Ida B. Wells was tiny, half a foot shorter than 5 feet, with a streak of righteous anger that could puff her up like she was taller and tougher than anyone around. Born to slaves in rural Mississippi in 1862, Wells migrated to Memphis after the Civil War, where she proved fearless resisting injustice and discrimination. At age 22, a century before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Birmingham, Wells fought a train conductor who tried to kick her out of a whites-only railroad car, then sued the railroad. Five years later, as co-owner and editor of the Free Speech and Headlight newspaper, she emerged as a nationally prominent voice against an epidemic of Reconstruction-era lynchings. It all began when a mob murdered three of her friends.

Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell and Henry Stewart had opened a small grocery store in a black Memphis neighborhood. But their People’s Grocery soon siphoned customers away from another nearby grocery, angering its white owner. In March 1892, a mob gathered at People’s, threatening the owners. The black men armed themselves, and when a second group approached the store, trouble broke out and three white men had bullet holes in them. The People’s Grocery owners were thrown in jail. The next day, a Memphis newspaper pinned the injuries on “negroe desperadoes.” Soon afterwards a group of masked men marched to the jail, pulled the accused out of their cells and shot them to death during a lynching party at the end of town.

The murders outraged Wells. Using a donation from a black woman’s club, she began to research and document lynchings throughout the South. The more cases she investigated, the more convinced she became that many of the allegations used to kill black people were false or suspect. In a series of self-published pamphlets, she denounced mob-oriented targeting and execution of African Americans by bullet, fire or hangman’s noose. They are, she wrote, “the most heinous crimes that ever stained the history of the country.”

America’s historical propensity for lynching is unique and grew out of a deep history of vigilantism. During the late 1760s, mobs of backcountry farmers in the Carolinas who bristled at taxes levied by the British colonial authorities descended on tax court proceedings, dragged judges outside, then beat them with clubs and whips. Groups of citizens who felt they could deliver their own sense of justice gained validation during the War for Independence, argues Michael Pfiefer, author of Rough Justice: Lynching and American Society: “The Revolution unshackled Americans from traditional hierarchical constraints through its radical invocation of the people as the font of political authority.” After the Civil War, a widespread vigilante impulse among Southern whites morphed into race-based violence that shadowed American life deep into the 20th century. From 1882 to 1968, at least 4,745 people were lynched in America, including 1,297 whites who were mostly victims of vigilante mobs in the West, according to archival records of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The killings were carried out by ordinary townsfolk and organized white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and largely tolerated by everyone in power, from the local sheriff to U.S. senators.

Although lynchings tapered off after the 1960s, they have not disappeared. White supremacy groups are active in both the North and the South. The FBI lists 6,604 hate crimes reported in 2009. Pfiefer sees the harsh tone of some opponents of illegal immigration as “a direct outgrowth and extension” of America’s history of lynching people.

The term lynching derives from the 18th-century activities of Colonel Charles Lynch of Bedford, Va., who presided over an ad hoc court during the American Revolution that hunted down, tried and punished British loyalists and criminals without official sanction. The punishments meted out by Lynch and his followers seem relatively tame now; many offending loyalists received 39 lashes and were forced to shout “liberty forever!” Those who refused were hanged by their thumbs until they reconsidered.

Lynching mobs meted out a wide range of punishments, including caning and tarring and feathering. One common element was that vigilante gatherings became a form of morbid entertainment for ordinary people who came out in droves to witness punishments that were often gruesome but usually not fatal. “Until the mid 19th century,” writes Manfred Berg, author of Popular Justice: A History of Lynching in America, “lynching or lynch law did not necessarily mean that mobs killed their victims.”

That changed after the Civil War, when lynching became inextricably linked with race. In the antebellum South, slaves were not considered humans: They had no rights and could be treated harshly at will, yet they were rarely killed because they were valuable property. After the Civil War, a series of constitutional amendments and civil rights acts gave African Americans freedom from slavery, legal recognition as U.S. citizens, and for black men, the right to vote. The legal advances often angered or terrified whites, especially in the South, where black people were nearly as numerous as white. Southern states passed so-called Jim Crow laws, and as Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Kwame A. Appiah point out in their recent book Africana: Civil Rights, An A to Z Reference, an “atmosphere of racist hysteria emerged.”

As murderous lynchings surged in the late 1860s, they became public events, attracting crowds. For a few “spectacle lynchings,” railroads put on extra cars so people from surrounding towns could see the show. Participants sometimes sold postcards of the burned or hanged corpse. In 1893, for example, Henry Smith, a retarded 17-year-old accused of the rape and murder of a 3-year-old girl, was doused in gasoline and set on fire in front of a crowd of 10,000 in Paris, Texas. Before his immolation, members of the girl’s family applied red-hot pokers to his body for nearly an hour, burning out his eyes and tongue.

Most spectacle lynchings were prompted by serious criminal accusations—the assault of a white person, say—or occurred during periods of mounting racial tension. But a black American could get lynched for trivial offenses, too, such as suspected robbery or presuming to talk to white women or young girls. Despite this, lynchers portrayed themselves as defenders of civilization, says Amy Wood, author of Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940. “White supremacist ideology held that whites were more civilized than blacks, and it was blacks who were out of control.”

