The thousands of African Americans lynched between 1880 and 1950 differed in many
respects, but in most cases, the circumstances of their murders can be categorized as one
or more of the following
1. Lynchings that resulted from a wildly distorted fear of interracial sex
Nearly 25 percent of the lynchings of African Americans in the South were based on charges of sexual assault. The mere accusation of rape, even without an identification by the alleged victim, could arouse a lynch mob. The definition of black-on-white “rape” in the South required no allegation of force because white institutions, laws, and most white people rejected the idea that a white woman would willingly consent to sex with an African American man.
2. Lynchings in response to casual social transgressions
Hundreds of African Americans accused of no serious crime were lynched for social grievances like speaking disrespectfully, refusing to step off the sidewalk, using profane language, using an improper title for a white person, suing a white man, arguing with a white man, bumping into a white woman, and insulting a white person. African Americans living in the South during this era were terrorized by the knowledge that they could be lynched if they intentionally or accidentally violated any social convention defined by any white person.
3. Lynchings based on allegations of serious violent crime
More than half of the lynching victims EJI documented were killed under accusation of committing murder or rape. Deep racial hostility in the South during this period focused suspicion on black people, whether evidence supported that suspicion or not, especially in cases of violent crime against white victims.
4. Public spectacle lynchings
Large crowds of white people, often numbering in the thousands and including elected officials and prominent citizens, gathered to witness pre-planned, heinous killings that featured prolonged torture, mutilation, dismemberment, and/or burning of the victim. White press justified and promoted these carnival like events, with vendors selling food, printers producing postcards featuring photographs of the lynching and corpse, and the victim’s body parts collected as souvenirs. These killings were bold, public acts that implicated the entire community and sent a message that African Americans were sub-human, their subjugation was to be achieved through any means necessary, and whites who carried out lynchings would face no legal repercussions.
5.Lynchings that escalated into large-scale violence targeting the entire African American community
Some lynch mobs targeted entire black communities by forcing black people to witness lynchings and demanding that they leave the area or face a similar fate. These lynchings were designed for broad impact—to send a message of domination, to instill fear, and sometimes to drive African Americans from the community. After a lynching in Forsyth County, Georgia, in 1912, white vigilantes distributed leaflets demanding that all black people leave the county or suffer deadly consequences; so many black families fled that, by 1920, the county’s black population had plunged from 1100 to just thirty.
6.Lynchings of sharecroppers, ministers, and community leaders who resisted mistreatment
From 1915 to 1940, whites used lynching to suppress African Americans who, individually and in organized groups, were demanding the economic and civil rights to which they were entitled.