In addition to disputing which acts constitute lynching, historians have also grappled with what geographical and chronological boundaries best define the phenomenon. To confine the definition of lynching to the 1880–1930s South serves not only to stereotype that region as backward and corrupt, but also to romanticize Western violence and cloak the suffering of its victims. Likewise, to begin the story in the 1880s – or even in the 1840s – is to elide a longer history of violence as a constitutive power in the American nation.
The modern study of lynching emerged from contemporary activism – works penned by anti-lynching crusaders such as Ida B. Wells and Walter white and by groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Indeed, the very act of telling stories about lynching led first to organized black anti-lynching activism, and then, through pan-generational organizing, to the long civil rights movement, as Kidada E. Williams has recently demonstrated.13 Both Wells and white made early claims linking lynching with power. Wells established that criminal behavior had very little correlation with the mob's choice of targets: the mob regularly lynched the falsely accused but only occasionally offered an alleged crime as rationale for lynching. Both Wells and white noted the relationship between outbursts of mob violence and economic competition, documented through the volatile rise and fall of cotton prices from the 1890s to the 1920s.14 Activist accounts continued into the post-World War II period, most particularly with William L. Patterson's edited volume We Charge Genocide: The Crimes of the Government Against the Negro People (New York: International Publishers, 1951). Patterson invoked an emergent human rights discourse following World War II to establish the humanity of black lynching victims and condemned the state for failing to prevent their torture and death.
While activists analyzed relations of power, the first professional historians to study lynching dismissed such broad perspectives in favor of narrow, regional explanations. In The Tragedy of Lynching (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1933), Arthur Raper leaned heavily on bias against the South rather than offering historical argumentation. Raper attributed Southern mob violence to backwards poor whites and blamed white elites for failing to stop the rabble. He ignored the fact that elite whites often actively participated in lynching. At times, he also blamed black lynching victims for their own deaths by alleging their involvement in criminality and vice. Contrary to Wells's careful documentation, Raper essentially attributed lynching to black crime and lax regulation of poor whites. C. Vann Woodward began to unravel these arguments with his pivotal work The Origins of the New South, 1877–1913 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1951), which linked populism, racism, and the idea of the South as a colony in order to explore a long period of Southern disempowerment and its relationship to violence.
Beginning in the early 1970s, historians of Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Jim Crow South advanced a still more nuanced set of arguments about Southern mob violence than Raper had presented. In his 1984 book Vengeance and Justice, Ayers traced the sweep of Southern lynching as it emerged from existing regional traditions of Regulator vigilantism and problematized its periodization by studying it in tandem with other forms of Southern violence such as dueling and whitecapping, which is to say, vigilantism ordinarily carried out to maintain existing power structures in remote farming communities.15 Ayers described the South as uniquely, inherently violent even as he challenged prevailing ideas about the periodization of lynching. “Everyone today agrees on the obvious, even banal, ‘causes’ of lynching: racism, frustration, poverty, submerged political conflict, irrational white fears, and a weak state,” Ayers observed.
These forces, though, were constants in the postwar South. They surely existed during Reconstruction, and yet lynching did not sweep through the region; they did not end in 1900, yet lynching declined throughout the early twentieth century.16
Ayers contended that lynching began as a symptom of widespread Southern crisis in the 1880s and 1890s, a period marked not only by the implementation of the new Jim Crow racial order but also by multiple economic depressions, entry into an international market economy, and a crime wave. Ayers identified several characteristics that had long defined Southern society: moralism, racism, sexual tension, honor, rurality, and localistic republicanism. After the Civil War, these traditional elements of Southern culture coupled with a declining faith in legal systems and antagonism toward a new racial order. The result was a spree of lynching that contributed to and exacerbated social instability in the South.
Ayers singled out the South's entry into an international market economy, specifically the large-scale movement of white labor into cash-crop agriculture (especially cotton); the need for large, docile labor pools for many of the South's new industries; the emergence of sharecropping; and the volatile rise and fall of cotton prices as contributors to the lynching epidemic. In this way, Ayers reprised analyses about the cotton market and economic competition first offered by anti-lynching activists, and also retained the idea of the South as a singular case from early historiographies of lynching.17 However, as Brundage notes, Ayers's “frustration-aggression” model elided specific local contexts: some Southern lynchings occurred when cotton prices were good or in communities that did not produce cotton. Ayers's model also failed to illuminate the history of U.S. lynching outside of the South or within Southern locales that did not rely upon cotton and other cash crops.
