement about curbing police brutality

In the decades immediately preceding and following the turn of the twentieth century, gleeful crowds of white Southerners numbering in the hundreds frequently gathered to watch the lynchings of black Americans, oftentimes for the petty crime of stealing a hog, or none at all. By the 1960s, public lynchings had largely become a thing of the past and today, people react to photographs of this dark time in our nation’s history with shock and disgust. What brought an end to this era of mob violence?

Arguably, it was the actions of one former slave, Ida B. Wells, who collected and reported comprehensive data on lynchings in the South to prove that African Americans were more often victims than criminals when it came to lynchings, thus transforming public opinion and creating the possibility for political reform.

Tragically, disproportionate violence against African Americans continues today, albeit in a more subtle form. In a recent article for The Guardian, Isabel Wilkerson wrote that according to available data, the rate of police killings of African Americans today is roughly equal to the rate of lynchings in the early decades of the twentieth century. Then, every four days a black person was publicly murdered, often simply for stealing 75 cents or for talking back to a white person. While the rate of police killings of African Americans has fallen 70 percent over the last 40 to 50 years, it is still estimated that in today’s day and age an African American is murdered by a white police officer an astounding twice a week for offenses as egregious as walking up a stairwell.

While there are five times more white Americans, black people are three times more likely than white people to be killed when they encounter the police in the U.S., and black teenagers are far likelier to be killed by police than white teenagers. Additionally, the number of innocent people killed and assaulted by the cops is likely even higher than the data suggests considering that local police departments are not required to report police crime.

While white Southern lynchers in the early 1900s claimed that they were filling in where the legal system failed by serving as arbiters of vigilante justice whereas today murderers are more likely to hide behind police badges, in both cases racism was and is shrouded in promises to serve and protect. Then and now, stereotypes of black inferiority obscure systematic oppression and allow murderers to get away without so much as an inquiry. As Wilkerson wrote, “Last century’s beast and savage have become this century’s gangbanger and thug.”

Given the chilling parallels between the lynchings of the post-Reconstruction South and modern-day state-perpetrated violence against the black community, it is worth taking a closer look at the success of the anti-lynching movement for insights on how we might repair today’s political institutions and race relations.

In Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900, Jacqueline Jones Royster details how after the Civil War, lynchings and other acts of mob violence against African Americans in the South rapidly increased with 4,743 lynchings recorded from 1882 to 1968, peaking in 1892 with 241 lynchings in twenty-six states, a 200% increase since ten years prior. During the same time frame, the percentage of victims that were black jumped from 46% in 1882 to an average of 89% between 1900 and 1910, with seven years showing rates over 90%. (Royster 9-10) Less than one-third of those lynched were accused of criminal assault. (Royster 206)

The primary rationale justifying lynchings was that they were necessary to stop black male brutes from raping white women. Investigative journalist Ida B. Wells spearheaded the anti-lynching movement by using the facts available at the time to dismantle this racist narrative. Beginning in 1882, the Chicago Tribune, the Tuskegee Institute, and eventually the NAACP, started systematically recording lynchings. Wells furthered this research and spread this information to the American public by publishing two pamphlets in 1892, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, and a 100 page report called A Red Record (1892–1894), which she snarkily submitted to “the Nineteenth Century civilization in ‘the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.”

Wielding nothing but a pen and paper, Wells demystified lynchings and dismantled stereotypes by hitting home several key points with fourteen pages of statistics and pages of graphic accounts of lynchings. First, mob violence occurred disproportionately in places with operating legal systems rather than in the “Wild West.” Second, only one-third of black lynching victims were charged with rape, and oftentimes their “crimes” were actually economic achievements or the exercise of political rights. Finally, the alleged rapists were often in consensual relationships with white women. (Royster 28-29) In fact, Wells boldly drew attention to the fact that African American women were more frequently violated by white men than white women were by black men.

