The Library of Virginia

Lynch Law Must Go!


Lynch Law--a form of mob violence and putative justice, usually involved (but was by no means restricted to) the illegal hanging of suspected criminals--cast its pall over the Southern United States from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries. Before the Civil War, its victims were usually abolitionists and/or persons suspected of aiding escaped slaves, as well as slaves accused of participating in slave revolts. During and after Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan (and common citizens) adopted lynching as a means to socially, economically, and politically terrorize and paralyze black populations, in support of a white supremacist status quo. Victims were usually black men, often accused of assaulting or raping whites. Lynch Law continued to operate throughout the 19th century, declining sharply after 1935: there have been no reported incidents of this type since the late 1960's.

The best remedy for a lyncher or a cursed midnight rider is a 16 shot Winchester rifle in the hands of a dead shot Negro who has nerve enough to pull the trigger. [John Mitchell, Jr.]

political cartoon

[Richmond Planet, 4/24/1937]

“Under the direction of the courageous Mitchell, the Planet grew in influence and prestige. The political rights of the American Negro were fearlessly and unflinchingly championed. Lynching was fought and lynchers were defied....Neither threat of violence nor punishment, neither lure of reward nor favor, deterred nor turned this matchless defender of his race from his chosen course.” [Richmond Planet, 5/28/1938]

Any lynching that occurred, whether in Virginia or any other state, was exposed in the paper. Tallies of the known dead, together with their alleged crimes, were noted; images, however graphic, were reprinted. Nothing that might convey the horror of lynching was spared the Planet’s readers.

Mitchell himself was threatened with hanging at the hands of a Charlotte County mob angered by his reporting of the lynching, there, of Richard Walker in May 1886. Mitchell was sent a rope with a note attached warning him that he would be lynched himself if he ever set foot in the county. In reply, and borrowing a line from Shakespeare, Mitchell had this to say : “There are no terrors, Cassius, in your threats, for I am so strong in honesty that they pass by me like the idle wind, which I respect not.” Then, armed with two Smith and Wesson pistols, he boarded a train for Smithville, and undeterred, walked the five miles from the station to the site of the hanging. [Maurice Duke and Daniel P. Jordan, eds., A Richmond Reader: 1733-1983, (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1983), 327-328]

The following links include images that some may consider violent and find disturbing. In his crusade against lynching John Mitchell purposefully published cartoons and photographs that graphically depicted and exposed the horrific results of Lynch Law. Each of these images have been taken from the pages of the Planet and are included to illustrate Mitchell's effort to document and end this injustice. To ignore these images would be a disservice to Mitchell's legacy, and would only serve to gloss over this terrible, and often overlooked, period in American history.

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