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.