In order to reach people with little or no educational background, she “wrote in a plain, common-sense way” and “never used a word of two syllables where one would serve the purpose.” She acted based on the firm conviction that “The gods help those who help themselves,” and believed that doing anything less would make her an accomplice and accessory of mob violence, “equally guilty with the actual law-breakers.” She understood that the legal system would not change until “a healthy public sentiment demands and sustains such action.” (Royster 68 and 72) Wells criticized those who remained silent by writing, “They forget that a concession of the right to lynch a man for a certain crime, not only concedes the right to lynch any person for any crime, but it is in a fair way to stamp us a race of rapists and desperadoes.” (Royster 61) Acting out of a sense of duty and personal sacrifice, Wells wrote, “It is with no pleasure I have dipped my hands in the corruption here exposed. Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so.” (Royster 50)

For proclaiming the unspeakable truth that “The South [was] shielding itself behind the plausible screen of defending the honor of its women” in order to “retard the progress of African Americans in their efforts to participate more fully in social, political, and economic life,” Wells was exiled from the South for over thirty years. (Royster 3 and 18)

Fortunately, her sacrifices were not in vain. Her column was syndicated across the country in the African American media and she succeeded in accomplishing her primary goal of influencing public discourse; people began to perceive lynching as a crime against American values. Frederick Douglass wrote in a letter to Wells, “You have dealt with the facts with cool, painstaking fidelity and left those naked and uncontradicted facts to speak for themselves.” (Royster 51) By basing her case on reason, logic, and ethics, Wells “roused the white South to vigorous and bitter defense and she began the awakening of the conscience of the nation” as W.E.B. Du Bois wrote at her death on March 25, 1931. (Royster 39-40)

Royster summarizes the success of the anti-lynching movement as follows:

Collective agitation did not change laws, but it did change the cultural ethos that permitted mob violence without retribution. One can easily conclude, as Du Bois did, that the anti-lynching campaign of Ida B. Wells was successful. With her leadership, lynching was named a national crime. While lynchings did not end during her lifetime, their numbers were significantly reduced from 1892 to 1900, during the height of Well’s campaigning, and ultimately people across regional, national, race, and gender boundaries joined in her appeal. (41)

Similarly, today we must overcome myths about public safety that have “closed the hearts, stifled the conscience, warped the judgment and hushed the voices of press and pulpit throughout this ‘land of liberty,’” to borrow Wells’ words. (Royster 61) If we are to curb police brutality through political reform, it will have to be prefaced by a shift in public opinion, with more Americans realizing that disproportionate violence committed against African Americans by the police is an institutional problem, not a series of isolated incidents.

In order to direct public discourse towards an impartial consideration of the facts, we must hold police departments around the country accountable by requiring them to report police crime, a reasonable demand considering that the FBI keeps data for literally every other type of crime. As an aside, those who are skeptical that institutionalized racism is a problem in our society should be just as vocal in calling for the collection and conveyance of this information; after all, if they are truly confident in their assessment, the data will support them. Fortunately, private citizens have taken steps to fill in the gaps. D. Brian Burghart, editor of the Reno News & Review created the crowd-sourced website fatalencounters.org, which has documented nearly 400 instances of unjustified police shootings of citizens in 2013 alone.

Burghart argues that the government has been intentionally preventing citizens from knowing how many people it kills and why so the police can maintain their automatic immunity. He claims that when attempting to collect information, he was “lied to and delayed by state, county, and local law enforcement agencies—almost every time” as well as by the FBI. He writes, “They’ve blatantly broken public records laws, and then thumbed their authoritarian noses at the temerity of a citizen asking for information that might embarrass the agency.”

The media is also to blame. Today, the press abuses language to protect the police, as evidenced by this recent description of the attempted shooting of an unarmed man who was rushing home to obtain his daughter’s asthma medication. Burghart reasons that journalists often collude with the state to obstruct information because police will cut reporters off from key sources who speak out against them.

Fortunately today we have unprecedented power to command attention to injustices committed against those who are so often invisible in our society. While anti-lynching crusaders had to rely on a few official publications to spread photos and stories about mob violence across the South, today, records of police brutality can and do reach hundreds of thousands of viewers on Youtube. The next step is to ensure clear records of police brutality are systematically collected and shared widely in a compelling, easily-accessible format. Radley Balko has pioneered the way on this front but the cacophonous, fever-pitched dialogue springing up in response to Ferguson has demonstrated that there is still substantial work to be done to ensure the message is unified, consistent, and level-headed, ideally with a credible leader of the black community serving as its mouthpiece.

And to those who would paint Wells’s approach as too timid, keep in mind that this is also the woman who wrote, “A Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.” (Royster 70)


  1. Kelly, while there are some good points here, the statement:

    it is still estimated that in today’s day and age an African American is murdered by a white police officer an astounding twice a week for offenses as egregious as walking up a stairwell. is simply, egregiously untrue.

    “Murder” has a specific definition. When police kill, it is “justifiable homicide” about 99.something percent of the time–just like with Brown. There are a handful of unlawful killings by police very year in a country of over 300 million. Not 100 (“twice a week”). They should be prosecuted. But the numbers are very small.


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