The New York Times published a piece today on lynchings in the South. The piece focused on a report by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), which examined lynchings in twelve southern states. Much of the report reinforces what historians such as Amy Louise Wood, Fitzhugh Brundage, and others have written about lynching, but a couple of things about the NYT piece and the report troubled me.
The first was the discrepancy between the report’s title, “Lynching in America,” and its content, which centers on twelve southern states (the former Confederacy and Kentucky). Lynching was a national problem, but one wouldn’t know it from the report. The second was the EJI’s decision to explicitly exclude certain types of lynchings. The report notes,
We distinguish “racial terror lynchings”—the subject of this report—from hangings and mob violence that followed some criminal trial process or that were committed against non-minorities without the threat of terror. . . . We also distinguish “terror lynchings” from racial violence and hate crimes that were prosecuted as criminal acts.
The EJI certainly has the right to define lynchings as it sees fit, but I don’t agree with the narrowness of the definition.
One could chalk up my reservations to pedantry, but other historians have pointed out more significant issues with both the report and the NYT piece. Read Kidada Williams’s Twitter feed, for example, for several thought-provoking comments on how even academics lose focus on what lynchings actually meant.
Crystal Fleming points out a significant problem with the NYT article.
I don’t know if EJI will be successful in placing markers commemorating lynching victims, but if nothing else, their report has prompted discussion of the horrific acts of violence that white southerners committed against African Americans. I hope that it also leads to a discussion of lynching as a national act, not one that was solely confined to the southern states. I say this not because I fail to recognize the South’s racial problems, but because relegating lynching to the South scapegoats the region, providing an excuse to ignore the national problem of white supremacy.