On the origin of “lynching”


Two postings this weekend involving lynch mobs led me to an interesting bit of history from the Revolutionary War. Reading the L.A. Times op-ed title, “Southern ‘Hanging Bridge: A monument to Judge Lynch,” made me gasp. It had never occurred to me that lynching derived from someone’s name.

Jason Morgan Ward, associate professor of history at Mississippi State University, begins:

On Feb. 10, the Montgomery, Ala.-based organization Equal Justice Initiative released “Lynching in America,” a searing report that documents 3,959 lynchings in 12 Southern states from 1877 to 1950. The researchers note that their count exceeds that of previous studies by at least 700 victims. The news media seized on the numbers and paid less attention to what the group characterized as an “astonishing absence” of lynching memorials in communities that boast monuments to Confederate soldiers and architects of the South’s Jim Crow regime.

As it happens, an abandoned, rusted bridge on a dirt road near Shubuta, Mississippi stands as a makeshift monument to the lynchings that occurred there between 1918 and 1942. When Ward asked locals if the new road bypassing the “hanging bridge” had anything to do with its history, a local told him, “People don’t need to see that.”

But Ward’s op-ed did not explain who Judge Lynch was.

It was news last week when Oklahoma legislators voted to cease funding an Advance Placement history course, echoing a key critic of the curriculum who believes “the concept of American exceptionalism has been deliberately scrubbed out of this document.”

At Crooks and Liars, Dave Neiwert suggests that one motivation for the legislation may be that Oklahomans do not want to see their own unflattering history revisited: the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 and the Osage Reign of Terror, also from the 1920s. In the first, white lynch mobs obliterated a prosperous black neighborhood – even dropping fire bombs from airplanes (one might consider that exceptional) – and in the second, white fortune hunters exploited and murdered Osage tribal members to gain control over oil rights. Combined, hundreds died. Neiwert explains:

An understanding of Oklahoma history would not be complete without at least some knowledge of these incidents, particularly because they loom so large in the history of race relations in America as a nation.

It also would give young people a clearer and fuller picture of the scope and nature of how history has shaped modern race relations in America. At a bare minimum, it will prevent privileged and sheltered whites from asking ignorantly: “Why haven’t blacks done any better since we ended slavery?” or asking: “Why do Native Americans insist on clinging to their reservations?”

But who was Judge Lynch, and how did his name get attached to extrajudicial killings?

While the Oxford English Dictionary offers no summary judgement, the most likely source seems to be Col. Charles Lynch, a Quaker justice of the peace from Bedford County in the Virginia piedmont, and an officer in the county militia during the Revolutionary War. (His older brother founded the city of Lynchburg.) Threatened in 1780 with the approach of Lord Cornwallis’ troops invading from the south, and facing insurrection from local Loyalists, Colonel Lynch and the county court overstepped their legal authority in jailing Tory conspirators for treason, for which they later threatened to sue Lynch and his associates. Wikipedia explains, “Lynch’s extralegal actions were retroactively legitimized by the Virginia General Assembly in 1782.”

The incidents were notorious enough in colonial Virginia that Judge Lynch, the Quaker, became synonymous with extralegal punishments. Hence, Lynch’s Law.

That’s it. No Stallone movie. Just a footnote to history. Except for the fact that the terrorism “used to enforce racial subordination and segregation” across the South following Reconstruction, homegrown terrorism the Equal Justice Initiative’s new report details, bears Lynch’s name.

Pending the outcome of the FBI’s investigation of the 2014 hanging death of Lennon Lacy in Bladenboro, NC, EJI may have one more lynching to add to its historical(?) report.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

Categories : Education, History, Race

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