The Death Penalty, Racism and the American Practice of Lynching

“A man was lynched yesterday” read the banner that flew outside the NAACP headquarters at 69 Fifth Avenue in 1938. Some 73 years later, such a banner is still relevant as the American practice of lynching continues in ways new and old in the 21st century.

(Image source: Library of Congress, NAACP)

On Wednesday, in what the typically reserved New York Times called “a grievous wrong,” the State of Georgia executed Troy Anthony Davis at 11:08 pmAlbert Camus observed that “capital punishment is the most premeditated of murders,” and that was never more true than this week when Georgia proceeded with the killing of Mr. Davis in spite of serious doubts about his guilt and in spite of national and international media attention about the case, and an outcry from various celebrities and luminaries including President Jimmy Carter and Pope Benedict XVI. Much of the outrage is that there was simply too much doubt (as the Twitter hashtag #toomuchdoubt suggested) about Davis’ guilt. There was no physical evidence linking Davis to the crime for which he was convicted, and 7 of the 9 witnesses recanted their testimony. If Georgia ends up exonerating Davis, it wouldn’t be the first time that state later recanted it’s prosecution of an African American accused of killing a white person, but it may take awhile.  Sixty years after Lena Baker, an African American woman, was convicted – and executed – for killing a white man, the State of Georgia exonerated her.

The other part of the outrage about this case has to do with the systemic racism of the death penalty: Davis was African American and the victim in this case, Mark MacPhail, was white (and an off-duty cop).  Some have even referred to the execution of Davis as a “legal lynching,” an especially ironic phrase given that the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court which refused to stay the execution with no dissents from the bench, not even from Justice Thomas, who once claimed to be a victim of “high-tech lynching” because of Anita Hill’s charges of sexual harassment.  But, perhaps this is just hyperbole. What is lynching?  Is there any evidence that links the American practice of lynching to the death penalty?

Historical Lynching & Contemporary Death Penalty Patterns

What’s lynching? As the leading organization fighting against lynching, the NAACP developed a very specific definition of lynching that includes: 1) there must be evidence that someone was killed; 2) the killing must have occurred illegally; 3) three or more persons must have taken part in the killing; and 4) the killers must have claimed to be serving justice or tradition.  This definition remains useful to researchers today, including the scholars working on Project HAL: Historical American Lynching Data Collection Project.

Race & Lynching. The peak period of lynching in the U.S. was from 1882-1930, and estimates are that some 4,742 people have been lynched in the U.S. (through 1968).  What not everyone realizes is that lynching has taken place in almost every state in the U.S., and victims have been of a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds.  In fact, from 1882-1886, whites made up a majority of those lynched, almost exclusively at the hands of other whites. This began to change in 1886 which was something of a tipping point.  In 1886, 64 whites and 74 African Americans were lynched, but by 1898, 101 lynching victims were black compared to just 19 whites; and by 1919 and the notorious “Red Summer” there were only 7 whites lynched compared to 76 blacks.  The context for this historical period is, of course, the response to the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War.  After some progress by African Americans following the war, whites launched an insurgent movement to reassert white supremacy. From 1890 to 1908, white-elite-dominated state legislatures passed disfranchising constitutions that effectively barred most African Americans (and many poor whites) from voting. This legal disfranchisement was reinforced by the extra-legal pattern of lynching.

Geography of Lynching. During its peak, historical lynching followed certain geographic, racial patterns. Lynching was more common in the South, not necessarily because white Southerners were more racist than their Northern counterparts, but rather that is where most African Americans lived.  However, a county-by-county analysis of the HAL data looking at percentage of population that was African American and the rate of reported lynchings suggests that percentage of population alone was not enough to predict where lynchings might occur. Yet, when African Americans began to leave the South in significant numbers with the Great Migration, the number of lynchings began to decline. Historical lynching patterns also suggest a systemic racism that intersects with class and gender.

Class, Gender & Lynching. In terms of class, fluctuations in the market economy affected the rate of lynching. Beck and Tolnay found that lynching was “an integral element of an agricultural economy that required a large, cheap, and docile labor force” which was a continuation of a plantation economy (“The Killing Fields of the Deep South: The Market for Cotton and the Lynching of Blacks,” American Sociological Review, 55 (4, August, 1990):526-539. Further, Beck and Tolnay found that there was an inverse correlation between the price of cotton and lynching, such that as cotton prices fell, the number of lynchings rose.

African American women were lynched while the predominant pattern was that African American men were the primary targets of the practice of lynching. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, journalist and activist, wrote The Red Record in 1895 about lynching and noted the class and gender dynamics that were evident at the time. Wells-Barnett first got involved in the anti-lynching crusade after she witnessed the lynching of an African American grocer, seen as too economically successful by white citizens. Historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s Revolt Against Chivalry also patriarchal racial and gendered orders that were shored up by the practice of lynching. Wells-Barnett, and 100 years later Hall, both note the way that the “defense of white womanhood” was used as a justifying ideology for lynching black men, often falsely accused of rape.

Over this span of this reign of terror, the most conservative estimate is that 3,445 African Americans were lynched by whites; other estimates, like that of Wells-Barnett are much higher, near 10,000. According to one researcher, lynching was an “historically significant, but statistically rare event.” In many ways, this statistical assessment diminishes the reality of lynching’s effectiveness as a weapon of terrorism used by whites against blacks.

Terrorism is always a “statistically rare event” but that doesn’t make it any less effective as a tool of domination, in fact it may work in quite the opposite way. So, while historical lynching wasn’t exclusively a racist act, it was used as a weapon of racial domination especially after 1886.

Legal Execution, Legal Lynching?

