Lynch Law in America


Ida B. Wells

By Ida B. Wells-Barnett

This text is excerpted from “The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition,” a pamphlet prepared by Ida B. Wells-Barnett in August 1893 at the time of the Columbian Exposition (World’s Fair). It is a powerful example of how journalism of the period is used to expose oppressive conditions and inspire protest. The conditions at the turn of the century allowed for a growth of this form of activism.

“Lynch Law,” says the Virginia Lancet, “as known by the appellation, has its origin in 1780 in a combination of citizens of Pittsylvania County, Virginia, entered into for the purpose of suppressing a trained band of horse thieves and counterfeiters whose well-concocted schemes has bidden defiance to the ordinary laws of the land, and whose success encouraged and emboldened them in their outrages upon the community. Col. Wm. Lynch drafted the constitution for this combination of citizens, and thence Lynch Law has ever since been the name given to the summary infliction of punishment by private and unauthorized citizens.”

The law continues in force today in some of the oldest states of the Union, where courts of justice have long been established, whose laws are executed by white Americans. It is brought to bear mainly against the Negro. The first 15 years of his freedom he was murdered by masked mobs for trying to vote. Public opinion having made lynching for that cause unpopular, a new reason is given to justify the murders of the past 15 years. The Negro was first charged with attempting to rule white people, and hundreds were murdered on that pretended supposition. He is now charged with assaulting or attempting to assault white women. This charge, as false as it is foul, robs us… Read the article (PDF).

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