Racism, Violence and the United States, Pt. II: Torture and Lynching

by Spencer Kingman

In a previous article, I tried to expose the racist roots of the massive U.S. prison system and its continuities with slavery. I described a system that severs people from family and society, renders them invisible and untouchable, then puts the to work for almost no pay. This is indeed “violence,” but it is so pervasive, and so deeply institutionalized, that it is sometimes hard to recognize it as such. Sometimes the weight of “the system” can just roll over people without any identifiable villains or messy confrontations.

The violence of torture, on the other hand, is unmistakable. It scars the defenseless body and wrecks the captive mind. These days, our discussions of torture are too often limited to what is happening in Iraq or Guantanamo Bay, and we fail to connect these outrages to what occurs within domestic prisons or at the hands of police. We also fail to trace the racist lineage of all these practices. In this article, I will try to establish some of the historical links between racism, prison, and torture all the way back through slavery. In the next article, I will try to relate these things to the present day situation. Reader be advised: this article contains some disturbing descriptions of torture.

With emancipation in 1863, millions of black people stepped back from a system that tried to place them “beyond the pale of human sympathy,” 1 a system that, by any means necessary, worked them from cradle to grave, a system that mangled their genealogy and hurled it, with so many lives, into a great abyss of loss. For each of these exslaves, the past held tortured stories of annihilation and rape, escape and revenge. It held the bitter smell of disease, the rough sound of unknown languages, and the naked crush of people in holds the size of crawl spaces. For every African slave that was actually imported to the Americas, there were perhaps five other Africans killed in conquest, capture, or transport.2 This statistic should speak not just to the unhinged destructiveness of the Europeans, but also to the do-or-die resistance of Africans. From buyer-to-buyer, branded and chained, those who survived this holocaust were sold out to farms in the U.S. south. Perhaps, with time, the brutality of capture receded, elongated and blunted by elaborate rituals of white paternalism or the routines of back-breaking labor. But for 250 years, the rapes and whippings continued. Slave work was demeaning and dangerous while the profits went to others. Rebellions ignited hysterical violence, and escapees braved an ocean of hostility.

But in some ways, black people were less vulnerable as slaves than they would become after emancipation. After all, as slaves, they “belonged” to somebody. As valuable property they could count on some protection from their owners against other whites, and their status was well defined. As free people, with the caste system in disarray, they were held in near universal contempt by a defeated, fearful white population. Within a short time, rifle clubs and groups like the Ku Klux Klan formed to terrorize blacks and cancel their newly won rights. Instead of voting, learning, owning land and holding office, exslaves, poor and poorly armed, were whipped, burned, and run to death by dogs.

The line between vigilantism and court justice was thin. Juries and judges were nearly always white. At the end of the Civil War, the population of southern jails promptly flipped from mostly-white to mostly-black and multiplied four-, five-, even ten-fold as people were locked up for trivial crimes: stealing food, “trouble-making,” “disrespect.” Soon there were far more black convicts than the states could handle. As a solution, states started leasing black convicts out to entrepreneurs (white convicts remained in the state jailbeds). In return for taking on the responsibility of feeding, clothing, and holding the black inmates, these businessmen were allowed to work them as hard as they pleased. In many cases the conditions and work were far more dangerous than during slavery.

As one southern employer put it in 1883, “Before the war we owned the negroes. If a man had a good n—–, he could afford to take care of him; if he was sick get a doctor. He might even put gold plugs in his teeth. But these convicts: we don’t own ‘em. One dies, get another.”3 Big farming, logging and mining companies all rushed to drink from this poison well, acquiring convicts for their most dangerous and expensive projects. In 1876, one group of leased-out convicts was put to work clearing a path through the jungles of Florida. There were no provisions for shelter or food. Instead, the prisoners were forced to construct “rude huts” and “scour the woods” to eat. They soon met with starvation, exposure, scurvy, dysentery, pneumonia, and malaria. To keep them working, overseers rained whips down on their backs, and some were left hanging by their thumbs from trees, leaving them with hands “resembling the paws of certain apes.” Only 27 of 72 survived. Other leased-out convicts constructed the precious railroads. They were moved and housed in “rolling iron cages,” twenty men shackled together with a bucket for waste and a tub for bathing in a space the size of a small U-haul truck. One observer called it “an oven… a small piece of hell.”4

One did not survive more than a year or two on these jobs, but there were other jobs that were slightly less deadly. Some black convicts even found themselves doing agricultural labor on the very same land they had worked as slaves. No matter where black convicts were farmed out to, their work-broken bodies were subject to emaciation, disease, swift punishments for minor slips, and the sadism of guards or fellow prisoners. When torture was applied, the techniques were medieval: the lash, the rack, the coffin-sized “sweatbox.” Many were simply shot down trying to escape. Once incarcerated, the average life of a convict in Texas was 7 years. In Georgia, no convict was expected to survive longer than 10.5

Southern blacks who managed to avoid the chain gang were nonetheless subject to the terrors of lynch law. Whites could explode with rage over the slightest breach of racial etiquette, and white-on-black crime went unpunished. Any black who tried to break out of debt-poverty or hesitated to bow to white power could be beaten to a pulp or have their house burned. Those unlucky ones suspected of raping or murdering a white person were hung, drowned, or dragged from automobiles. Picture postcards of their last moments were passed around by whites and sold at local stores.(Some of these can be viewed online at http://www.withoutsanctuary.org).

