As I write this, President Joseph Biden is signing into law the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act. It recalls the struggle many in this country had to cut down on extrajudicial killings. As my college students and I found, calling attention to these illegal acts did make a difference in how many lynchings occurred in America, showing why recent reconciliation efforts still matter.
After the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan launched their reign of terror against African-Americans, Republicans and those who opposed such intimidation. Such killings continued decades later. In 1909, the National Association of Colored People sought to call attention the problem displaying the flag that read “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday” outside its headquarters, hoping someone might object, or even notice.
Did it make a difference? In my Senior Seminar class, I got my students to collect the data, to go over our research methods lessons, and see if there was a significant change once people became aware of the problem. So these students (Thomas Bird, Kristina Calixto, Andrew Cunningham, Chase Davis, Madison Demkowski, DeQueze Fryer, Olivia Hanners, Nia Johnson, Shedrick Lindsey, Taren McGhee, Mason McLaughlin, Erik Moran, and Brennan Oates) looked at 20 years before the creation of the NAACP, as well as two decades after the foundation of the NAACP, just to see.
Sure enough, in 1889, there were at least 170 lynchings. And it wasn’t just blacks who were targeted. Nearly 80 whites were lynched as well that year. That wasn’t even the highest year where a mob could be the judge, jury and executioner, as several years topped that number. In the 20 years before the NAACP, lynchings averaged 125.7 per year.
After the NAACP was created, and the public became aware, the number of such executions declined. For the two decades after the foundation of the NAACP, there were only 50.85 per year. And yes, the decline was statistically significant.
But that wasn’t the whole story. Even with “Birth of the Nation” and rebirth of the Klan during that time, the lynchings fell in number, as the conscience of more Americans changed, as we learned how bad these tragedies were. Lynchings declined significantly not only for blacks in the USA, but whites as well. Such killings also declined in overall numbers. By 1928, there were only 11 lynchings in America.
That didn’t mean that such cruel attacks had completely disappeared. My town of LaGrange experienced one in 1940. Emmett Till was killed in 1955. The Equal Justice Initiative has a haunting memorial to many of these tragedies, along with a Legacy Museum, both in Montgomery, Alabama. Any lynching is one lynching too many.
Our city organized a lynching apology to Austin Callaway, who was killed in 1940 back in 2017. Other counties and towns are slowly starting to do the same. And a Georgia state senator, Carl Gilliard introduced a measure to go a little further, and finally investigate these crimes, as well as racial attacks, including one that targeted African-American politicians, where one of our college’s graduates was recently elected to the city council.
You may be wondering why it all matters. With an increase in hate attacks, and targets, those elements of America that we thought might have disappeared are threatening a comeback. And it’s important that we know what happened, and can take a stand so we don’t go back to those bad days. And yes, our evidence shows that knowing about the problem did make a difference.