In the late 1970s, several Southern historians began to focus on the gendered nature of lynching. A new model influenced by the women's rights movement and by psychoanalytic theory located the roots of lynching more fully in white anxiety about gender and sexuality, most particularly in the perceived threat of the archetypal black rapist to the pure white female body. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall's Revolt Against Chivalry: Jesse Daniel Ames and the Women's Campaign Against Lynching (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979) opened this discussion, and she soon followed with the influential article “ ‘The Mind that Burns in Each Body:’ Women, Rape and Racial Violence” in Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, 1983. Hall compared lynching with rape, noting that neither act of violence has “yet been given its history” and arguing that each has functioned to subjugate particular groups of people. Hall contended that both lynching and rape have worked as instruments of racial subordination: both became institutionalized under slavery and both found new life as political weapons following the Civil War. She further established that the lynching wave in the South, marked by “tacit official consent,” corresponded to social uncertainty: “Once a new system of disenfranchisement, debt peonage, and segregation was firmly in place, mob violence gradually declined.”18
Joel Williamson's The Crucible of Race: black/white Relations in the American South Since Emancipation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984) extended this gender analysis, tracing tension about race and sexuality from 1880 to 1915. He noted that lynching most often occurred in areas where it had happened before, in districts undergoing rapid economic change, and in places with frequent and unpunished murders.19 Like Ayers, he connected lynching with other kinds of vigilantism, particularly white riots that targeted black victims in Wilmington (1898), New Orleans (1900), and Atlanta (1906). Excellent recent accounts have built on Williamson's work by more closely examining gender and class in relationship to lynching. Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore's cornerstone article “Murder, Memory, and the Flight of the Incubus” (1998) examined the specific case of the Wilmington riot, demonstrating how the fear of the archetypal black rapist ignited white male vigilantism. Crystal Feimster's Southern Horrors focused on women's roles in anti-lynching activism, particularly in the life work of Ida B. Wells. Elsa Barkley Brown's landmark “Negotiating and Transforming the Public Sphere: black Political Life in the Transition from Slavery to Freedom” (Public Culture, 1994) made strikingly plain that black women, too, found themselves victims of lynch mobs and other sorts of oppressive violence.20
Although this brief overview essay cannot outline all of the scholarship on gender and its relationship to vigilante violence, such work is extensive. As Mia Bay and Lisa Arellano have argued, Ida B. Wells's anti-lynching activism succeeded precisely because of her gender; she purposefully used her womanhood to dismantle the lynching narrative.21 Other works on gender explore the fraternalism of lynch mobs' much-invoked chastity of white women as justification for violence and, most recently, the participation of women in lynching and vigilantism.22
As the scholarship on gender developed, a new generation of revisionist historians began to challenge the older paradigms by which Ayers and others had explained the prevalence of Southern vigilantism between 1880 and 1930, drawing provocative new conclusions about its causes and consequences. Their first innovation was to recognize the disparate and uneven nature of lynching, an act that often differed profoundly among local iterations. Brundage's Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880–1930 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1993) attended closely both to the particularities of specific lynchings and to the power relationships that linked and defined all such acts. Brundage, focusing on Georgia and Virginia with admirable detail, nevertheless offered a widely applicable explanation: lynching, he argued, was designed to preserve the status quo but varied widely from place to place. It did not always enact a community consensus. “As long as lynchings are interpreted as a ritualized expression of the values of united white communities,” Brundage noted, “the task of explaining both the great variations in the form and the ebb and flow of lynchings across space and time will remain incomplete.”23 For Brundage, then, Southern lynching hewed closely to articulations of local, rather than state, power. It ended, he argued, when the Great Depression radically changed Southern agricultural systems, upending local power structures and ushering in big government, massive labor migration, and the mechanization of cash-crop farming.
Jacqueline Goldsby's A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006) further advances the study of lynching by incorporating cultural history. Goldsby uses literature and photography – because, as she notes, lynching is “both act and sign” – to examine Southern lynchings, pushing much further than had earlier scholars in her consideration of culture and technology.24 While her study remains situated in the familiar Jim Crow era, Goldsby upends the historiography with three new contributions. First, she describes lynching as intrinsically linked to technologies of circulation and spectacle – particularly photography, which became popularized around World War I, at the same moment that photographic images of lynching were widely circulated.25 Lynching, she further argues, should not be conceptualized as “extralegal” violence, but was rather tied closely to state power over life and death, and particularly to the state's denial of black citizenship.26 “By nullifying African Americans' rights of citizenship and, with them, the affirmative duty to protect black people from unjust harm,” Goldsby explains, “the federal government effectively granted mobs a license to kill.”27 Finally, she cast lynching as part of the United States' transition into modernity, locating it within “the economic system that launched America's emancipation in the twentieth century: corporate-commodity capitalism.” Modernity, Goldsby asserts, demanded violence: lynching worked to codify particular labor and racial orders that signified progress.28 Rather than reading lynching as a rural, backwater, or reactionary phenomenon, as had many other scholars, Goldsby positions it as an instrument of state modernization.
