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From 1889 to 1918 more than 2,400 African Americans were hanged or burned at the stake. Many lynching victims were accused of little more than making "boastful remarks," "insulting a white man" or seeking employment "out of place."

Lynching was community sanctioned. Lynchings were frequently publicized well in advance and people dressed up and traveled long distances for the occasion. The January 26, 1921 issue of the Memphis Press contained the headline: "May Lynch 3 to 6 Negroes This Evening." Clergymen and business leaders often participated in lynchings. Few of the people who committed lynchings were ever punished. What makes the lynchings all the more chilling is the carnival atmosphere and aura of self-righteousness that surrounded the grizzly events.

Lynching received its name from Judge Charles Lynch, a Virginia farmer who punished outlaws and Tories with "rough" justice during the American Revolution. Before the 1880s, most lynchings took place in the West. But during that decade the South's share of lynchings rose from 20 percent to nearly 90 percent. 744 blacks were lynched during the 1890s. The last officially recorded lynching in the United States occurred in 1968, though many consider the 1998 death of James Byrd in Jasper Texas, at the hands of three whites who hauled him behind their pick-up truck with a chain, a later instance.

It seems likely that the soaring number of lynchings was related to the collapse of the South's cotton economy. Lynchings were most common in regions with highly transient populations, scattered farms, few towns, and weak law enforcement - settings that fueled insecurity and suspicion.


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