BLACK SOCIAL HISTORY
Richard M. Perloff, Professor of Communication
|News and Lynchings in the Late Nineteenth Century|
|Summary of: The Press and Lynchings of African Americans, Journal of Black Studies, January, 2000, pp. 315-330, by Richard M. Perloff.|
|In July, 1930, newspapermen poked around Emelle, Alabama, trying to ferret out details of the lynching of a Black man, as well as several other slayings. A few White residents who had been on hand when the men were killed refused to talk about the events to reporters from The Tuscaloosa News. "What the hell are you newspaper men doing here?" asked a White man who had been part of the vigilante group. "We're just killing a few negroes that we've waited too damn long about leaving for the buzzards. That's not news" (Raper, 1933, p. 67).|
The White resident had that part right. During the 1930s, after thousands of African Americans had been put to death by mobs -- particularly in the South but in other regions of the country as well -- lynchings were no longer unusual or shocking events that deviated from the norm. Approximately 4,742 individuals were lynched between 1882 and 1968; of the victims, 3,445 or 73 percent were Black. During the heyday of lynching, between 1889 and 1918, 3,224 individuals were lynched, of whom 2,522 or 78 percent were Black. Typically, the victims were hung or burned to death by mobs of White vigilantes, frequently in front of thousands of spectators, many of whom would take pieces of the dead person's body as souvenirs to help remember the spectacular event.
Although there have been many studies of racial biases in the modern media and a host of scholarly investigations of the African American press during the late nineteenth century, there has been virtually no research examining the ways in which the mainstream American press covered the lynching epidemic that swept the South during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In view of the paucity of research, it is not surprising that journalism history textbooks devote virtually no space to press coverage of lynchings. As it presently stands, a student who reads Emery & Emery's (1996) classic text would have absolutely no idea that many southern papers provided vicious coverage of lynchings during the late nineteenth century.
The time has come to set the record straight. The purpose of the present paper is to redress the imbalance in the literature by reviewing major streams of knowledge on press coverage of lynching. Drawing on historical works, secondary sources, and hundreds of newspaper accounts, I will summarize what we know about how newspapers discussed lynching on their news and editorial pages during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Far from suppressing news about lynchings, newspapers embraced them, providing abundant, even graphic, coverage of vigilante violence. As Clark (1964) observes in a book on the southern country editor, "many editors did not spare their readers' sensibilities. Whatever their motives, they (editors) wrote full, detailed accounts. Turning through many volumes for the period from 1875 to 1920 is somewhat like walking through a chamber of horrors" (p. 228).
Newspapers in every region of the country provided graphic coverage of lynchings, especially those that occurred in their area. "When discussing a lynching in their particular area," notes Wright (1990) in a study of racial violence in Kentucky, "local newspapers gave all of the grisly details and, significantly, would often point out that the lynching was not the first one that had happened in their area" (p. 5). Major newspapers or metropolitan dailies sometimes described lynchings that occurred outside their geographical area. For example, the February 2, 1893 issue of The New York Times, under the headline "ANOTHER NEGRO BURNED," described the grisly details of the lynching of Henry Smith in Paris, Texas. Readers learned that Smith was placed on a 10 feet-high scaffold and was tortured for 50 minutes by red-hot irons thrust against his body, after which he was set on fire and transformed from a human being to charred human remains.
It is next to impossible to locate a newspaper article that does not identify the victim as a Negro or that refrains from suggesting that the accused was guilty of the crime and therefore deserving of punishment. For example, The New Orleans Picayune described an African-American who was lynched in Hammond, Louisiana for robbery as a "big, burly negro" and a "Black wretch" (Logan, 1965, p. 298).
Yet, for all the negative portraits that appeared in the late nineteenth century press, there were hopeful signs. Some newspapers and magazines denounced the practice of lynching Black Americans.
The Chicago Tribune was a pioneer in the anti-lynching effort. Beginning in 1882, The Tribune published a list of lynchings, showing the number of people killed by lynch mobs in a given year and the reasons for the deaths.
The New York Times was without question the harshest critic of lynching and provided some of the earliest denunciations. The Times was long "an outspoken foe of lynchings," Wright (1990) observes. Yet it had numerous blind spots. Stories frequently assumed the Black man was guilty.
Not surprisingly, the White media lagged far behind the many African American newspapers in denouncing lynching. Ida B. Wells courageously used her Memphis newspaper, The Free Speech, to document and condemn lynchings. After Wells wrote on May 21, 1892 that no one believes "the old thread-bare lie" that Black men assault White women and went on to criticize southern men on this issue, The Memphis Daily Commercial Appeal called her a "Black scoundrel," White businessmen threatened to lynch the owners of her newspaper, and creditors commandeered the newspaper's offices and sold the equipment.
In the long run, the Black journalists' frame on lynching would carry the day. White newspapers would come to adopt Black editors' views on mob violence. However, the change would not come quickly or without a fight.
The dawn of the twentieth century did not usher in miraculous changes in press coverage. Many newspapers continued to cover lynchings in racist ways.
Nonetheless, the times were changing, albeit slowly. Investigative reporter Ray Stannard Baker, the only muckraker who directed his journalistic energies to expose lynching (Beasley, 1982), described lynchings in detail in McClure's in 1905 and in a book, Following the Color Line, published in 1908. Although Baker made statements that are glaringly offensive by today's standards (e.g., a reference to the "animal-like ferocity" of Black criminals), his work helped call Americans' attention to racial problems and was praised by W.E. B. Du Bois (Beasley, 1982).
If change did not happen overnight, it did manifest itself by the second decade of the twentieth century. The change was particularly evident in the South, where newspapers had frequently supported lynchings. In 1916, The Atlanta Constitution -- which 17 years earlier had offered a $500 reward for the capture of Sam Holt -- sent letters to all candidates for governor, asking their opinions on lynching and the policies they would implement to curb mob violence (Brundage, 1993).
There was an upsurge in lynchings of African Americans in the 1930s, perhaps because of frustrations unleashed by the Depression. Newspapers were increasingly apt to criticize lynchings in editorials; yet many papers persisted in running sensational stories about "lynching parties" that whipped up racial hatred.
Some might argue that newspapers -- particularly at the turn of the century, when vigilante-style justice was commonplace -- treated all victims of mob violence, White and Black, with equal ferocity. However, articles on Black lynchings had a special vitriolic quality. Newspaper stories identified the race of the accused, assumed without question that the accused person was guilty, used a number of dehumanizing terms to label the Black victim -- e.g., "wretch," "fiend," and "desperado" -- , assumed the Black person's race predisposed him to commit violent crimes, particularly rape, and sometimes self-righteously defended lynching of Black individuals.
Truth being complicated, it is also likely that the press increased awareness of the horrific nature of lynchings, particularly during the twentieth century when a number of newspapers framed lynchings as affronts to civilized society. For all their many faults, newspapers did provide society with a detailed, gruesome documentation of the lynching epidemic. Lynching is fundamentally part of the nation's past. Yet scholarly issues persist. In light of the absence of hard scientific studies of press coverage of lynchings, it would be helpful if researchers sampled newspapers across the country to obtain quantitative facts about press biases in lynching. It would also be useful to document changes in news portrayals over time and to examine differences by region and race of the victim. By documenting and explaining the role the press played in perpetuating lynching, scholars in a host of disciplines can shed needed light on a barbaric American phenomenon.