A clearinghouse for information, analysis, and resources related to state sanctioned violence in the United States
Jump down to lists (organized by name, date, and form of collusion)
Patterns of Police and State Involvement with Lynching
“[W]hen A Negro is linched, it don’t matter, Night or Day, it goes to the news papers, the negro name that was linched, but know one gives the name of any one that does or helps to do the linching. […] It is always are so that the mob gets the negro out of the hands of the Officers[.] The mob never get hands on A negro untell the Officers get him in there hands, and put him in Jale or take him by violence. But no one know the name of any member of the mob. In my judgement it appears to me that the Officers of the Law is a Part of the Mob. The lawless mob never go after A negro untell they get an Officer with them, and when the negro is killed the Officers don’t know a single one in the gang.” – anonymous resident of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in a letter to the Baptist Vanguard newspaper based in Little Rock. NAACP Administrative Files, 1921, Undated
The content of this letter describes what was an open secret to anti-lynching activists in the early 1900s, that is, despite the tendency of critics to describe lynching as “lawless” and the circulation of definitions that insisted on the practice’s “illegality”, lynching was in fact deeply embedded in the legal order. As the letter-writer indicates, it was not just that the legal system tolerated lynching or ‘looked the other way.’ The problem of lynching was that “the Officers of the Law is a Part of the Mob.” Although the mob in question might be “lawless,” its lawlessness was imbued with the force and authority of law because police officers, judges, sheriffs, and deputies were active as participants and bystanders to the violence. It was not its illegality, but precisely its legality that gave lynching its apparently omnipotent power.
By far the most common pattern of law enforcement participation in lynching involved the custodial transfer of victims from police or jail into the hands of lynchers. Of the 130+ incidents I have studied in detail so far, more than 100 cases involved the removal of a prisoner from police custody or jail. In most cases, the officers involved claimed that the custodial transfer was accomplished against their will or without their knowledge. However, the ability of these persons to access prisoners kept under lock and key demands some explanation beyond that typically provided by officers implicated in the incident. Since official investigations of lynching were exceedingly rare, in most cases historians can only speculate as to the veracity of police officer’s claims. Occasionally there is some evidence supporting the officer’s claim of resistance, as in cases where there is a verifiable paper trail documenting a request for help from nearby counties or from the governor. More often than not, however, police officers claimed to have been overpowered by mobs without offering, or being asked for, any evidence to support this version of events.
Two other patterns are also present: spectacle lynchings and killings by posses. The majority of lynching photos and postcards document spectacle lynchings – incidents in which a lynching was publicly organized, occurred during the day or early evening, and were attended by hundreds or even thousands of spectators. These incidents almost always included significant official collusion, with police officers and elected officials either participating directly or intentionally failing to prevent the lynching.
Killings by posses are frequently misinterpreted as “mob violence,” when in fact a “posse” refers to a group of civilians that has been deputized by a sheriff or military commander. In some cases, posse members were even provided with firearms and transportation. Although they are not professional law enforcement officers, I categorize killings by posses as state-perpetrated lynchings, because the civilians involved in these incidents were legally authorized to track and arrest alleged suspects, outfitted by the state, and generally protected in the aftermath when a lynching occurred.
Since ~2012, I have been searching historical records and newspapers, and collecting documentation of state-perpetrated lynchings. Below are the results of my research so far – the process of digitizing is slow, so please bear with me as I work to build this site.
If you have information related to one of the incidents listed below, or if you have knowledge of a state-perpetrated lynching that does not appear here, I am eager to hear from you.
View by name of victim (alphabetical)
View by date (chronological)
View by type of collusion (custodial transfer, spectacle, posse)
Lynchers were rarely prosecuted, and the few prosecutions that did occur rarely led to convictions. The most successful prosecutions generally came from the non-representative portion of lynching incidents that did not involve police officers. Prosecutions were also more likely to succeed when the victim of lynching was white.
View list of lynching prosecutions (chronological)
In some cases, police officers, mayors, judges, and other officials did try to prevent lynchings. The Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL) was among several organizations that felt these officers should be honored, as part of the larger publicity campaign against lynching. The NAACP and other groups sometimes sent commendations to officers who were reported to have vigorously resisted lynchings. The attention given to law enforcement’s role in preventing lynching also underscores their more typical role, of participating in or acquiescing to lynching.
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