By the late 1890’s, lynchings were becoming large, morbid spectacles, displays of white supremacy that could attract thousands of people. In 1893, anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells wrote to President McKinley: “Masks have long since been thrown aside.” 6 Men and women were castrated or mutilated. Fingers were chopped off and distributed as souvenirs. In 1893, Henry Smith, a black man, was tortured for fifty minutes with red-hot irons before being burned in front of a cheering crowd of 10,000. In 1904, Luther Holbert and his wife, suspected of killing a white, had chunks of their bodies removed with a corkscrew before a huge Mississippi crowd. In 1928, when Charley Shepherd, a black mentally-retarded prisoner escaped, killing a white guard and kidnapping his daughter, a raiding party of five-thousand men hunted him down. After he was captured, he was paraded from town-to-town. He was eventually burned to death, but not before the crowd tortured him for seven hours.7

Thousands of black people were lynched between emancipation and the civil-rights era, but not all victims were black, and not all mobs were southern. In the west and mid-west hundreds of Mexicans, Chinese, and American Indians were killed by mobs. Irish, Jews, and whites could also be targeted. As LDS readers know, Joseph Smith and other Mormons fell victim to earlier mob violence. The largest mass lynching in U.S. history involved 11 Italian immigrants killed in New Orleans in 1891, and just three decades later, the Ku Klux Klan was a major force in cities as far west as Portland, Oregon and as far north as Detroit, Michigan. However, nowhere but the south was racial dictatorship so total, so violent, or so deeply written into law.

It would also be a mistake to characterize white society as unified in its support of lynching. Local officials and media often supported the killings, but in most places the killings elicited horror and condemnation. Even within the back country of southern states, there were divisions among whites. Public lynchings were an act of war by the most extreme elements of society. They were opportunities to intimidate white opponents and enlist poor rural whites in further white power activism or terrorism. As lynching spread through the late nineteenth century, the penal system was evolving. Convict leasing had been a profitable solution to the unmanageable number of black prisoners, and it upheld white supremacy during the transition from slavery to Jim Crow. But it pushed down the wages of poor whites and made a mockery of the law. It was also extremely brutal, and reformers were busy exposing it. The system was abandoned in the early twentieth-century and replaced by large state-run farms. Some, like Angola Farm in Louisiana or Parchman Farm in Mississippi, still exist today. These prisons presented themselves as more humane and more accountable to the law, but in many ways, they merely institutionalized the brutality and racism of prior systems. They centralized more prisoners in larger institutions farther from the public eye, a trend that continues to the present day.

The inmates were still mostly black, the conditions still those of slavery, or worse, and the primary form of punishment was still public whipping: for fighting, for “disrespect” to white officials, or for simply failing to work fast enough. Lynching was also slowly brought under the auspices of the law. In the nineteenth century, local police might simply hold a victim until the mob showed up. Or they might prefer to hold a speedy little trial and perform the hangings themselves, but legal executions played mostly the same role as illegal ones; they attracted the same festive town crowds. Even as executions became more impersonal and orderly, legal capital punishment continued to perform some of the social functions of lynchings. In 1940, the state of Mississippi hired Jimmy Thompson, a former hypnotist in traveling carnivals, to perform executions with an electric chair that he carried around in the back of a pickup truck. Most of the executions were held inside county jails, but newspapers printed large photographs with grisly descriptions. One observer recalled a 1942 electrocution performed by Thompson in Philadelphia, Mississippi: “A crowd gathered late at night on the courthouse square with chairs, crackers, and children, waiting for the current to be turned on and the street lights to dim.”8

We tend to associate torture with secrecy, and this is mostly accurate. When the public eye is active and critical, torturers hide their work and adopt non-scarring methods. However, African slaves, early prisoners, and black sharecroppers were often subjected to torture that was explicitly public. It was meant to intimidate people, de-humanize them, and force them into extremely exploitative labor. Public torture lynchings served these purposes and more. Seized with fears of losing status and economic security and drunk on the hard-core racism that went with slavery, whites turned their wounded rage on imagined black “brutes” and “rapists.” Through public torture lynchings, extremist whites dragged their communities into fantasies of total mastery and domination, delusions of unity, violent demonstrations of a will to power. The dimensions of this torture, as usual, were political, economic, racial and erotic. Cloaked in the rhetoric of crime and punishment, refusing to accept the personhood of blacks, lynchers believed that they were protecting women, protecting Christianity, even protecting democracy.9 Determined long-term anti-racist activism put an end to most of these activities, but echoes of this past inflect our modern-day supermax prisons, regular police brutality, and even what happens in the “war on terror.”

1. Ida B. Wells’ phrase.
2. Anderson, S. E. The Black Holocaust: For Beginners. New York: Writers and Readers, 1995. 2.
3. Oshinsky, David M. Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. New York: Free Press, 1995. 55.
4. Ibid. 59.
5. Ibid. 61-3.
6. Voices of a Peoples’ History of the United States. ed. Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove. New York: Seven Stories, 2004. 232.
7. Oshinsky 118, 101-2, 141-2; also Garland, David. “Death, Denial, Discourse: On the Forms and Functions of American Capital Punishment.” Crime, Social Control, and Human Rights. Devon, UK: Willan, 2007. 148.
8. Oshinsky 205-6.
9. Garland, David. “Penal Excess and Surplus Meaning: Public Torture Lynchings in Twentieth-Century America.” Law and Society Review. vol.39 n.4 (2005).