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The Killing Fields

WITHOUT SANCTUARY; Lynching Photography in America By James Allen; Twin Palms Publishers: 212 pp., $60

February 13, 2000|BENJAMIN SCHWARZ | Benjamin Schwarz is a contributing writer to Book Review and a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly. He is the recipient of the 1999 Nona Balakian award for criticism, given annually by the National Book Critics Circle for excellence in reviewing

Between 1882 and 1930, thousands of people, overwhelmingly men, were lynched in the United States. In the West, mobs lynched 447 whites and 38 blacks; in the Midwest there were 181 white victims and 79 black. But these numbers are overshadowed by the figures from the South, where an estimated 2,828 people were lynched. Of the victims whose race was known, the vast majority--2,314--were blacks killed by white lynch mobs, but whites also killed 284 whites and black lynchers killed 155 people, all but seven of whom were black. "Without Sanctuary" is a collection of 98 photographs of lynchings throughout America, culled from the archive of James Allen who, as an antique dealer, came across them in his travels. It is a strange and terrifying book.

Many of these photographs were taken to be sold as souvenir postcards, but people also collected even more grisly keepsakes--fingers, toes and ears--from lynching victims, including sexual organs from those who had been alleged rapists. South Carolina governor Cole Blease received a finger of a lynched black man in the mail and promptly planted it in the gubernatorial garden. In Salisbury, N.C., a little old white lady, brought to see the bodies of several alleged black ax murderers, opened her purse, took out a knife and cut off a finger from one of their hands. Wordlessly, she put the knife and finger in her purse and walked away. Often there were scores, if not hundreds and sometimes thousands of spectators at a lynching. Far from an archaic holdover, Southern lynching was in many ways intertwined with and exacerbated by modern technology. Railroads sometimes ran special excursion trains to the sites; often spectators took photos--and also made sound recordings; the towns and counties in which lynchings took place usually had newspapers, telegraph offices and sometimes even radio stations that broadcast the killings, thereby expanding and intensifying the power of lynching in the white and black Southern psyche.

Lynching had, of course, long existed in the United States (it's named for Judge Charles Lynch, who punished Tories in Virginia during the Revolution). Until the very late 1880s, it largely involved only whites in the lawless West, but at that point something terrible took possession of the South. That region, which once had accounted for less than 20% of the practice, was suddenly responsible for nearly 90%. Although for two centuries the South had been a racially divided society--and for the two decades since Emancipation the degree of social control imposed by slavery had been relaxed--only in the late 1880s did many whites develop a fear and concomitant hatred of black men that bordered on the genocidal. Seven-hundred and forty-four blacks were lynched by whites during the 1890s, making that decade by far the most brutal era of mob violence in American history. (Throughout this essay, all figures for lynching victims are from Stewart E. Tolnay and E.M. Beck's 1995 "A Festival of Violence: An Anaylsis of Southern Lynchings.") Lynchings fell by more than half in the next decade, and the number of blacks killed by white lynch mobs then began a protracted decline, but for decades the intensity of racial violence remained astonishingly more virulent than it had ever been before the fevered late 1880s and '90s.

These figures and the images in "Without Sanctuary" provoke the general reader to attempt to fathom the society that produced them, and for the last 20 years historians and sociologists have offered various explanations for the ferocity that took hold of the region, elucidating and debating a complex set of factors ranging from changes in crime rates to population movements, to the fluidity and mercurial nature of white and black racial attitudes, to attitudes toward sexuality and gender, to the social relations that grew out of different forms of agriculture.

Given the care that the publishers have devoted to the selection of photographs and the production of this volume--"Without Sanctuary" is among the most beautifully made books I've come across--it's a shame that the accompanying essays by historian Leon Litwak and New Yorker writer Hilton Als fail to illuminate this enormously complicated and unsettling subject. Als' short piece--in which he complains of the "metaphorical lynching" he has experienced when his white editors and white fellow guests at parties "watch" him--is self-aggrandizing and trivializes the subject. Litwak's essay, derived from his recent book, "Trouble in Mind," is understandably indignant, but by simplistically explaining lynching as a natural product of white "racism," he generates more heat than light. One factor this explanation ignores is the 20% of Southern lynching victims who were killed by mobs of their own color. Of course, these incidents do not mean, as some irresponsible historians have claimed, that lynching "was only in small part an act of racism."

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