The Years America Ran Red: A History of Lynching in the United States

A Man Was Lynched Yesterday. Flag flying above Fifth Avenue, New York City, ca. 1938. Copyprint. NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-4734/LC-USZ62-33793 (6-10b) Courtesy of the NAACP

A Man Was Lynched Yesterday.
Flag flying above Fifth Avenue, New York City, ca. 1938. Copyprint.
NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.
Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-4734/LC-USZ62-33793 (6-10b)
Courtesy of the NAACP

Many would love to believe that life one hundred years ago was gentler, better mannered, and simpler than today. I love history dearly, and I love historic sites, period dramas, and the like. I wouldn’t be working in museums and archives if I didn’t believe in the power of history for truth, reconciliation, justice, and healing.

But the past isn’t the sepia tinted photographs of ancestors or the technicolor images of Downton Abbey. The past, to paraphrase L.P. Hartley, is sometimes a foreign country where they do things differently, but what happened then laid the groundwork for today. And that includes the most horrific, bloody, and unjust every day occurrence in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era: lynching.

James Weldon Johnson labeled the year 1919 as the “Red Summer” because of the extraordinary violence and blood shed as African Americans, many of whom were returning home after serving in WWI, were met by Judge Lynch across most of the United States. The relationship between Americans and extralegal violence dates back to the Revolutionary War, where, according to Robert L. Zangrando, lynchings were “used initially to punish suspected criminals and Tories.” As the practice spread with western expansion across the frontier, it became a regular method of dealing with ” gamblers…antislavery advocates…Native Americans.” After the 1890s, immigrants, political radicals, and others who broke local mores were targets of mob violence. During Reconstruction, lynching became the method of intimidating, terrorizing, and controlling African Americans; the various vigilante groups we often identify as “KKK” expanded in the South on the backs of such violence.

The Gilded Age was in full swing in the 1890s, but so was the increasing use of lynchings to oppress African Americans and halt their attempts to achieve economic, educational, and civic prosperity. Ida B. Wells emerged during this decade as a powerful anti-lynching crusader after the murders of two businessmen friends in Memphis, whose successful grocery store aroused the resentment of their white competition.

OUR country’s national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of an hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an “unwritten law” that justifies them in putting human beings to death without complaint under oath, without trial by jury, without opportunity to make defense, and without right of appeal. — “Lynch Law in America,” The Arena 23.1 (January 1900): 15-24.

Wells’ activism, the attention of the black press, and various organizations (some made up of white and black members), placed significant pressure on government officials to respond to lynching. Presidents Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt condemned lynching during their administrations, and a number of congressmen attempted to introduce anti-lynching bills between 1884 and the early 1900s, but public sentiment about the cause of lynchings–the threat black men posed to white women–hampered any serious efforts to make them a crime. Even Mark Twain was moved by the violence to pen a lament against lynching in his essay “The United States of Lyncherdom,” but he declined to publish it in his lifetime, declaring “I shouldn’t have even half a friend left down there [in the South], after it issued from the press.”

The NAACP, formed in 1909, increased its membership in the 1910s on the platform of pouring resources and strength by anti-lynching legislation. The appointments of James Weldon Johnson and Walter Francis White focused the organization’s anti-lynching crusade, particularly in the racist, xenophobic atmosphere fostered by D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), whose revisionist history of the Civil War and Reconstruction inspired a new Ku Klux Klan; their targets this time were blacks, Jews, Catholics, and other “undesirables” who undermined good, moral American values.

This film only fanned the flames of the general anti-immigrant and anti “hyphenated Americans” anxieties of the WWI era, where many German Americans were interned in camps as alleged German spies, where the government instituted surveillance against African Americans deemed as “unpatriotic,” and mob violence struck East St. Louis in 1917 and in Georgia, where a Jewish American factory superintendent named Leo Frank was lynched after being wrongly convicted of murdering a thirteen year old white female employee.

The Red Summer was only the culmination of an inflamed America. Between April and November, African Americans were lynched and terrorized from coast to coast, with the uprisings in Chicago, Elaine (AK), Knoxville (TN), and Washington DC being the most notable. It is sadly ironic that the NAACP released a book of their investigative research, Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889-1918, right as the Red Summer began. In it, the NAACP detailed the lynchings of black and white men and women (“78.2 per cent. of the victims were Negroes and 21.8 per cent. white persons”), their geographic location, offenses, and charts of all facts, and included the stories of one hundred lynchings during the period.


