It takes a brave historian to take on the orthodoxy regarding the rise and fall of lynching in the United States. That orthodoxy holds...

It takes a brave historian to take on the orthodoxy regarding the rise and fall of lynching in the United States. That orthodoxy holds that lynching in the South was a ‘system of social control’ in which whites used organized terror to oppress blacks. You can find this thesis in numerous monographs, textbooks, and in the popular press. It’s one of those things “everybody knows.”

But according to Robert Thurston’s provocative new book Lynching: American Mob Murder in Global Perspective (Ashgate, 2011) the standard ‘social control’ line is inadequate. It cannot explain when lynching started or when it ended; why lynching occurred in some places often and others never; and why the period in question witnessed a considerable amount of intra-racial lynching. The ‘social control’ thesis fails because it tries to put a square peg (the evidence) in a round hole (the concept of systematic oppression through terror). Thurston shows that lynching, though hardly accidental, was simply too occasional and too random to be called ‘systemic.’ He argues that lynching was–and remains where we find it today–a collective response to political instability, especially instability caused by a lack of legitimate and effective authority. When people don’t trust the sheriff or there is no sheriff, they are going to take matters into their own hands. This sort of ‘rough justice’ is wildly imperfect: the mob often gets the wrong man. And it is not only about justice: the mob often cynically takes the chaos provided by ‘rough justice’ to settle old scores, some of which may be racist (Post-Reconstruction America) or classist (Revolutionary Russia) or both. But there is no ‘system’ here, except in the sense of a widespread pattern of collective action triggered by a reasonably common political situation, namely the lack of legitimate, effective authority.

Thurston’s emphasis on authority (or the lack of it) in explaining lynching enables him to present a new thesis as to why lynching abated considerably in the U.S. after 1892. The primary reason, he says, is that Whites succeed in creating a true system of social control, namely, Jim Crow. What was chaotic and unstable became structured and steady, though in a manner that to us (rightly) seems manifestly unjust. Thurston also points to other factors that contributed to the decline of lynching, for example the rising status of blacks in the South and changing international attitudes about race. These factors–Jim Crow, black advancement, anti-racism–did not destroy a ‘system of social control.’ They simply made ‘rough justice’ impracticable for and  unacceptable to most white and black citizens.

This is an important book and should be widely read and discussed. I hope that Ashgate will bring out a paperback edition, or that the author will be persuaded to write and publish a shorter, popularly-oriented version.

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