Intimidation, violence and murder: Transforming race after the Civil War

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Editor’s note: The following is the third in a three-part series examining the social creation of race in the United States. Part one, “Preserving patriarchal ‘whiteness’,” was published in the Feb. 7-13, 2007, issue of The Rock River Times. Part two, “Sighs of despair: Slave life in the colonial South,” was published in the Feb. 21-27, 2007, issue.

The series was originally written as part of a history course at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. It is adapted here in recognition of Black History Month to remind readers of the roots of racism and the ongoing struggle of civil rights.

Because of the strong graphic nature of portions of this part of the series, reader discretion is advised.

“He thought he heard the hanging man scream, but he was not sure. Sweat was pouring from the hair in his armpits, poured down his sides, over his chest, into his navel and his groin. He was lowered again; he was raised again. Now Jesse knew he heard him scream. The head went back, the mouth wide open, blood bubbling from the mouth; the veins of the neck jumped out. … He wanted death to come quickly. They wanted to make death wait: and it was they who held death. …”—“Going to Meet the Man,” by James Baldwin (quoted in David R. Roediger’s book Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White)

African-Americans were beaten and brutalized for nearly two-and-a-half centuries as white slave owners attempted to preserve patriarchal whiteness through a demoralizing system of slavery.

Slaves mostly lived in a world of poor nutrition, horrible punishments, little medical attention and terrible living and working conditions. Their marriages were often arranged by slave owners, and husbands, wives and children were often sold off to other plantations, separating families.

The institution of slavery served to preserve the social and economic status of whites in the early colonial South, allowing the white male to claim sole possession of patriarchy. Slavery was mostly a cruel, authoritative, conformable institution that worked within a very closed society.

The Emancipation Proclamation came during the Civil War in 1863, calling for the freedom of all slaves in rebellious areas of the Confederate States of America that had not already returned to Union control. By the summer of 1865, an estimated 4 million slaves had been freed under the Emancipation Proclamation.

In the years following the Civil War, Emancipation and freedom only seemed to bring a darker future for African-Americans, one marked by intimidation, murder, lynching, mobbing, burning, torture and violence.

As Ida B. Wells-Barnett explained in David R. Roediger’s book Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White: “The slave was rarely killed, he was too valuable. … But Emancipation came and the vested interests of the white man in the Negro’s body were lost.”

In the post-Civil War period, anxious white males were pushed beyond paranoia in their attempts to maintain control over patriarchal whiteness, and, in the process, helped transform the meaning of race from an issue of legal limits to an issue of social limits through acts such as lynchings and the creation of the Ku Klux Klan.

Emancipation causes unrest

Following Emancipation, there seemed to be a growing unrest among many whites that free blacks would somehow rise up and take control of government and society. Said one South Carolina planter as quoted in Major Problems in the History of the American South: The Old South: Documents and Essays, by Paul D. Escott, David R. Goldfield, Sally McMillen, Elizabeth Hayes Turner and Thomas G. Paterson: “We are subjugated to the Negroes completely & all of our offices will be filled by them & Sumner says he hopes to see a black man President—that damnable rascal.”

Furthermore, white males were concerned that black men, who were at the time feared to be superior at sexual intercourse, would attempt to forge relationships with white women and destroy the white race.

Racial distinctions in the colonial South date back to the early 1600s. The belief in white superiority in the early 1600s was a result of slavery in the colonial South, and was a purely social construction propagated by white elites in an attempt to keep the slave economy alive and well in the colonies.

Racial distinction was also a result of the elite white male’s fear within the patriarchal society that blacks could one day challenge the white man’s role as patriarch.

Laws and social mores continued to tighten the belt of restriction on people of color, making their lives more and more difficult. As Kathleen M. Brown concluded in her book, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches & Anxious Patriarchs: “With their access to white women sanctioned by law and protected from the dual threat of white female sexual autonomy and black male encroachments, moreover, white men could rest easy knowing that their authority over male slaves had been legally confirmed. By 1691, patriarchal authority had officially become a privilege of race as well as of sex.”

Yet, following Emancipation and the end of the Civil War, white men could not rest as easily. Freedom meant former slaves were no longer restricted by law from engaging in relationships with white women and were given the equal right to vote. Thus, what it meant to be black and what it meant to be white changed significantly in the decades after the Civil War.

