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Lynching: American Mob Murder in Global Perspective. By Robert Thurston. Ashgate. 2011. 442pp. £65.00.

In 2010, Jeffrey Lord, writing for the conservative American Spectator, accused Shirley Sherrod of lying about the lynching of her relative Bobby Hall in order to glamorize her personal history.1 Sherrod had already been smeared in the conservative blogosphere for edited statements posted online and out of context. As editor of the Drudge Report, the late Andrew Breitbart charged that Sherrod, as USDA Georgia Director of Rural Development, had discriminated against and withheld resources from a white farmer because of his race. The controversy that ensued, pitting conservative against progressive pundits, hinged on the definition of lynching. Lord claimed that Sherrod's allegations of lynching were false because Hall had not been hanged by a mob. Instead, police had arrested Hall for the theft of a tyre. Outside the courthouse, the three petitioners (not a ‘mob’ in Lord's eyes) had taken it upon themselves to beat him so severely that he lost consciousness and later died in the hospital. Yet, as historian Amy Wood told mediamatters.org, ‘The term [lynching] has no official definition... No definitions of lynching limited it to hanging.’2

Robert Thurston's new book engages with these heated, sometimes partisan debates about the definition and significance of lynching. However, instead of limiting his scope to the US South, Thurston endeavours to place American mob murder in a broader, global perspective. In doing so, he argues that not all lynchings were grounded in ‘racism’ per se: ‘Without acknowledging the various sources of mob murder around the world, it is difficult to understand what part of the American story had to do with race and what part with other considerations’ (p. 6). By separating out ‘race’ from ‘other considerations’ such as class and gender, Thurston attempts to present a more nuanced picture of black–white relations in the South from the 1880s to the 1920s. He contends that in recent decades the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of portraying white supremacy as ‘a system of complete dominance’ in the Jim Crow South (p. 5). In other words, scholars of lynching typically cast black people as pure victims and white people as inveterate racists or what he calls ‘cardboard whites’ (p. 5). Yet I would argue that this is an inaccurate assessment of the state of southern history since there have been numerous works on black agency in the midst of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, and a variety of works on interracial cooperation in the South.3

Nevertheless, Thurston's work is polemical in nature. His main goal is to argue against the ‘common interpretation of lynching offered in recent decades: that it was the ultimate tool of whites in keeping blacks down’ (p. 3). He defines lynching or mob murder as an incident in which ‘a group, acting with a goal of service to the public, puts someone to death outside the bounds of the law. How death is delivered does not matter; mobs have used ropes, guns, clubs, fists, fire, and probably many other means of ending their victims’ lives' (p. 1). Contrary to popular belief, lynchings were not necessarily hangings, they were not just perpetrated against black men, and they were not necessarily reflective of white Americans' anxieties about black men's sexuality.

Thurston does well to unsettle the uncomplicated notion of lynching as a systematic form of social control. By carefully tracking the seemingly unpredictable ebb and flow of mob murder over time and across space, he illustrates that ‘lynching was erratic in the South’, arguing that this ‘absence of pattern... must be explained’ (p. 7). Indeed, Thurston contends that mob murder was not necessarily ritualistic, despite the fact that historians have tended to focus on the more spectacular, yet less common, incidents of mob violence against African Americans. Rather, Thurston maintains that lynchings were often grounded in particular circumstances and were typically reactions to immediate threats. He contends: ‘The basic trigger for group murder was the perception of crime and not the desire to reinforce racial control’ (p. 40).

Going against a functionalist analysis of lynching, Thurston argues that what links all mob murders together, not just in the United States but around the world, are moments of profound crisis characterized by political and social change and general instability. Mob killings usually happen in rural areas where there is sparse law enforcement and where governments have little political legitimacy among the people (pp. 7-8). He contends that because same-race mob murders have happened in other countries where similar conditions exist, one cannot assume that lynching was always a racialized practice in the US South.