NAACP efforts increased in the 1920s, focusing mostly on the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, which was introduced by Rep. Leonidas C. Dyer (R-MO) to Congress during the 1922-24 sessions–and was filibustered by Southern Democrats all three times. By the end of the decade, lynchings had decreased, perhaps because the general prosperity of the Roaring Twenties was a good distraction; however, the Great Depression spurred a renewal of lynchings and the NAACP and their Congressional allies pushed once more for anti-lynching laws. Once again, they were met with failure, as first the New Deal and then WWII ensnared America’s attention. Yet, according to many historians, the fight for anti-lynching inspired significant interracial and inter-class partnerships to rid the United States of this injustice.

Looking back at this period from 2016 reveals that the past isn’t a foreign country–it illuminates and shapes today. And just as the violence touched the lives of the diversity of people who make up the United States then, it remains the same right now, and it takes courageous people, politicians, and organizations to fight for justice.

Further Reading

Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases by Ida B. Wells-Barnett
The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States by Ida B. Wells-Barnett
The NAACP Crusade Against Lynching, 1909-1950 by Robert L. Zangrando
Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America by Cameron McWhirter
On the Laps of Gods: The Red Summer of 1919 and the Struggle for Justice that Remade a Nation by Robert Whitaker
Anti-Racism in 19th Century Britain
‘Terrorism’ of Lynching: See How Nonprofit Collects Soil From Lynching Sites for National Memorial

Cantigny Day

Chicago Daily Tribune (May 29, 1920)

Former Leader of First Division and Hostesses: (l. to r.) Mrs. George A. McKinlock, Major General Charles P. Summerall, and Mrs. Harold Hood – Chicago Daily Tribune (May 29, 1920) source: newspapers.com

With 2017 lurking just around the corner, there has been a slight uptick in books published about the United States’s involvement in the First World War. Which is kind of funny–for me at least–because WWI is one of the forgotten wars in American public memory (the others are the Spanish-American War and the Philippines War). You can say Lexington and Concord, Gettysburg, Normandy, Seoul, Saigon…and images and associations immediately flood your brain. Meuse-Argonne, Cantigny, and Belleau Wood mean nothing, except perhaps assuming they are places in France.

As a result, I was surprised, and yet not surprised, while reading First Over There: The Attack on Cantigny, America’s First Battle of World War I by Matthew J. Davenport, to discover a major commemorative event celebrated in the United States that is now a footnote in history. Davenport even says that “[t]hrough the 1920s and ’30s, ‘Cantigny’ remained a symbol of American sacrifice and triumph, a uniting emblem that finally exorcised the dividing demons of the Civil War in a way the Spanish-American War never could. But then came Pearl Harbor. And D-Day. And the Bulge. And in the wake of these epochal events, the 1st Division’s attack at Cantigny lapsed into footnotes, its story left to slumber for a century.” 1

Though the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, the American Expeditionary Force didn’t see real action until late spring of 1918: May 1918, to be more exact, and the Battle of Cantigny to be more precise. Arthur Wilson Page describes the significance of the battle:

The trial was at Cantigny. It was, naturally, planned some time in advance, but in the march of events a thing happened the day before the Cantigny attack which more than ever made the demonstration of American fighting ability necessary. Our attack was to begin on the morning of May 28th. On the morning of May 27th, a great mass of German troops suddenly pushed across the Ailette, up over the strong position of the Chemin des Dames, and before the day was over the French lines were completely broken, and the Germans had crossed the Vesle on their way south to the Marne. The communiques that reached Paris on the night of the 28th told of the rapid and continuous German progress. But there came also that night another piece of news. The American Army had at last actively entered the war. The 1st Division shed a bright little ray of light on the otherwise dismal picture. And this ray of light was of great significance, for if the Americans could successfully meet the Germans, the Allies were assured an effective force big enough to win the war—the Americans were then arriving at the rate of 250,000 a month. If the Americans could not successfully meet the Germans, then, well, the situation was very bad indeed.2

The 1st Division of the AEF captured Cantigny and ably defended itself against German counterattacks, thus proving that the Americans could hold their own weight.

News of the AEF’s first successful action in the Great War filled the newspapers back home, and after the war, as Davenport stated, “Cantigny Day” was celebrated alongside Memorial Day during the 1920s and 1930s. So as you’re commemorating the veterans of America’s wars on Monday, don’t forget to think about the 1st Division on May 28th! If you’re in the Chicago area, stop by the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park, which was founded to commemorate the division by Colonel Robert R. McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, who fought with the division in the First World War.

  1. Matthew J. Davenport 2015. First Over There: The Attack on Cantigny, America’s First Battle of World War I. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 13.
  2. Arthur Wilson Page. 1920. Our 110 Days’ Fighting. New York: Doubleday, Page, & Co., 20