Segment from Fear Tactics

Seen and Believed

Ed talks with historian Amy Wood about how lynching photographs were used first by white supremacists as tools of suppression, before being appropriated by the African-American community as tools of protest.

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**This is a transcription of an earlier broadcast of this episode, there may be slight differences in language in this rebroadcast.**

ED: Earlier in the show, we mentioned that one of the defining attributes of terrorism is that it’s meant to strike fear into an audience beyond its immediate targets. It’s violence that sends a message. And from the end of the Civil War through the mid-20th century, a prime example of that kind of violence was lynching. At least 5,000 people were lynched during those years, the vast majority of them black men.

African-Americans understood that the message was this. Don’t step out of line, or else. As Richard Wright wrote in his autobiography, Black Boy, quote, “The things that influenced my conduct as a Negro did not have to happen to me directly. I needed but to hear of them to feel their full effects in the deepest layers of my consciousness.” End quote.

Hear of them or see pictures. In the early 20th century, photographs of lynching circulated widely, sometimes, believe it or not, as postcards. They functioned as stark reminders of the racial hierarchy for both white and black Southerners.

I recently had the chance to discuss the effects of these photos with historian Amy Wood, author of a recent book called Lynching and Spectacle. And just a warning to our listeners, this interview has descriptions of some graphic violence. If you’d rather not hear that, now’s the time to turn the volume down.

One of the pictures you have in your book is the lynching of Charlie Hale in Lawrenceville, Georgia, 1911. Can you sort of evoke that photograph and interpret it for us?

AMY WOOD: Sure. So this lynching, Charlie Hale was an African-American man who was accused of assaulting a white woman, which was one of the common charges leveled against African-American men. He was lynched in the center of town, right across from the county courthouse. In the photograph, Charlie Hale is hanging from a telephone or a telegraph pole.

And then around to the right hand side of the pole is a crowd of men that’s spilling out from the edges of the photograph. So it’s hard to even see how many men are there. There’s one child, one little boy, and then a number of men, some of whom are in more casual clothes. There is a man with a three-piece suit.

And they’re looking, there’s a kind of defiance to what they’re doing. I mean, they’re not smiling. They’re sort of following a convention of portraiture in 1911, the way people posed for a photograph. And then what’s kind of extraordinary is the papers after this event noted that no one, no members of the mob, could be identified, when this photograph was then made into a post card and circulated around town after the lynching.

ED: And something that’s very disturbing, too, is a sign hanging from the feet of the victim. Tell us about that, Amy.

AMY WOOD: The sign says, “Please do not wake.” So it’s a kind of mocking of his state at that moment. The faces on the crowd look really stern. But then next to that sign, you realize the kind of– I don’t know what the word would be, dismissiveness they have toward their victim, this kind of cruel mockery at this point of total degradation.

ED: So I think we’ve kind of segregated, so to speak, that in our imaginations by imagining this as being a part of the Ku Klux Klan. If you see films from it, it’s like it’s that moment, it’s those kind of people. And I think one of the really powerful lessons of your book is just how widespread. So there’s young men and women. There’s leaders of the community. There’s people who were seen as marginal to it. But everybody sort of crowds to get into the picture.

AMY WOOD: Exactly. The Klan arises during Reconstruction. And when they committed lynchings and other acts of violence against African-Americans, they cloaked themselves. Not necessarily in white robes, but they cloaked themselves. And that was a way to disguise their identity, but it was actually a way to also emphasize or accentuate the terror. Because they thought that by cloaking themselves in this way, they would appear more terrifying to their victims, which I think they did.

The Klan reforms officially in 1915, and it becomes quite popular in the early 1920s. But the Klan wasn’t officially engaging in lynchings in this period. In fact, the Klan as an organization disavowed lynchings. It could be that lynchings that were taking place in the late 1910s and the 1920s had Klansmen in the crowd or in the mob, but they weren’t doing so in their robes. They had kind of decloaked themselves.