The execution of Troy Davis has a lot of people using the term “legal lynching” to describe that heinous act.  Typically, when people use this term, it’s meant to convey the injustice done when a person who may not be guilty is executed by the state, as in the book Legal Lynching by Senior and Junior Jesse Jackson.  The folks at The Innocence Project work on getting wrongful convictions overturned and this is important. Beyond wrongful convictions, there are other similarities between historical lynching and the contemporary death penalty.

Race & the Death Penalty. A 2007 study of death sentences in Connecticut conducted by Yale University School of Law revealed that African-American defendants receive the death penalty at three times the rate of white defendants in cases where the victims are white. In addition, killers of white victims are treated more severely than people who kill people of color  when it comes to deciding what charges to bring.

(Source: Amnesty International, Death Penalty & Race)

Geography & the Death Penalty. States that sentence the most people to death also tend to be the states that had the most historical lynchings. Researchers found that the number of death sentences were higher in states with a history of lynchings.  The findings showed a clear link between the number of lynchings, the proportions of African Americans in the states, and the number of death sentences. This research also found that the number of death sentences increases in states after a growth in the population of Blacks. But the number of death sentences begins to go down once the population of African Americans reaches a threshold of about 20 to 22 percent (David Jacobs, Jason T. Carmichael, Stephanie L. Kent, “Vigilantism, Current Racial Threat, and Death Sentences,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 70, No. 4 (Aug., 2005):656-677).

Poverty & the Death Penalty. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall observed that the death penalty was unfair to the poor (among several other groups). And indeed, the death penalty is disproportionately applied to those who are poor.  Of course, the death penalty is an extension of the broader carceral system that snares the poor in this society, as Jeffrey Reiman of American University has pointed out in multiple editions of his book, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison.

Gender & the Death Penalty. In a study by Professor Steven Shatz of the University of San Francisco Law School and Naomi Shatz of the New York Civil Liberties Union suggests gender influences the death penalty, and that this bias has roots in the historic notion of chivalry.  In a review of 1,300 murder cases in California between 2003 and 2005, the authors found gender disparities with respect to both defendants and victims in the underlying crime.  The authors concluded “the death penalty is imposed on women relatively infrequently and that it is disproportionately imposed for the killing of women.  Thus, the death penalty in California appears to be applied in accordance with stereotypes about women’s innate abilities, their roles in society, and their capacity for violence. Far from being gender neutral, the California death penalty seems to allow prejudices and stereotypes about violence and gender, chivalric values, to determine who lives and who dies.” The researchers go on to note that “[b]ecause women are stereotyped as weak, passive, and in need of male protection, prosecutors and juries seem reluctant to impose the death penalty upon them.” On the other hand, in cases where the victim was a woman, the death sentence rate was 10.9%, seven times the rate when men were victims (1.5%).

Taken together, there are a lot of similarities between historical lynching and the “legal lynching” of state-sponsored executions.

But what about those “extra-legal” killings? Surely those have ended are no longer part of the contemporary patterns.  Yes and no.

Contemporary Lynchings & Capital Punishment

There were actually two executions on Wednesday of this week. The other took place in Texas where Lawrence Russell Brewer was executed for his part in the dragging death of James Byrd in 1998.  In case you don’t remember or aren’t familiar with the case, Brewer and two other white men kidnapped the 49-year-old James Byrd one night just outside Jasper, Texas. Then, they chained Byrd by the ankles to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him for 3 ½ miles down a country road until he was dead. Prosecutors said the crime, which they described it as one of the most vicious hate crimes in U.S. history, was intended to promote Brewer’s fledgling white supremacist organization. During his 1999 trial, they called Brewer a racist psychopath. Today, we use the term “hate crime” but we really should be connecting these kinds of acts to the historical pattern of lynching.  The killing of Mr. Byrd certainly fits the definition of “lynching” and is similar to those in the historical pattern of lynching.

The real anomaly here is that Brewer, who is white, was sentenced to death for killing a black man.

More recently, in August of this year, James Craig Anderson, a 49-year-old auto plant worker, was standing in a parking lot, near his car two carloads of white teenagers drove up and attacked him. The white teens allegedly beat Anderson repeatedly, yelled racial epithets, including “White Power!” according to witnesses. The attackers then climbed into their large Ford F250 green pickup truck, floored the gas, and drove the truck right over Anderson, killing him instantly.  The brutal attack was caught on videotape.  All the evidence suggests that those who attacked Mr. Anderson will not face capital punishment because they are white and Mr. Anderson was black. (Subsequent reports have also identified Mr. Anderson as gay and living with a long-term partner of 20 years, societal homophobia combined with racism makes even a conviction in this case questionable.)

It’s these “grotesque levels of racial bias” that affect the capital punishment system and part of what prompted an earlier Supreme Court to rule that the death penalty could not be applied fairly so should be stopped.  The current Supreme Court has not revealed any similar heroes for our time.

The End of the Death Penalty

Some have suggested that the intense level of attention surrounding the execution of Mr. Davis will mean the end of the death penalty.  I hope those predictions come true, I really do.

Yet, when I see the cheering from a crowd over people dying – dying by state-sponsored lethal injection or the slower death by neoliberalism from a lack of health care – it frankly makes me question how strong our collective political will might be for ending the death penalty.

To me, there’s no doubt that there are people who’ve committed heinous crimes that may not deserve to live – Brewer comes to mind for his lynching of James Byrd – but I don’t think that state-sponsored killing, as Camus observed – the most premeditated of murders – solves anything.  In fact, it makes us all worse for its existence.

It’s really about what kind of a society we want to be. From what I sit, I think we need to do better, much better, than state-sponsored death.



  1. Lynching Alive and Well in Amereica
  2. Digital Sisterhood Month’s Guest Blogger Series – Jessie Daniels « Digital Sisterhood Network
  3. Order and Tradition

Leave a Reply