In other words, Goldsby's interdisciplinary method rendered legible several ways in which people who held state, racial, and economic power directly benefitted from spectacle lynchings in the 1880–1930 South. Not only did Southern whites benefit from the racial order created by lynching: but the act also worked to nullify black claims to citizenship, and both the state and capitalism benefitted from the lynchings that maintained cheap and docile black labor. Rebecca N. Hill's Men, Mobs, and Law: Anti-Lynching and Labor Defense in U.S. Radical History (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008) created a comparative and rich history of the interplay between vigilantism and resistance, examining anti-lynching and labor defense violence in concert throughout American history. These revisions of Southern exceptionalism set the stage for an even wider approach to lynching, one that would yield rich new analyses.
A definition of lynching that includes Western vigilante violence has proven indispensable to a comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon and a full accounting of its victims. As historians began to dismantle Richard Maxwell Brown's early division of organized vigilantism and lynching, noticing the overlap between both categories, they also began to study lynching outside of the 1880–1930 South. This shift most impacts Western historiography, which until recently defined vigilantism as a sort of noble rough justice that was part and parcel of settlement on the frontier. Instead, recent scholarship and photographic and documentary collections reveal both organized and impromptu lynching in the West. These accounts do include lynchings used to enforce law and morality, especially on the frontier, where the state failed to deliver justice. However, they also show the repeated use of Western lynching to police social outsiders along the lines of race, class, and gender.
By tracing the use of the word lynching itself, Waldrep delivers a particularly strong study of lynching in California in the mid-1800s. Waldrep uses the word as it was used in that moment, to mean an act of violence legitimate only when it “represented the will of ‘the whole country’ ” – implicitly, that is, the white male community.29 He focuses on the San Francisco Vigilance Committee, which purportedly endeavored to enforce the law but which often targeted Chinese, Mexican, and other immigrant scapegoats. This committee eventually included such numbers, and established such local power, that the governor of California attempted to put it down as an armed revolt. After local militias added their strength to the Committee, however, and after its members won several offices, the San Francisco Vigilance Committee became synonymous with local political power. By 1850, Waldrep writes, the Western vigilante had already emerged as a “stock character” in fiction, well on his way to becoming a national icon. According to popular rhetoric, lynch mobs only targeted “unprincipled and vile” men who mocked the law. No courts existed that could properly convict these irredeemable persons, the logic went, so the burden fell on the public to exercise its popular sovereignty through lynching.30
Waldrep's characterization of vigilantism indirectly confronts Brundage's notion that lynching did not always represent the will of a cohesive community. In California, Waldrep claims, in the turmoil of economic competition and frontier lawlessness that surrounded the Gold Rush, lynching frequently did find this kind of broad community support. Indeed, the San Francisco Vigilance Committee eventually counted more than 10,000 members, and it created an extensive organization of the kind used by Brown to distinguish it from Southern lynch mobs.31 Nevertheless, Waldrep defines its activities as lynching by analyzing contemporary language. While Southern and Western lynching might vary, as Arellano adds, they should still be understood as “two qualitatively different versions of the same act” (emphasis added).32
Waldrep argues that Western vigilante violence preceded Southern violence and that Southern lynch mobs consciously followed its form. This argument problematically obscures the early Southern history of vigilantism.33 For instance, in Rural Radicals: Righteous Rage in the American Grain (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996.), Stock argues that in 1767, South Carolina Regulators committed violence against Native Americans, religious minorities, rapists, gamblers, and domestic abusers, other social outcasts in order to create and sustain power within their own communities. These episodes occurred long before the example of Western vigilantism could shape them.34
Linda Gordon's The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001) attempted to draw connections between Southern and Western lynching, focusing closely on violence motivated by race and labor animosities. Gordon defined lynching as a subsection of vigilantism that served to punish and terrorize labor in order to keep it cheap and pliant. In this way, lynching functioned either to defend systems of power, or, especially on the frontier, to implement them. Gordon also argued that the line between state power and vigilante violence frequently blurred, particularly during the Indian wars, in which there was “no way to distinguish military from vigilante actions.”35
New historical works have moved beyond differentiating Southern and Western vigilantism and have begun instead to conceptualize a broad, national history of lynching as concurrent with the formation and expansion of the United States. In Rural Radicals, Stock examines vigilantism as “a … tradition of rural life in the United States.” She divides vigilantism into three broad, overlapping categories. First, Americans on the frontier attacked “deviants, criminals, poor people, and others whose behaviors or beliefs threatened the physical safety and/or economic stability” of the community. Second, “settlers and other rural Americans” targeted “people whose racial heritage they deemed intolerable.” Third, communities turned violent against those they saw as “un-American” because of “religious or ethnic heritage or political beliefs.”36
Stock's central argument – that vigilantism is an inherently rural phenomenon tied to the “isolation and deprivation of the frontier, the enforced homogeneity of the small town, and the wide availability [of] and reverence for guns” – runs counter to Goldsby's argument about the simultaneous development of lynching, modernism, and technology between 1890 and 1915. It also clashes with the assertions of Southern historians that the 1880–1930 lynching peak coincided with dramatic decreases in both isolation and deprivation, especially in the South. By 1890, 90% of Southerners lived in counties with railroads, signaling an unprecedented level of connection.37 Furthermore, as Ayers noted, lynching victims were usually traveling laborers or transients: their lynching resulted in part from the circulation of strangers created by technologies like the railroad rather than from isolation.38
Stock not only contradicts Ayers's and Goldsby's notions about lynching as a consequence of modernity and Southern transformation, but also disputes Brundage's assertion that lynching did not signify community consensus. Stock asserts that lynching was
supported and sustained over many years by most or all members of the white community, including women. Lynch mobs were not sudden, irrational actions provoked by years of frontier assault and revenge, nor were they organizations that took on an immediate problem and then (sometimes at least) disbanded.