The book is separated into three parts – (1) ‘What is Lynching?’; (2) ‘Lynching and Cultural Change’; (3) ‘Blood, Debate, and Redemption in Georgia’ – each of which contains three chapters. The first part attempts to define lynching and to examine the causes of mob murder in the US South in conjunction with other examples around the globe. The second part explores changing ideas of race, civilization, sexuality and the body through the lens of popular and scholarly writings by white Americans and Europeans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Thurston maintains these writings reveal that black people were gaining esteem in the eyes of their white counterparts, as race became increasingly defined in terms of culture rather than biology. Finally, the third part uses the case study of Georgia to examine white southerners' evolving views of lynching. Thurston tracks the transformation of Governor Hugh Manson Dorsey as he shifted away from a pro-lynching stance to become an opponent of mob murder.

Although admirable and creative in his attempt to use a comparative approach to challenge some of the shibboleths of lynching in the United States, Thurston's execution of the argument often leaves something to be desired. First, rather than offering nuanced comparisons, he lurches across space and time to draw superficial connections. In part I, the ‘global perspective’ is, for the most part, limited to a few thinly described anecdotes at the beginning of each chapter. For example, chapter 1 starts with the mob murder of a Russian woman accused of witchcraft in 1879, then moves to the lynching of a Nigerian man in the 1970s, to mob killings among the Gusii people of south-western Kenya in the 1990s, and finally to South African ‘necklacing’ incidents in the late 1980s – all in the space of four pages. Similarly, chapter 2 begins in the 1990s with the mob killings among ethnic groups in Indonesia and then abruptly moves back to Reconstruction in the US South. Even though these varied examples reveal that not all mob murders were motivated by ‘racial’ considerations, they suggest that lynchings are ultimately about the maintenance of power and authority and the preservation of social hierarchies. The reader is left wondering if the author is drawing the most fruitful and insightful comparisons. It seems as if it would be much more productive to examine incidents of racial violence in the colonial world alongside those of the US South during the same time period.

Secondly, rather than engaging seriously with the existing scholarship, Thurston offers the reader a rather simplistic caricature of the field. He is not only dismissive of much of the interdisciplinary work on racial violence coming out of African American Studies, Women's and Gender Studies and American Studies, but he also ignores the numerous writings and oral traditions of black southerners that tackle the subject of lynching.

If lynching was not systematic enough to be an effective mode of terror and social control, then why did it play such a central role in African Americans' activism against and memory of Jim Crow segregation? Why did it take on a metaphorical life of its own for black Americans in subsequent decades? Although lynching may not have been an everyday experience, black sources such as folk songs, autobiographies and WPA narratives illustrate that African Americans viewed mob murder as part of a broad spectrum of anti-black violence that threatened them on a daily basis, from chain gangs to beatings to rape to arson. Indeed, the work of scholars such as Leon Litwack and more recently Koritha Mitchell challenges Thurston's contention that ‘little direct evidence of black people's reactions [to lynching] has been offered’ (p. 10). Mitchell's Living with Lynching reveals that African American communities used popular lynching plays to help them survive the traumatizing effects of mob violence and widespread racial terrorism in the South.4

Moreover, historians such as Amy Wood illustrate that spectacular lynchings, however infrequent, were not only instrumental to the construction of whiteness and the affirmation of white supremacy in the unstable South, but that their influence stretched far beyond the confines of the event itself thanks to the brisk trade of lynching photographs, postcards and zealous reports in the press.5 However, for Thurston, ‘race’ equals blackness and ‘racism’ equals racial prejudice. When he does not find the ‘smoking gun’ evidence of a deliberate and concerted plan to keep black people down through lynching, he assumes that the violence was not racialized.

In searching for a simple cause and effect, he overlooks the myriad ways in which racial discourses intersected with discourses of gender, class, sexuality and religion to shape social relations and policy decisions in the South. Constructions of whiteness, especially normative notions of white, Anglo-Saxon, Christian, heteropatriarchy, undergirded the South's political, economic, social and cultural hierarchies. These normative ideas of whiteness not only justified violence against African Americans, but they also made possible the mob murder of Leo Frank, a northern Jew accused of rape in 1915. Contrary to Thurston's interpretation of Frank's case as illustrative of the non-racial character of lynching, historian Matthew Jacobson argues that Frank's Jewishness and foreignness made him enough of a deviant in Marietta, Georgia to become a target of the courts and the mob. Frank's ‘extraordinary conviction’ was a sign of his ‘contested whiteness’.6