These were not done under the cloak of a disguise. These were done as these public spectacles. These had become socially acceptable for people to show themselves within this crowd.

One thing I wanted to emphasize was that spectacle lynchings, these sort of mass mob lynchings, where the whole crowd is gathering around, the majority of lynchings didn’t happen that way. The majority of lynchings did happen more secretly, but then things like stories that were told and the photographs that added to that made those quote unquote “secret” lynchings quite public and made what otherwise might be a private event a public event.

ED: So it does seem that in some ways, all this peaks around 1915 and sort of the cult of Birth of a Nation and the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and so forth. It seems that the 1930s are a turn against lynching, that the Southern governors, people begin to have some kind of crusades against it and so forth. So why do you think the 1930s would be when we see this turn away from that?

AMY WOOD: Well, I think there’s a number of different factors, including the black migration. So you start having white elites in the South fear of losing their labor force as African-Americans are wanting to flee the South. But I think we have to give credit to the anti-lynching movement as well and their success in publicizing these.

The black press is really developing in the late 19th, early 20th century. And once they had the technology to be able to print photographs, they start publishing these photographs in the black press, wanting to draw attention to lynching just through the sort of shocking nature of these photographs to sort of say, look, lynching has become socially acceptable. So that white liberals in the North start paying attention. You’re having a lot of white, liberal congressmen and senators supporting federal anti-lynching legislation. So that’s becoming public news.

And so you start having elites in the South particularly worried about commerce and the view that Northerners might have. They’re worried about capital investment coming in from the North. They start realizing that this is unseemly. And they start wanting to distance themselves from what mobs might be doing.

So you have this kind of shift in public opinion. You start seeing the mainstream media, so Time magazine and Life magazine, show a couple of images in the 1930s. And then Hollywood takes up the charge. So you get a few anti-lynching films in the 1930s from Hollywood.

And those films, just as something like Birth of a Nation replicating pro-lynching narratives, these Hollywood films in the 1930s like Fury, starring Spencer Tracy, start replicating the rhetoric of the anti-lynching movement. And most whites aren’t going to be reading the black press. But they are going to be reading Time and Life, and they are going to be going to Hollywood movies. So you get this kind of large-scale shift in public opinion, which forces Southerners on the defensive about this.

ED: Which helps explain the remarkable response to the Emmett Till case. Perhaps you could sketch that for us briefly.

AMY WOOD: Yeah. So Emmett Till was a young boy, 14-year-old boy from Chicago who went down one summer to Money, Mississippi, to stay with relatives. And he went into a grocery store, and he allegedly wolf whistled at the wife of the owner of the grocery store. That owner and– I think it was his brother or his brother-in-law– went and hunted down Emmett Till and tortured his body and killed him.

By that point in the 1950s, it was not a public spectacle. The mood had changed enough that they’re having to do this in secret. But Emmett Till’s mother wants what happened to her son to be made visible. She wants it to be made public. So she allows the press into his funeral in Chicago.

A photograph of Emmett Till in his casket, she had an open casket. And his body is completely disfigured and mutilated and bloated from– he was dropped in the river, and so his body was bloated from having been in the river. And those photographs appeared in the black press. They appeared in Jet magazine and the Chicago Defender. And it created a kind of anger in the black community that really helped gird what was already happening in the beginnings of the civil rights movement.

So that’s a kind of moment where you really see the whole way that imagery is used in lynching changing dramatically from something like 1911 with Charlie Hale. By the time you get to Emmett Till, the men who lynched him are not going to take pictures of themselves. They’re not going to take a picture of his body. And instead, it’s his mother who wants to take a picture of his desecrated body and use that as a symbol of white supremacy, a symbol of white terrorism. So if the first image was a symbol of black brutality and white strength, by the time you get to Emmett Till, the photograph of his body comes to represent white brutality.

ED: That was Amy Louise Wood, an associate professor of history at Illinois State University. Her book is Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890 to 1940.

BRIAN: It’s time for a short break. When we get back, we’ll take a few listener calls.

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