April 3, 2004
he term "lynching" has disappeared from the American vocabulary. It means extra-judicial execution by hanging, including torture, mutilation, and burning of the victims body. Lynching was perpetrated against thousands of black Americans between the end of Reconstruction, around 1875, and through most of the 20th century. The perpetrators were always mobs and legal prosecution for the crime by local law enforcement officials was almost non-existent.
Lynching was an important issue for the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) while Dr. W.E.B. Dubois edited its journal, the Crisis. Despite repeated attempts to pass legislation making lynching a federal crime, representatives of the states of the former Confederacy succeeded in blocking it in the period when it could have saved thousands of black Americans from a horrible death.
In the 1920's, after a particularly strong Crisis editorial against lynching written by Dubois, Congressman (later Senator) James F. Byrnes of South Carolina made a speech in the House of Representatives in which he blamed the "negros" for provoking the lynchings. Byrnes was a staunch segregationist. As Truman's Secretary of State in 1945, Byrnes was instrumental in the policy decision to drop the atomic bombs on defeated Japan in the last days of the war. In a certain sense, the dropping of these bombs on Japanese cities can be considered as a large scale lynching whose political purpose was the intimidation of the Soviet Union by means of a live demonstration of America's newest weapon.
The passage of the Posse Comitatus Act in 1878 at the instigation of the states of the former Confederacy created an "open season" for Southern white racists on the former slaves. This law makes it illegal for the United States Army to conduct operations in the United States. Prior to its passage, the US Army, which had defeated the Army of the Confederacy, occupied the states of the former Confederacy and among other things, provided protection for the former slaves. Behind this shield, many former slaves were elected to their respective state legislatures and post-bellum state constitutional conventions, held public office, and represented their districts in the US Congress. This flowering of democracy among the former slaves earned them the unmitigated hatred of most Southern whites.
The passage of the Posse Comitatus Act appears to be one of the cruelest and most ignorant outcomes of political backscratching, but it was actually a rational response to a perceived threat.
To Northern finance capital, well informed about the formation of Socialist parties in Europe, the perceived threat was the radical black leadership that was emerging in the states of the former Confederacy. The real danger posed by this native radicalism was the possibility that it might ignite a similar movement in Northern labor whose quiescence was essential to the growth of the North's nascent industries.
Thus the two groups whose conflict over free trade versus protectionism, advocated by a relatively mature, Southern, slave-based, agrarian capital versus the nascent, Northern, free-labor based, manufacturing capital, respectively, led to a civil war which took the lives of 620,000 soldiers, now saw their interests as being better served by an alliance.
The immediate benefit to both parties was the violent suppression of black radicalism. The long term benefit to Northern finance capital was the preservation of the South's reactionary politics and its tradition of militarism. The effects of this alliance can be seen to the present day. It also explains the transformation of the Republican Party from being the ante-bellum party of abolitionism to its post-Reconstruction role as the party of racism and finance capital.
White supremacist groups such as the White Citizens Councils and the Ku Klux Klan, often under the leadership of former Confederate soldiers, whose sole purpose was to roll back the democratic achievements of the new black citizens through pure, unrestrained terror, sprang up.
This was the beginning of America's "civil rights problem." It was a self inflicted wound whose consequences continue right up to the present.
Lynching is home-grown American terrorism and its political objective was to deprive black Americans of their legitimate rights. Besides the horror of lynching itself, there are three aspects which reveal something about American race relations after the Civil War:
With respect to the latter, James Allen and John Littlefield have assembled a collection of 81 of these postcards and posted them on their website at
If you can bring yourself to look at these pictures, you will be forced to conclude that terrorism, like violence, is as American as cherry pie.
And if some frat-boy, appointed leader-of-the-free-world, tries to tell you he's bringing Western Values to some place, you'll know what he means.