Likewise, taking an intersectional approach leads one to conclusions that are markedly different from Thurston's regarding the significance of the black middle class's criticisms of the criminal tendencies of their poor and working-class counterparts. Thurston maintains that because black reformers spoke out against the criminality and savagery of their own people, lynching was not always just about racial control. Instead, mob murder was grounded in generalized fears of crime that cut across racial divisions. However, as numerous scholars have shown, one cannot speak of conceptions of crime and criminality in the United States without addressing questions of race, gender and class.7 Indeed, Thurston's analysis ignores the fact that class divisions within the black community were, in many respects, shaped by the oppressive realities of white supremacy. Historian Kevin Gaines's work on the ideology of racial uplift in the early 1900s shows that black middle-class reformers often went to great pains to distinguish themselves from the supposedly pathological black poor and working class, casting themselves as agents of civilization in their own communities.8 In holding themselves up as positive embodiments of black progress, racial uplifters were complicit in the conflation of poverty, blackness and criminality. And, with the shift from biological to cultural definitions of race in this period, this cause-and-effect linking of cultural pathology with black inferiority became central to white supremacist thought.

Thurston's rather simplistic conceptions of ‘race’ also lead him to misread the significance of exotic images of black vitality and interracial mixing in the romantic fiction of the early twentieth century. He argues that white American and European writers such as Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness) and Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan) ‘while still racist... drew new attention to vitality, honor, and ability among Africans, qualities which had to raise the status of darker peoples in whites’ eyes' (p. 10). Yet as Gail Bederman and others show, these images of black vitality must be understood within the context of widespread concerns about white men's degeneration and over-civilization in the modern world. With his muscular combination of civilization and savagery, Tarzan became an iconic example of the possibilities of white male regeneration through a return to nature.9 Thurston tries to make a similar argument about African American boxer Jack Johnson. However, he is highly selective in his use of evidence when talking about white Americans' supposed acceptance and admiration of the first black world heavyweight champion (and the photo on page 264 is not of Jack Johnson). Johnson was vilified both at home and abroad, and both before and after his conviction under the Mann Act against white slave trafficking.10

Although Thurston unsettles some of our received wisdom about the definitions, causes and effects of American mob murder by exploring it from a global perspective, Lynching lacks not only a solid grounding in the historiography of the South but also a sophisticated approach to racial analysis. Hopefully another scholar will take up this comparative approach where Thurston left off.

Footnotes
  1. 1

    Jeffrey Lord, ‘Sherrod Story False’, 26 July 2010, <http://spectator.org/archives/2010/07/26/sherrod-story-false> (Accessed 1 Aug. 2012)

  2. 2

    Experts on History of Lynching Rebut Jeffrey Lord's Sherrod Claim’, 27 July 2010, <http://mediamatters.org/blog/2010/07/27/exclusive-experts-on-history-of-lynching-rebut/168334> (Accessed 1 Aug. 2012).

  3. 3

    For example, Glenda Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896–1920 (Chapel Hill, 1996); Tera Hunter, To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women's Lives and Labors after the Civil War (Cambridge, Mass., 1998); James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860–1935 (Chapel Hill, 1988); Joseph Gerteis, Class and the Color Line: Interracial Class Coalition in the Knights of Labor and the Populist Movement (Durham, NC, 2007); Jumpin' Jim Crow: Southern Politics from Civil War to Civil Rights, ed. Glenda Gilmore , Jane Dailey and Bryant Simon (Princeton, 2000).

  4. 4

    Leon Litwack, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (New York, 1998); Koritha Mitchell, Living with Lynching: African American Lynching Plays, Performance, and Citizenship, 1890–1930 (Urbana-Champaign, 2011).

  5. 5

    Amy Wood, Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890–1940 (Chapel Hill, 2009).

  6. 6

    Matthew Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge, 1998). 65. Emphasis in the original.

  7. 7

    David Oshinsky, Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice (New York, 1997); Douglas Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (New York, 2009); Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge, Mass., 2012).

  8. 8

    Kevin Gaines, Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill, 1996).

  9. 9

    Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880–1917 (Chicago, 1995); John F. Kasson, Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America (New York, 2001).

  10. 10

    Theresa Runstedtler, Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line (Berkeley, 2012).