Stock describes all vigilante violence as a product of the community, but lynching as a coherent form of crowd violence that included members of the elite. Lynching, she argues, served to shore up local structures of power over the span of several years. Like Goldsby, she emphasizes the spectacular nature of such events in creating fear among victimized populations.39
New periodizations of lynching have led to new ideas about why lynching occurred. Michael J. Pfeifer's Rough Justice: Lynching and American Society: 1874–1947 (University of Illinois, 2004) utilizes a slightly condensed version of Waldrep's timeline but offers a statistical analysis of vigilantism. Like Waldrep, Pfeifer draws hard lines between Southern and Western episodes, or in Pfeifer's terms, between Southern lynching and Western mob violence. He argues that both resulted from a nationwide transition from rural “rough justice” to urban- and middle-class due process, a movement that incorporated regions sporadically: first the West and then the South lagging behind. While his data are impressive, his analysis is necessarily limited by his case studies. Louisiana, for instance, stands in for the entire South. His decision to include only lethal lynchings regrettably foreshortens discussions of a complex form of crowd violence: as other scholars have documented, lynching did not always prove fatal. Like Waldrep, Pfeifer gestures to the present moment by arguing that the death penalty is now disproportionately employed in the same communities that most recently used lynching to “preserve the order of dominant power systems.” Capital punishment, Pfeifer provocatively concludes, has signaled a bureaucratization, rather than tempering, of American violence.40
While early works on Western lynching worked on a regional model, demarcating the border between Western and Southern mob violence, Lisa Arellano advances a much broader argument about geography. In Vigilantes and Lynch Mobs: Narratives of Community and Nation (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012), she argues that scholars have until recently drawn a false distinction between Western and Southern lynching. In so doing, they have remained complicit in the veneration of “potentially legitimate” and “order-making” extralegal violence in its Western shape, even while decrying the same phenomenon in the South. For Arellano, Brown's early distinction between vigilantism and lynching thus created ethical concerns. Arellano also demonstrates that academic historians were only a few of the many voices that informed popular understandings of lynching over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Perpetrators of mob violence, who justified their actions in written accounts, shaped this discourse as well.
Arellano's book is the most notable example of a new turn in the historiography of lynching, one that seeks to more thoroughly interrogate power within the act itself. She sees lynching as “a set of violent practices made recognizable by a constellation of formulaic narrative practices.” Arellano argues that a lynching is discernable by the claims of its perpetrators, who allege that their acts served to punish criminals. She identifies five narrative attributes that distinguish lyncher's accounts of their deeds: overwhelming crime, failure of the state, valorous action, pursuit of orderliness, and public popularity.41 Lynching, Arellano argues, was the same in the nineteenth century as in the twentieth and more similar than different in the South and in the West. Rather than trying to formulate distinctions between mob violence in various regions – or even within these regions, as did Brundage – Arellano advances a broader definition and periodization of lynching. In so doing, she enables new consideration of the relationship between vigilantism and power.
Accounts of lynching that follow a broader definition and periodization have opened rich terrain for further study. The popular photography exhibit and eponymous folio book Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Santa Fe: Twin Palms Publishers, 2000) displays images of lynchings conducted in the South's iconic 1890–1930 period alongside those from other times and places. Waldrep's edited collection Lynching in America: A History in Documents (New York: New York University Press, 2006) follows suit by presenting documents that span the new periodization and broader map of U.S. lynching. In both collections, striking resemblances between Southern and Western lynching, and between pre- and post-Reconstruction lynching, work to create a longer and fuller perspective on the act.42