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Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930.

Images of lynchings - black victims hanged and burned, with white mobs collecting pieces of their bodies for souvenirs - have haunted Southern history and literature. W. Fitzhugh Brundage brings to the study of this important phenomenon both an appreciation of its horrors and a careful, critical intelligence. Working from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Tuskegee Institute, and other familiar lists of lynchings, he examined a host of local newspapers in order to secure more accurate, extensive evidence on the nature of mob violence in Virginia and Georgia, states chosen to represent the border and deep South. In both, whites were sometimes lynched and blacks were occasionally lynchers, but despite such anomalies, Brundage rightly concludes, between 1880 and 1930 lynching served primarily as a means of racial control.

Brundage's statistical portrait of lynching, his most important contribution, provides information on the nature of the mobs, the crimes of which victims were accused, and the locations of incidents. He first develops a typology of white lynch mobs: small (under fifty people) terrorist mobs with no pretense to upholding the law, small private groups seeking to exact vengeance, posses, and large mobs that conducted communal, ritualistic lynching. These communal rituals, usually considered typical, were the "most common type" (p. 36), but they constituted only a minority of lynchings in both states. Brundage's evidence shows that white mobs, especially in those communal lynchings, most often acted after murders or murderous attacks but that some victims died for relatively minor offenses, "uppity" behavior and such. The percentage of lynchings following accusations of rape fell somewhere in between, with such cases more frequent between 1890 and 1910 than in other decades. In examining the geography of lynching, Brundage does not compile statistics by counties or attempt a multi-variate analysis. Instead, he provides totals and percentages on various aspects of mob violence in the major regions of each state. Brundage finds, not surprisingly, that Georgia had far more lynchings than Virginia, but discovers within each state more surprising and intriguing regional variations. He then cautiously explores how differing social and economic conditions account for these.

Brundage follows his analysis of the statistics with a long discussion of Southern opposition to mob violence. In Virginia, white opponents, many of them state officials, rested their critique of lynching on a conservative appeal for law and order and, by 1904, succeeded in all but ending it. In Georgia, a state with many extreme racists, the battle proved more difficult. There social reformers, who "drew upon the values of social harmony, efficiency, and orderly progress" (p. 209), led the anti-lynching crusade. The NAACP and the Commission on Interracial Cooperation also played an important role in finally forcing state officials to act against the mobs. Lynching ended, though, only after World War I, the Great Migration, and labor shortages made reform possible.

Brundage links the decline of lynching to the New Deal transformation of the plantation system. He acknowledges that persistent notions of honor and other factors contributed to mob violence, but seems to consider the desire to control black agricultural labor its primary cause. That his statistics show that lynchings most often occurred in areas where white plantation owners relied on an overwhelmingly black labor force certainly supports such a view. How well his other evidence does so can be questioned, however, That most lynchings followed murders or sexual assaults, rather than controversies over labor relations, points to other factors. So, too, does the fact that the decline in lynching had begun by 1930, well before the plantation system was transformed.

On the other hand, the frequency of lynching in the Black Belt undermines explanations of mob violence that stress the role of industrialization or tensions that accompanied other social changes. Brundage's findings will force historians to reconsider other aspects or current interpretations of lynchings as well. Most important, Brundage's work reminds scholars who have sought complex, psychological explanations for lynching of what may be its deceptively simple origins: the desire of whites to control blacks. Mobs sought not just to wreak revenge, Brundage convincingly argues, but to "strip blacks of violence, one of the traditional means of defending their personal honor" and to dramatize "as few other rituals could the domination of whites and the degradation and dishonor of blacks" (p. 80). These goals underlay the lynching of blacks in many regions of both states and, to a greater or lesser extent, in all its forms.

Brundage, of course, is not content to offer so simple an explanation. He carefully weighs the many factors that influenced the number of lynchings in any area and realizes the difficulty of fully explaining the extreme savagery manifested by some mobs. Brundage's appreciation for complexity, thorough research, and rigorous argument make Lynching in the New South a fine book and a major contribution to the history of not just lynching but the New South.

GAINES M. FOSTER Louisiana State University
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Author:Foster, Gaines M.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1994
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