The History of Lynching and African American Voting Rights

Continuing his acerbic lines of defense against the impeachment inquiry underway in the U.S. House of Representatives, last week President Trump took to Twitter to liken the inquiry to a “lynching.” The full text of his tweet reads: “So some day, if a Democrat becomes President and the Republicans win the House, even by a tiny margin they can impeach the President, without due process or fairness or any legal rights. All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here- a lynching. But we will WIN!”

A constitutionally authorized impeachment inquiry—even when weighing the qualms one may have about the process through which it is conducted—does not amount to a lynching. But this is not the first time a politician—Democrat or Republican—has invoked the term to describe a political process they deem unconstitutional or unfair. Former Vice President, and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, for example, also used it to describe the impeachment process during Bill Clinton’s administration as a “political lynching.”

Unlike constitutionally authorized impeachment proceedings, lynchings are violent and public acts of extrajudicial torture that are meant to traumatize their victims. They aim to suppress engagement in political and economic life through this violence. Lynchings have historically been used against African Americans in United States, particularly between the period following the Civil War and World War II. Designed to intimidate and render their victims powerless, they were often carried out with impunity. In many cases they went so far as to become a “public spectacle,” a form of entertainment to be attended by white community members as a celebration of racial control and authority.

While lynching has been used to intimidate African Americans and prevent them from fully participating in American political and economic life on a number of dimensions, this post highlights the role that lynching played in limiting access to the heart of participation in American democracy: the vote.

Following the end of Reconstruction in the South in the late 1870s until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, African Americans were effectively prevented from participating in elections in former Confederate states. This had a number of important implications for the political incorporation of African Americans into American political life following the end of slavery. First and foremost, the vote carries significant weight as the primary means through which a people consent to be governed in a democratic society. The loss of the vote meant that African Americans were effectively not able to consent to the laws that governed them.

But there were even more tangible, sometimes life and death consequences of not having access to the ballot for African Americans. One, they had no voice in policymaking, and were not able to elect representatives that would be responsive to their interests. Two, their inability to even register to vote meant that they were not represented on juries. Not only do these consequences mean African Americans did not have representation on juries when they themselves were the defendants in a trial, it also meant little, if any, justice in response to the terrorism and violence they faced in the Jim Crow South. The inability to participate in the election of local officials—judges and sheriffs, for example — that might represent their interests, meant that more often than not charges were never brought against perpetrators of extrajudicial violence against African Americans.

Despite their virtually total disenfranchisement between the post-Reconstruction period and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, African Americans have not always been kept from the ballot. In a brief period during reconstruction from 1865 to 1877, African American male participation in elections in the south rose significantly, as did the number of African American elected officials. Facilitated by the presence of federal troops to ensure the implementation of Reconstruction measures, it appeared as though this group might achieve some measure of political incorporation following the end of the Civil War.

This came to an end with the election of Rutherford B. Hayes and the Compromise of 1877, which led to the removal of federal troops from Southern states and the consolidation of Democratic power. Southern states began to make changes—some legal, some extralegal—that over time would bring African American participation in elections in the South close to zero.

Although legal mechanisms like literacy tests and poll taxes were used to limit African Americans’ access to the ballot, extralegal subversion was a primary way in which southern Conservatives and Democrats prevented this group from voting. Oftentimes small crimes or conspiracies were concocted that were allegedly perpetrated by African Americans in a community. These were used to justify mob lynchings by angry white community members.

For example, in an event recently dramatized by the HBO series “The Watchmen,” the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 came about after a white elevator operator accused an African American messenger—in the space of a three-floor elevator ride—of raping her. This alleged incident incited the single worst instance of lynching against an African American community in American history. Over the course of three days a predominantly wealthy and well-established African American community in Tulsa was razed to the ground. An estimated 300 African Americans were lynched, although the exact death toll is not precisely known.

Ultimately, the disenfranchisement of African Americans following reconstruction led to an insidious cycle of lynching across the South. One of the effects of not having representation on juries or from elected officials—particularly in local law enforcement and in the judicial system—was that white Americans felt increasingly emboldened to perpetrate lynchings against African Americans. This dynamic was captured by Ida Wells-Barnett, an early leader of the Civil Rights Movement. She characterized the cost of votelessness as the loss of a “sacred part of humanity”. Her writing in the periodical “Original Rights Magazine,” illustrates the vicious cycle wrought by entanglement of disenfranchisement and lynchings, a selection of which appears below:

These rights were denied first by violence and bloodshed, by Ku Klux Klans, who during the first years after the Civil War murdered Negroes by wholesale, for attempting to exercise the rights given by these amendments and for trusting the government which was powerful enough to give them the ballot, to be strong enough to protect them in its exercise.

He was advised that if he gave up trying to vote, minded his own business, acquired property and educated his children, he could get along in the South without molestation. But the more lands and houses he acquired, the more rapidly discriminating laws have been passed against him by those who control the ballot, and less protection is given by the law makers for his life, liberty, and property…

With no sacredness of the ballot there can be no sacredness of human life itself.

For if the strong can take the weak man’s ballot when it suits his purpose to do so, he will take his life also. Having successfully swept aside the constitutional safeguards to the ballot, it is the smallest of matters for the South to sweep aside its own safeguards to human life. Thus “trial by jury” for the black man in that section has become a mockery, a plaything of the ruling classes and rabble alike. The mob says: “This people has no vote with which to punish us or the consenting officers of the law, therefore we indulge our brutal instincts, give free rein to race prejudice, and lynch, hang, and burn them when we please.” Therefore, the more complete the disenfranchisement, the more frequent and horrible has been the hangings, shootings, and burnings.

In short, lynchings in the South were both facilitated by and precipitated the disenfranchisement of African Americans

The pernicious effects of lynching are not relegated to the past. There is evidence that the historical echo of this violence still reverberates in the political behavior of African Americans today. Jhacova Williams, for example, has shown that African Americans who reside in southern counties that experienced higher numbers of historical lynchings between the period of 1882 to 1930 have lower voter registration rates relative to African Americans residing in counties that had fewer lynchings. These findings hold up after accounting for historical and contemporary characteristics of counties—such as incarceration rates of African Americans, access to polling places, and Republican party dominance—that might also explain lower registration rates.

The history of lynching in the United States, particularly as it relates to African American voting rights, throws into sharp relief the impeachment process currently underway in Washington D.C. While it is an inherently political process likely to continue to raise all manner of partisan discontent in the months to come, impeachment in no way amounts to a lynching when viewed in light of this historical evidence.

Mara Suttmann-Lea is an Assistant Professor of American Politics in the Department of Government and International Relations at Connecticut College. She studies the historical development of voting laws, focusing specifically on the primary intermediaries between these laws and the American public: campaigns, party organizations, and election administrators. She examines how changes in voting laws both impinge upon and are shaped by these political actors and assesses how this relationship has affected developments in electoral politics in the United States over time.

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