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The Impeachment of Judge Lynch

ISSUE:  Spring 1932

In that embittered era a half century ago, when the South was painfully liquidating the loss of the Civil War, one of her gifted editors was looking into the future and seeing the promise of a New South of contentment, prosperity, and peace. Henry W. Grady knew well the tempestuous temper of the public mind, the maladjustments of race relationships, the exasperating effects of the North’s efforts, through misnamed Reconstruction, to reduce the South to one dead level. But he saw that the resultant problems must be handled in a spirit of good sense and good will, and especially so in connection with the millions of Negroes seeking to adjust themselves to their new status.

“Let us give the Negro his uttermost rights,” Grady eloquently said, “and measure out justice to him in that fullness the strong should always give to the weak. Let us educate him that he may be a better, a broader and more enlightened man. . . . And let us remember this—that whatever wrong we put on him shall return to punish us.”

Brave utterance this was, for its day and generation, but one is forced regretfully to admit that there still exists, in strong degree, the need for the South to heed it. For this Negro problem, while in a sense a national one, is in another respect peculiarly that of the South, and its solution calls for the exercise of real forbearance and common sense. It is not the Negro’s fault that he is among us today. His forefathers were brought here unwillingly, in the stinking holds of ships. Some of our Northern cousins seem to have brought him, but which was first, the egg or the bird, what profiteth it to inquire today? The Negro is here, in the millions. When he does equal work with the white man, he is entitled to equal pay. When he goes before a court of law, whether as culprit or complainant, the Negro is entitled to justice-yes, and to mercy too. And in the realm political, educated and intelligent Negroes should have the vote. The black man is entitled to a square deal.

There is one aspect of Southern life to which this yardstick particularly needs be applied. That is in the matter of lynchings, which, whatever excuses may be made, are naught other than a relapse into the jungle era of man’s development. Whenever a lynching has occurred, one can say one thing definitely: The crust of civilization has given way to the blind anger of the animal. Of all present Southern social phenomena, the tendency to resort to lynch law for the punishment of alleged crimes of Negro offenders is the most dangerous and the most inexcusable. If we have any conscience and any ethical integrity, we can neither ignore nor palliate a lynching. It would seem the clear duty of every intelligent Southerner to make effective protest against these sadistic orgies of our mobs.

To be sure, lynchings are a long-standing evil in these United States. In one sense, they reflect the frontier mind which presided at the birth of the American nation, vestiges of which remain in our thought and conduct to this very day. Those same qualities of self-sufficing individual initiative, decision, and courage which caused the exploration, seizure, and settlement of our trackless forests and sweeping plains, made the individual the director of his own destiny—in a word, a law unto himself. This frontier mind made these forefathers of ours impatient of the rule of law, and led them to execute immediate vengeance upon wrongdoers. Such undoubtedly was the intellectual bottoming of the rule of lynch law. Even in recent years, many specious excuses have been advanced in its defense, the most plausible of which is that immediate infliction of summary and extreme punishment upon Negroes who assault white women is necessary to restrain the Negro race from a carnival of rape.

During the ‘eighties and ‘nineties, more than a hundred lynchings occurred each year. In 1889, for example, 176 persons were summarily done to death by mobs. But in that year almost as many whites as Negroes died by the noose and torch. There was not a year from 1889 until 1901 in which the number of lynchings went beneath the hundred mark. But the number of white men thus dealt with decreased sharply, and by the turn of the century, nearly all lynchings were of the lowly sons of Ham. In 1901, there were 135 lynchings, of whom 107 were of Negroes. The next year, the number dropped slightly beneath the hundred mark, in 1903 it returned to 103, and remained beneath that figure until 1908, when it reached one hundred again. From 1908 until 1930, the annual number of lynchings was on the wane. There were minor spurts, as in 1919, that post-war year of liberated passions, when eighty-three were lynched. But with 1920 the decrease began again, and in 1929 the figure reached the low point of ten.

With 1930, however, there came a sudden upward surge of these breaches of civilized society. The record for that year disclosed as many deaths by mob violence as had occurred in the two preceding years combined. What was the meaning of this sudden reversal of the recent trend? Southern students of social problems, leading ministers, lawyers, educators, and business men were disturbed over the situation. What was behind this new outburst of jungle law?

Among the groups viewing the matter with the greatest concern was the Commission on Interracial Co-operation, that splendid enterprise in the building of better relationship between white men and black men in America. Incidentally, the intelligent philanthropy of the late Julius Ro-senwald, far-seeing practical benefactor of the South, found no finer field than that afforded by the work of this Commission. At any rate, after mature reflection, the directors of the Commission on Interracial Co-operation determined upon two definite projects to meet the situation.

The first was to revitalize the efforts of Southern white women to reduce lynchings by denouncing the mobs as a false protector of Southern womanhood. With this in view, the Southern Association of Women for the Prevention of Lynching was organized, state associations were set up through the South, and leading white women of the South re-emphasized the fact that the mob is a slip-back to the jungle, and that Southern womanhood depends for protection, not on the mob, but upon officers and courts.

