in the U.S. South
nach 1945

in the U.S. South
nach 1945

The Horrors
  of Lynching

Christine Knauer

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries in particular, lynchings – the communal punishment of purported criminals without any recognized legal proceedings – stabilized race relations in the U.S. South. Time and again, they highlighted the white majority’s uncontrolled monopoly of power over the black population. Especially after the Second World War, however, these violent excesses themselves became a threat to the maintenance of racial segregation and the political and social supremacy of white Americans.

Illustration: Das weiße Ehepaar Cranford, angebliche Opfer des Schwarzen Sam Hose, der deshalb selbst einem Lynching zum Opfer fiel, 1899.

The end of the white
monopoly of power?

Blacks and an increasing number of white Americans had long sought to mobilize American public opinion against lynching with the help of organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP, founded in 1909). Reports in the national press increasingly depicted the southern states as a premodern region of violence and lawlessness not well suited for the world of the 20th century. In addition, the outbreaks of violence against blacks began to damage the reputation of the USA internationally within the context of the intensifying Cold War. Each new lynching strengthened the voices that demanded equal rights for blacks, pushed for the intervention by the federal government, and insisted on a limitation of autonomy of the southern states. In the South, whites reacted to the looming loss of their monopoly of power by reshaping their depictions, definitions, and justifications of lynching.

Image: Funeral of George W. Dorsey, a World War II veteran victim of a lynching, 1946

What threatens us?

In the summer of 1946, a supposedly unknown group of whites lynched two young African American couples near Monroe, a town 45 miles east of Atlanta, Georgia. The murders of George W. and Mae Murray Dorsey and Roger and Dorothy Malcom, did not just shake African Americans, they shocked white Americans as well. Many white southerners, however, did not so much mourn the murder of four African Americans as they dreaded the crime’s political and social consequences for Georgia and the South.

Politicians and representatives of the African American community quickly demanded federal action. The South, they argued, had yet to enter the modern era. In contrast to the rest of the country, lawlessness and ineffective law enforcement pervaded the region, seen most clearly in lynchings. Blacks were oppressed and their very existence was threatened. Outside the South, commentators argued that the South needed to be elevated to national standards. This criticism resulted in a demand for an end to segregation and racial discrimination. While lynchings once seemed to stabilize race relations, they now threatened the status quo of white dominance and strengthened the civil rights movement.

On the right: Reward for help in finding a felon, FBI poster
LETTERS to Richard B. Russell,
Senator from Georgia

to Richard B. Russell,
Senator from Georgia

Beide Briefschreiber beklagen sich bei dem Senator Georgias Richard B. Russell über die scheinbar unfaire Behandlung des Südens im Hinblick auf die Morde an den zwei schwarzen Ehepaaren. Während Verbrechen von Schwarzen an Weißen im Norden keine Einmischung der Bundesregierung nach sich zögen, würde im Falle des Mordes an Schwarzen im Süden sofort ein Einsatz von Bundesbehörden eingefordert, so der Vorwurf. Beide Briefe beinhalten eine klare Kriminalisierung Schwarzer. Der Autor des ersten Briefes vermutet gar, dass der Mord an den schwarzen Ehepaaren durch Befürworter der Gleichberechtigung begangen worden sei, um ebendiese zu erzwingen und die Weißen im Süden ins schlechte Licht zu stellen sowie zu entmachten.

Who are we?

White southerners were at the center of the perceived threat. They wanted to maintain their monopoly even at the end of the Second World War. Until the 1930s, few people felt ashamed of their participation in a lynching. Now, even the majority of white southerners came out against lynchings and racial violence, at least officially. Still, they remained committed to upholding racial segregation. Moreover, they intended to convince the rest of the country that the American nation could only survive and prosper if white supremacy prevailed. Thus, a new white southern identity took shape that continued to emphasize the superiority of the white ‘race,’ but which – at least officially – excluded the acceptability of lynchings.


INFO White Americans see
a campaign against the South

White Americans
see a campaign
against the South

On July 27, 1946, Georgia Senator Richard B. Russell reacted to fierce criticism of his home state following the lynching in Monroe. He presented such criticism as an attempt to discredit Georgia, and with it the entire South. Such crimes should be condemned, he asserted, but murders happened in other states as well. It was only in the South that they received that kind of negative attention: “If I were to peruse the newspapers of California I doubt not that I could find in them accounts of crimes of unspeakable brutality, including crimes of murder, which had been committed by certain citizens of that State.” He thus explicitly distanced the white South from lynchings, but also refused to link them to the persistence of racial segregation and in doing so defended it.

What do we need?

Georgia, and thus the entire South, felt threatened by the possibility of more extensive federal intervention in southern affairs. White southerners found themselves singled out and put on the spot. In order to maintain their national position of power and system of order with respect to race, class, and sex, they needed to develop new ways of defining and making sense of lynchings. They needed to tackle the crime head on and distance themselves from the crime and its perpetrators. In doing so, white southerners sought to regain control of the narratives surrounding lynchings, and to create a “new” image of the South and its race relations. While they intended to put an end to lynching, ultimately their activism was meant to develop and establish new strategies to halt African American demands for equality at the local, state, and national levels. According to these updated narratives, all whites across the nation should join together against African American aspirations.

Image: Relatives of the victims in front of the newly excavated tombs.

What should we do?

Public display of remorse and shame over the brutal acts of violence was an important and early part of the southern strategy to deal with lynchings. Politicians, such as Georgia Senator Richard B. Russell, repeatedly expressed their abhorrence of such violence in public. By doing so, white Southerners banned the lynch mob from their ranks, at least rhetorically, and took active part in the search for the murderers. In the end, however, most of the perpetrators remained anonymous and unpunished.

While old patterns of justification began to lose their power, the criminalization of the lynch victims endured in dealing with the problem of lynchings among white southerners. Most news reports in the white South portrayed African Americans – and above all African American men – as a threat to the white majority society overall, and not just in the South. In contrast, they painted white Americans as victims in need of protection from blacks. These narratives were a part of the resistance against political and social equality of African Americans. Moreover, white southerners intended these narratives to convince white Americans across the country of the necessity to maintain both racial, class, and gender hierarchies.

Following the Second World War, African Americans managed to gain civil rights and equality of opportunity through continual protest and activism. However, systemic racism has survived despite all their efforts and progress, as illustrated by, for example, the staggering number of black victims of police violence. The changes in the behavior of white southerners towards lynching like those in Monroe, Georgia, illustrate how one group’s threatened position of dominance can be maintained by a skillful adjustment and reordering of political resources.

Current adaptation of the flag, which was hung by civil rights activists to Lynchings.
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