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What is Lynching?

Updated on January 23, 2011

Lynching refers primarily to the mob violence flourishing in the United States from the Civil War to the 1930's in which many people, especially Negroes, were beaten, tortured, mutilated, or even hanged or burned alive, without trial or any legal processes. More broadly, "lynch law" is any form of extrajudicial action in which corporal or capital punishment is imposed by private persons without legal authority. This has occurred in many countries, especially those in which government was loosely organized or not well developed. Lynching is sometimes compared with historical instances of private or semi-private administration of summary justice, such as the Vehmgerichte, medieval German courts; the hermandad, local groups formed to police the roads in 12th century Spain; and Lydford law, a localized name for summary punishment in 18th century England.

The terms "lynch law" and "lynching" often are associated with Charles Lynch, a Virginia justice of the peace, who at the time of the American Revolution punished thieves and Loyalists by whippings and imprisonment. During this period many unofficial groups took the law into their hands in this manner. In the American West settlers often used extralegal methods in dealing with cattle rustlers, murderers, and horse thieves. Vigilante action was viewed as an acceptable method of enforcing rough but speedy justice in areas with rudimentary government.

In Southern states, violence and vigilante action persisted and increased. The antebellum South was known as the land of lynching before prejudice against black people became a major factor. Many lynchings resulted from efforts to protect the slave system. Abolitionists and persons assisting escaped slaves frequently were lynch victims.

Embittered by defeat in the Civil War and outraged by the rise of black and white Reconstruction governments, white Southerners launched a movement to "redeem" the South, disfranchise the blacks, and restore white supremacy. Lynching was a weapon wielded to this end.


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