The second project of the Commission was to sponsor a careful study of the fundamental causes underlying resorts to mob violence. Patient inquiry into the psychology of mobs and the techniques of lynchings, it was thought, might reveal some common threads in the lynching pattern, and thus make it easier to plan effective preventive steps. Accordingly, a special Southern Commission on the Study of Lynching was appointed, of which I became chairman.

Since July, 1930, this Southern Commission has been at work, giving close attention and careful thought to the main problem concerned, and to the myriad collateral inquiries involved. It was early determined to make exhaustive case studies of all lynchings occurring in the United States in the calendar year 1930.

Trained investigators of sociological phenomena, both white and colored, were secured, and were directed to discover and report upon a wide variety of related lynching questions. Not only were they to ascertain the circumstances surrounding the crime, real or alleged, as a result of which the lynching occurred, and to report the details of the lynching itself, but also they were required to furnish an adequate picture of the general environment, including economic backgrounds, social patterns, and the prevalent community psychology.

The Commission also undertook a careful examination of the legal aspects of lynching, and a special section was set up for this purpose. The School of Law of the University of North Carolina was entrusted with the conduct of the investigation, and an advisory committee of the deans of Southern law schools undertook to aid and advise the work.

In the fall of 1931, the Commission was enabled to present to the public a summary of the findings of its factual studies. The report affords probably the most careful analytical record of lynchings which has yet been made. Let me summarize its main conclusions:

1.  Two of the twenty-one persons lynched in 1930 were certainly innocent, and eleven others possibly so.

2.  Fewer than one-fourth of the persons lynched since 1890 have been accused of attacks upon white women.

3.  The claim that lynchings are necessary because courts do not convict Negroes for their crimes is untrue.

4.  Although mob leaders can be identified without difficulty, grand jury indictments are seldom brought against them.

5.  The rate of lynchings per 10,000 of Negro population is highest in sparsely settled areas.

6.  There is a direct relation between lack of education, low economic status, and prevalence of lynching.

“The popular opinion,” the report emphasized, “that most lynchings are for the punishment of crimes against women is wide of the fact. Of 3,693 persons lynched during the forty-one years ending with 1929, only twenty-three per cent were accused of actual or attempted crimes against women.”

Those who apologize for lynching as a necessary defense of womanhood, the report pointed out, “in reality doubly betray the Southern woman, first, in making her danger greater by exaggerating her helplessness, and second, by undermining the authority of police and courts, which are her legitimate protectors.” As to the claim that courts do not convict Negroes, statistics showed that in the eighteen months ending July 1, 1931, sixty-eight Negroes had been executed by law in the Southern States and 470 had received prison sentences. Eight of the executions were for rape, fifty-seven for murder, and three for other crimes.

Not one of the twenty-one mob victims of 1930 had as much as a high school education, only one had gone beyond the fifth grade, and eleven were illiterate. This suggests the fundamental need of better educational facilities to increase the level of public security. In several instances in which serious crimes had led to lynching attempts, the evidence was that the culprits were defective half-wits, whom society, for its own protection, should long since have apprehended and confined. However, practically no public provision has been made for protection against such persons, an inexcusable neglect for which the public is paying the penalty.

Reports of the investigators indicated that, if observers on the spot at such tragic times had but the will and courage to do it, there would be no difficulty in identifying mob leaders and members. Most of those whom the Commission’s investigators identified as probable participants were poorly educated, without property, often unemployed and sometimes with court records. Mob members seemed generally to have made little or no effort to conceal their identity, yet officers and others present in their midst usually testified that they recognized none of them. Such an attitude can be attributed only to connivance, stupidity, or fear. It seems inescapable that this type of local sympathy or intimidation is largely responsible for the fact that indictments were returned in only six lynching cases in 1930, and that, by October, 1931, only four of forty-nine indicted were convicted.

To any student of the structure of Southern society, there is a particular interest in the possible relation between economic circumstance and lynching frequency. The Commission’s investigators found evidence of a rather extraordinary type to indicate the greater likelihood of lynchings in communities living upon the fringe of hunger and heartbreak. People spiritually as well as economically under-privileged seemed quite ready to illuminate their drab, narrow, fruitless lives by the excitements and emotional releases of burning torch and shrieking victim. This point is well illustrated by case reports of the Commission staff upon several Georgia lynchings, the facts whereof are somewhat typical of the general community pattern of places where lynchings occurred.

A Negro named George Grant was shot to death in a cell in the county jail at Darien, September 8, 1930. For a long series of years, Darien had declined as a port, rice growing had been made impossible by competition of the Louisiana rice lands, saw-milling had waned, and in many other ways the county’s economic structure had been progressively breaking down.

James Irwin paid the final price of mob law at Ocilla, on January 31, 1930. The average per capita production of the inhabitants of Irwin County was only forty-five per cent of that of Georgia as a whole. Bank deposits in 1929 were but $33.45 per inhabitant, compared with $155.89 for Georgia as a whole. In that year, there were only seven income tax returns in the entire county. These statistics well illustrate the general economic condition of the community.

