It’s common nowadays to hear about the release of yet another video of ISIS committing another human atrocity: torture, hangings, violence of all types, including burning people alive. Seemingly, these tragedies bear little resemblance to how we live our own lives; they occur in places and by people far removed from us, and it’s easy to write them off as the work of violent terrorists or followers of Islamic fundamentalism. It’s too easy to shrug and forget about it; out of sight, out of mind. Because American history is our country’s weakest academic subject, most citizens probably possess a grossly insufficient understanding about the consequences of lynchings on our own soil. What if we were forced to take an unflinching look, though, at the horrors that our own ancestors, only a few generations past, inflicted upon others — torture, hangings, burning people alive — many of which were carried out based on some unsubstantiated rumor that incited a feverish mob to seek swift and violent justice? Would we, alas, sigh and shrug, say, “That was then, this is now”?
Guy Lancaster, editor of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, has compiled 10 essays in an engrossing new book, “Bullets and Fire: Lynching and Authority in Arkansas, 1840-1950,” published by the University of Arkansas Press. “Bullets and Fire” painstakingly examines the brutal legacy of lynching in Arkansas. Each essay is laden with fascinating — and unsettling — historical insights, context and details. (The title foreshadows the fate of the hundreds of unfortunate victims.)
In addition to editing the collection, Lancaster also contributes an essay that explores the circumstances of the lynching of John Carter, arguably Arkansas’s most famous case. It’s a must-read for all Arkansans. The essays in this book are accessible to history novices, but include plenty of fresh scholarship for those already familiar with this part of Arkansas’s history. Some essays, such as Richard Buckelew’s telling of the Clarendon lynching of 1898, read like a modern-day true-crime tale — instantly seductive but far from middlebrow, adeptly touching on race, class and gender.
How prevalent was lynching? Academics use a variety of research methods — namely, studies of newspaper accounts — to quantify the number of victims, but it’s generally agreed that there were approximately 317 victims of lynching from 1860-1930. Not all were fueled by racial animus; whites were sometimes victims as well, although approximately 80 percent of all victims were black. Arkansas ranked sixth in the nation in the number of victims. For a long time, perpetrators were not arrested; in fact, lynching was practiced alongside with law enforcement, and to read the indifferent and coldly objective newspaper accounts of these horrendous crimes, including from the Arkansas Gazette, is sobering.
Popular entertainment presents most lynchings as being carried out by masked men in the dead of the night, but that’s more myth than fact. The NAACP’s definition of lynching is the one commonly used today: “evidence that a person was killed; the killing was illegal; at least three people were involved in the killing of the victim; and the killing was justified with reference to tradition, justice or honor.” Nancy Snell Griffith’s essay outlines the four types of lynch mobs. Private mobs were a small group operating in secret; it’s estimated 30 percent of lynchings in Arkansas were committed by such mobs. Terrorist mobs made no secret of their intentions, which was usually to threaten and punish. Posses typically had some level of organization and varied in size from a smattering of men to a hundred or more. They were often respected by the community and meted out “justice” with impunity. Mass mobs functioned in full view of the public, usually numbering in the hundreds or thousands.
In Arkansas, lynching reached its peak after the Civil War and reconstruction; the African-American population in Arkansas tripled between 1870 and 1890, many migrating from other Southern states seeking the possibility of land ownership and increased economic opportunities. However, by 1890, with the drop in cotton prices and an economic downturn, competition for jobs significantly increased, and this often pitted blacks against whites. In response to this new economic and social climate, the Democrat-led legislature passed laws limiting the rights of African Americans with poll taxes and laws designed to segregate black and white. White citizens took matters into their own hands: “Night riding” and lynchings were used to intimidate blacks, especially those who challenged white supremacy. (Because blacks in plantation societies did not trust the white judicial system, they sometimes exacted vigilante justice against members of their own society for murder, rape and incest.)
Nearly half of all of Arkansas’s lynchings occurred during the decade of the 1890s, and the turn of the century didn’t fare much better for African Americans, with the election of Jeff Davis as governor from 1901 to 1907. A virulent racist, he told President Theodore Roosevelt that he condoned lynching and expected proud whites to utilize the act whenever necessary.
Eventually Arkansas, like other Southern states, began to feel the backlash against lynching, notably from prominent Northern newspapers. Even the famed “hanging judge” Isaac Parker spoke out against lynching, calling it the “most revolting and disgusting acts of savagery … .” George W. Donaghey succeeded Davis as governor and in his inaugural address he announced that he believed that law enforcement and government policy could prevent lynchings. On a national level, a Republican from Missouri, Leonidas Dyer, introduced the Dyer Bill, prescribing hefty fines for county governments where a lynching occurred. The strongest opposition came from Southern Democrats and, incredibly, even the NAACP had concerns about the constitutionality of such a bill. The Association of Southern Woman for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL) was created in 1930 with the objective of using “white women’s moral and social leverage to educate and persuade Southern whites to end lynching in rural communities.” The group disbanded in 1941, but it’s a testament to an early instance of revoking one’s personal privilege to challenge moral failings.
If Arkansas’s history of lynchings seems far removed, consider that it wasn’t until 2005 that the U.S. Senate formally apologized for its continuous failure to create anti-lynching legislation. Fittingly, it was Arkansas’s own Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln who helped draft and sponsor that resolution.
In Lancaster’s introduction, he sums up the book’s focus this way: “… we hope to illustrate that lynching was not a disease afflicting the nation but rather one of the vital organs within the body politic of white supremacy.” The book succeeds in doing just that — and so much more. While we may no longer have poll taxes, we now have “voter ID” laws. Even though we now have video evidence from many unlawful police shootings, we still can’t agree on who the culprits are in these videos. Politicians gerrymander districts and the result is segregated representation. Gentrification is pushing African Americans out of their own communities. It is disquieting to finish this book and wonder how far we’ve really come. Maybe most people still shrug: out of sight out of mind. Maybe the dark truth at the center of our complicated history with race is that, for a myriad of reasons, many Americans simply don’t see African Americans as their American equal. Lancaster masterfully shows us the “that was then.” So, what are we going to do about the “this is now”?