Ida B. Wells came perilously close to being lynched herself soon after the 1892 People’s Grocery incident, when she wrote an unsigned editorial in the Free Speech and Headlight attacking “the threadbare lie” often used to justify lynchings— that a black man had raped a white woman. Wells noted that during the Civil War, when Southern men were away from their homes and families, there were few if any reports of blacks assaulting or raping white women. But after the war and emancipation, the charge became commonplace. Wells pointed out that in numerous instances the sex between black men and white women was consensual.“If Southern white men are not careful,” she wrote, “they will overreach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”

Wells was out of town when the unsigned editorial ran, but her remark about Southern womanhood prompted an immediate call to arms in the Evening Scimitar. “It will be the duty of those whom [the writer] has attacked to tie the wretch to a stake at the intersection of Main and Madison Sts, brand him in the forehead with a hot iron and perform upon him a surgical operation with a pair of tailor’s shears.” A mob subsequently ransacked the Free Speech offices. Wells, fearful for her life, relocated to Chicago instead of returning to Memphis.

Wells thought the only way to combat lynch mobs was to publish the facts, so that the rationale for killings could be exposed for what it was—virulent racism. In her pamphlet The Red Record she listed all 159 black victims of lynching in 1893, categorized by accusations.

Wells observed that Southern whites often claimed a lynching was justified to quell “race riots” supposedly planned by blacks plotting to kill whites. “It was always a remarkable feature in these insurrections and riots that only Negroes were killed,” wrote Wells. Meanwhile, Southern whites began to challenge the new political rights of blacks. Using literacy tests, poll taxes and other discriminatory laws, as well as physical intimidation, Southern states gradually began to disenfranchise blacks. Although 30,000 blacks were registered to vote in Louisiana in 1896, for example, in 1904 only 1,343 were on the rolls. “No Negro domination became the new legend on the sanguinary banner of the sunny South,” wrote Wells. “And the government that had made the Negro a citizen…denied him the protection needed to keep that right.”

While Wells crisscrossed the South gathering evidence about lynching, other African-American writers began taking up the cause, most notably W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter White and James Weldon Johnson. Du Bois was known for his political essays, while Weldon Johnson published several volumes of poetry and later taught creative writing and literature at Fisk University. White was a novelist who investigated more than 41 lynchings—narrowly escaping from some dangerous situations in the process. Whites joined the anti-lynching movement as well, including the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching. They worked to obtain pledges from law enforcement officers to uphold the law, and publicly praised sheriffs who protected prisoners from mobs. In 1909 Wells and Du Bois joined forces with a group of whites to create the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Mob violence against blacks flared up again in 1919, during what came to be known as the Red Summer. By that time 500,000 blacks had emigrated to find jobs in the industrial cities of the North and to escape the lynchings and Jim Crow laws. Race tensions came to a boil across the country as World War I drew to a close and returning white veterans found themselves competing with blacks for jobs. Bloody riots broke out in several cities in both the North and the South. Across the United States, mobs hanged, burned, shot or beat to death blacks.

During Red Summer, a mass lynching in Phillips County, Ark., evolved into a bellwether moment in the history of civil rights. A group of black sharecroppers in the county had formed a union to seek a better price for their cotton from white plantation owners. After a white man died in a violent confrontation with the union, vigilantes killed between 100 and 200 African Americans. Five whites also were killed. Local authorities arrested 122 blacks and charged 73 of them with murder. After a cursory trial in an Arkansas courthouse surrounded by armed whites, 12 blacks were sentenced to death.

Determined to uncover the real facts of the case, Wells surreptitiously slipped into the line of family members visiting the condemned men at the jail and recorded their stories. Her sympathy was touched with impatience as she listened to families singing spirituals that spoke of forbearance and a better life in the next world. “I told them to pray to live,” she wrote.

The NAACP challenged the conviction of the 12 men and an appeal eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. In a 1923 ruling, Moore v. Dempsey, the court reasserted the federal writ of habeas corpus and ruled that the men were denied due process under the 14th Amendment at a “mob dominated” trial. All 12 were freed eventually.

In the decades that followed Red Summer, lynchings decreased, partly because white Southerners lost their tolerance for lynch mobs. Still, the Ku Klux Klan remained an ominous fact of life. Underground lynching largely replaced spectacle lynching.

“There was no moral catharsis,” argues historian Manfred Berg. The sharp decline in lynching that began in the 1930s was marked by a dramatic increase in legal executions of African Americans. “The death penalty became a substitute,” he says. The battle had moved into the courthouse.

What researchers consider the last classic lynching in the United States occurred in 1981, after Michael Donald, a 19-year-old black man, stepped out to buy a pack of cigarettes for his sister in Mobile, Ala. He was chosen at random by two Klan members angry about a mistrial involving an African American charged with the murder of a white policeman. At a meeting after the trial, a high-ranking Klan official named Bennie Hays said, “If a black man can get away with killing a white man, we ought to be able to get away with killing a black man.” The Klansmen beat Donald, slit his throat and hung his body from a tree. Had he lived, he would be the same age as President Barack Obama.

Ritual, race-based crimes still occur. In September, Lawrence Brewer, a member of a white supremacist group, was executed in Texas for his role in the grisly, race-based 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr. Brewer and two others grabbed Byrd off a street in Jasper, Texas, hooked him to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him to his death—a case all too eerily reminiscent of the hate crimes Wells documented a century ago.


Reed Karaim is a freelance writer in Tucson, Ariz.,and the author of If Men Were Angels.

Originally published in the February 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.