Aside from its winter resort qualities, the economic backwardness of Thomasville, the scene of the lynching of Willie Kirkland, was equally obvious. The agricultural methods of the county were almost primitive. “Rural dwellers made a living,” this particular case study related, “for the most part by tilling the soil with one-horse plows, briar hooks and long-handled hoes. For getting wood, a double-bladed axe was used. The agricultural methods of half a century ago were followed. In many respects these rural dwellers have made but little advance since 1880. They produce but little more now than then. They live in poor houses, many of them mere hulls which do not stand upright.” Late in July, 1930, S. S. Mincey, a Negro politician of considerable standing in his State, was killed at his home near Ailey, in Montgomery County. Mincey had irritated some local political applicants by his unwillingness to indorse them for appointment. There was some question as to whether his death by violence was a lynching or a murder, but this does not interfere with the economic analysis. Montgomery County is a farming county, with only a small scattering of automobile mechanics, filling-station attendants, and professional men. The county is extremely poor. Its per capita production in 1924 was only $130.92, compared with the Georgia state average of $310.78. The percentage of its farms operated by tenants has grown from fifty-six per cent in 1910 to sixty-nine per cent in 1925. Its tax valuation per inhabitant was only half of that of the whole state and, in 1929, only thirteen income tax returns were filed.

The Commission’s investigators gave this picture of its population: “The poor whites of Montgomery and surrounding counties are poor indeed. The Klan, which they accepted as a way out, has failed them; cotton is cheap; there are no prosperous cities to run off to at will. They are emaciated looking, and they, with their wives and children, grow old while young. Mothers with sunken chests and practically no teeth, little babies in arms with scabs on their heads and running sores about their ears, boys chewing tobacco before they are half grown and girls staring and popping their gum. Men, women, and children with dirty clothes and unkept persons seething fatalism and pessimism are to be seen on every hand. Now and then, an intoxicated fellow breaks the monotony, only to add to the sordidness of the picture.”

Not all the communities which were the scenes of lynching represent such intellectual, social, and economic poverty as was found in those just described. But in almost every instance studied, investigators called attention to the existence of a large group of ignorant, emotionally directed, one might say almost criminally-minded people, eager to burn and hang.

Obviously, solution of the lynching problem calls for two different types of action. First, the machinery of the law must be quickened and given life, both to prevent threatened lynchings and, when they are not prevented, to bring due penalty upon their perpetrators. The legal section of the Commission has been working along these lines, and a few months hence the Commission expects to be able to make a further report, describing the actual administration of the laws relating to lynching, and making practical suggestions as to how they can be made operative and effective.

Among other things, the legal staff is now considering the possibility of the extension of the injunctive process, with its resultant contempt of court powers, to cover threatened lynchings. Could this be done, anyone who interfered with the orderly process of the law would be in contempt of court, and would thereby become subject to summary sentence without jury interposition. Other devices being considered include the imposition of money fines upon counties in which lynchings occur, the summary removal of sheriffs and other peace officers who have proved derelict in their prevention of lynchings, automatic changes of venue for the State in every trial of men accused of lynching, and the instrumentation of prosecution by creating State grand juries to return indictments, and state-appointed legal staffs to prosecute. The Commission’s legal staff hopes also to be able to present the draft of an anti-lynching statute which could be uniformly adopted by the various States, and thus equip them with the legal machinery to make effective the growing wish to abolish lynch law.

But the more important phase of the problem, after all, is the reorganization of the social viewpoint of the South, so that justice rather than hysteria, hate, and fear will control the adjudication of responsibility for crime. This involves a long and tedious process. It involves the betterment of economic conditions of our under-privileged areas and communities. It involves substituting satisfaction and contentment for hunger and heartbreak in such places as Ocilla, Ailey, and Darien. It involves the re-education of our people. In the world today, H. G. Wells has said, there is a race between education and catastrophe. He believes the world will find a way to educate its citizens into intelligence and good will and so our civilization will endure. Certainly if we are to put an end to these extraordinary outrages against the dignity of civilized life, this process is called for in the South.

At the outset, I quoted the words of Henry Grady. To conclude, let me quote the words of an even more distinguished Southern citizen. In 1919, when the country was appalled by the sudden recrudescence of lynching law, President Woodrow Wilson made this stirring appeal to the heart and conscience of the South:

“There have been lynchings,” he wrote, “and every one of them has been a blow at the heart of ordered law and humane justice. No man who loves America, no man who really cares for her fame and honor and character, or who is truly loyal to her institutions, can justify mob action. . . . We proudly claim to be the champions of democracy. If we really are, in deed and truth, let us see to it that we do not discredit our own.

“I say plainly that every American that takes part in the action of a mob, or gives it any sort of countenance, is no true son of this great democracy, but its betrayer. . . . I therefore very earnestly and solemnly beg that the governors of all the states, the law officers of every community in the United States, all who revere America and wish to keep her name without stain and reproach, will co-operate, not passively, merely, but actively and watchfully, to make an end of this disgraceful evil. It cannot live where the community does not countenance it.”


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