In keeping with the Black History Month theme of Black Resistance, this week’s focus is on the resistance of African Americans to lynchings, race riots, and other forms of terrorism. It covers the entire span of the Black experience in America. It begins with the slavery laws that enabled “slave catchers” to capture and return runaways, dead or alive. This often involved the organizing of the White Patrols, groups of armed white men who searched the countryside in slave-holding states looking for fleeing enslaved Africans.
This violence that was fomented and approved during slavery did not end with the outlawing of slavery. As slave plantations transitioned into share-cropping plantations, local sheriffs and other law-enforcers often sought and captured Black farm workers who attempted to secretly leave the plantations and go north or west to start life anew after having been denied their rightful shares of the proceeds from the year’s crops. Many Black families were thus kept on plantations for generations through violence and terrorism.
The kind of violence that had been commonplace during slavery became even more formalized in 1865 with the organizing of the Ku Klux Klan and other such terrorist groups, first by Nathan Bedford Forrest, the ex-Confederate General, and his colleagues. The KKK and other terrorist groups, including “the Red Shirts” and “White Leagues,” operated across the South and immediately began helping to overthrow local governments that were composed of Black and Union-affiliated white leaders in places like New Orleans, Louisiana and Wilmington, North Carolina. They were so effective until, in the absence of federal troops, they were able to solidify their power through the South in barely ten years.
In the process of returning the ex-Confederates to power, thousands of Black people were killed or driven from the area. Race riots and other forms of terrorism resulted in the loss of thousands of Black lives and millions of acres of land. They occurred across the country, but perhaps most notably in Tulsa, Oklahoma; Rosewood, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia; East St. Louis, Illinois; Thibodaux, Louisiana; Ocoee, Florida; New Orleans, Louisiana; Elaine, Arkansas; and Opelousas, Louisiana.
In the beginning stages of the effort as the white terrorist groups began rampaging, there were many Black men who served in the Union armies that were used to prevent the complete, immediate resurgence of the ex-Confederates. By 1877, however, the federal government withdrew or de-commissioned the last of these troops, enabling the violent-prone southerners to seize complete control. The political compromise that led to the decision regarding the withdrawal of federal troops had been aided and abetted by the fraud and violence of the KKK, the “White Leagues,” the “Red Shirts,” and others in the Southern states.
The kinds of terrorism mentioned above leads us directly into a discussion of racial lynchings in America from the end of Reconstruction until the 1980s. That is the case because these lynchings were additional means of terrorism, designed to “keep Black people in their place.”
Researchers have recorded in the neighborhood of 4,500 Black people being lynched in America during that century-long period. (Michael Donald in Mobile in 1981 is the last such individual usually listed as having been lynched in America.) While many people will recognize the name of Emmett Till, who was lynched in Sunflower County, Mississippi in 1955, they should not be surprised that there have been racial lynchings in virtually every Southern, Border and Mid-Western state in America, and some in the eastern and western states as well. Many of the victims have gone nameless. Furthermore, today there is an effort to erase such history.
In a sense, the lynchings were actions carried out by white citizens often as law-enforcement officials looked the other way. Several books, such as “Without Sanctuary” by James Allen, “One Hundred Years of Lynchings in America” by Ralph Ginzburg, “Lynchings in Mississippi” by Julius Thompson, and “My Soul is a Witness” by Mari Crabtree described the lynchings. Lynchings were most numerous from 1890 until 1950.
There were so many Black people killed through lynchings and race riots until Ida B. Wells actually gained notoriety through her newspaper and research advocating federal action to make lynching a federal crime. In that effort, she was supported by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). During that same general time period, NAACP Executive Director W.E.B. DuBois led a petition drive, calling on the United Nations to intervene on behalf of Black people to end such a violation of human rights. In the aftermath of DuBois’ initiative, The Civil Rights Congress compiled an exhaustive list of racial attacks that resulted in the deaths of Black people. That document was entitled, “We Charge Genocide.” It too was presented to the United Nations.
In addition to these voices and commentaries in such Black newspapers as the Chicago Defender, the Los Angeles Sentinel, the New York Amsterdam News, and the Pittsburg Courier, hundreds of thousands of Black people expressed their resistance to racial terrorism and lynchings by migrating to areas where they thought the likelihood of such genocidal practices were less. During that 60-70 year time period, outward migration was their major pattern of resistance.
As time passed, however, many Black people in urban areas north and west as well as some who were involved in southern civil rights activities turned to other expressions of resistance to white violence. For an example, Monroe, North Carolina NAACP President Robert Williams advocated “Negroes with Guns” for their personal safety. As quietly as it was kept, Medgar Evers and Dr. T.R. Howard often rode with armed guards. Civil rights leaders in Jonesboro, Louisiana, organized what became known as the Deacons for Defense and Justice in 1964. That idea and practice quickly spread to other areas, including places such as Mileston, Mississippi. The book, “We Will Shoot Back,” by Akinyele Umoja gives an excellent account of this type of resistance. In later years, others who resisted white violence through armed self-protection came to include the Black Panther Party, the Republic of New Afrika, and militia groups such as the NFA Coalition.
One often hears the statement that the more things change, the more they remain the same. That thought may come to mind when one observes the rising incidences of police actions that result in the death of Black people. In many ways, police homicide has taken the place of lynchings and riots in Black communities. A rash of such police attacks occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For an example, four historically Black colleges were shot-up, resulting in student killings – Texas Southern University in 1967, South Carolina State in 1968, Jackson State in 1970, and Southern University in 1972. Similarly, there were attacks on several Black Panther Party headquarters, including the one in Chicago wherein Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were killed in 1969 and on members of the Republic of New Afrika in Detroit in 1969 and Jackson, Mississippi, in 1971. Tyre Nichols is now in the news after having been killed at the hands of police. A few years ago, it was George Floyd. Before that there were others who are too numerous to mention, except to note that an unusually large number of them were Black who had not done anything that would warrant the use of deadly force. Yes, police homicides, civilian terrorism, and other forms of violence against Black people occur with such regularity that one is reminded of the history of such from slavery through Reconstruction and Jim Crow.
Even as that happens, history will record that rather than accept these deaths at the hands of terrorists and law-enforcement officials meekly and unquestionably, Black Lives Matter protesters and others took to the streets, took to their phones, and took to the courts as a show of resistance. They embodied resistance to white racial violence just as the African runaways and rioters had during the period of slavery.
As a matter of fact, what one needs to note is that in every phase of the Black experience in America, Black people have found or created ways to resist. It helps to know or remember the names of the locations and individuals involved, the specific incidents described, and what were the keys to their effectiveness. Such specifics add to the human dimension for consumers of the news/history. The history must be perpetuated and the actions of its heroes duplicated by African Americans and others who believe in justice and what has come to be known as the American dream.
It is the function of such history to inspire and help equip people to advance this cause as long and as often as is necessary. It will be necessary until true democracy and full human rights are enjoyed by every citizen. Furthermore, since these concepts are dynamic and elusive rather than permanently attainable, the struggle will always be necessary.