Preserving the privileges of whiteness

Since the right to slavery was no longer applicable to protect white women from black men, white men decided to take it upon themselves to preserve the privileges of whiteness. As Martha Hodes explained in her book White Women, Black Men:

“…the vanquished white patriarchs of the Old South feared the loss of control over sex between blacks and whites. Under slavery, that control had permitted unchecked sex between white men and black women. Indeed, Southern patriarchs would soon devise a rationale by which they could retain their power of sexual exploitation over black women while claiming that sex between black men and white women would destroy the white race.”

White men devised groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and began terrorizing and murdering blacks in an attempt to set the example that blacks would never be equal to whites, no matter what the law said.

“Mysterious and ghostly in their appearances before their victims, these white men conveyed to Blacks that there was always someone watching over their shoulders ready to punish them for the slightest offense or the least deviation from acceptable lines of action,” said Trudier Harris in Black on White.

As Hodes explained, the Klan originated in 1865 or 1866 as a secret social club in Pulaski, Tenn. The Klan’s first leader was the former Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest. The Klan included, according to Hodes, “lawyers, businessmen, journalists, former governors, and future U.S. senators,” and “it was generally most active in areas of greatest economic wealth. … Tactics ranged from the destruction of property to whipping, torture, castration, rape and murder.”

The Klan, which had branches in all Southern states, was mostly able to maintain its secrecy as white Southerners who disagreed with the Klan kept quiet out of fear of retribution.

A joint committee of Congress determined in 1871 that black men were most likely to be the targets of Klan violence. Overall, “Klansmen were motivated by the goal of white supremacy, manifested most concretely, in white control of formal politics,” Hodes explained. Thus, the Klan often attempted to subvert the right of the free black vote.

Lynchings were another way white men attempted to maintain total domination over patriarchal whiteness. As Hodes explained, “Lynchings differed from Klan assaults in that the perpetrators were largely undisguised and the murder was open to the public.”

Victims were mutilated, castrated, skinned, roasted, burned, hanged and shot. White people traveled from miles awa

y to engage in the lynching and would often walk away with souvenirs, including rope, ashes, buttons, toes, fingers, ears, teeth and bones, according to Hodes.

Ralph Ellison’s “A Party Down at the Square” in Black on White painted a horrifying image of a young white boy’s experience with mob lynching: “…Well, that n—er was tough. I have to give it to that n—er; he was really tough. He had started to burn like a house afire and was making the smoke smell like burning hides. … Then he started out. The fire had burned the ropes they had tied him with, and he started jumping and kicking about like he was blind, and you could smell his skin burning. He kicked so hard that the platform, which was burning too, fell in, and he rolled out of the fire at my feet. I jumped back so he wouldn’t get on me. I’ll never forget it. Every time I eat barbeque I’ll remember that n—er. His back was just like a barbecued hog. …”

Writers—including Ellison, James Baldwin and Marion Vera Cuthbert—described how lynchings attracted mob scenes and were often a major social outing for whites, who even brought picnics with them to some lynchings. Additionally, all three writers explained how no other blacks could be seen for miles when lynchings occurred, helping to add to the true horror of the event. Some whites even used lynchings as an opportunity to make money: “Shopkeepers might display small body parts in their windows, and photographers might sell picture postcards of the event,” Hodes explained.

The online photo gallery, “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America,” available at, provides terrifying images of lynchings, including people hanging from trees, bridges, power lines and various other objects. Additionally, the site archives photos of people gathered around the ashes and remains of burned individuals. One photo shows a burning body surrounded by a crowd of smiling onlookers.

One postcard (marked as Image 53) showed the 1902 lynching of an unidentified African-American male in a coastal Georgia swamp and had the following message on the back: “Warning—The answer of the Anglo-Saxon race to black brutes who would attack the womanhood of the South.”

The photos provide images of lynchings from all across the United States, helping to prove that lynchings were widespread and not something limited to the South. Lynchings in Texas, Georgia, Florida, Kansas, Indiana, Montana, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, Minnesota and various other states are included, ranging in date from 1870 to 1960.

What is most disturbing about these pictures, in many ways, is that there is almost always a group of smiling spectators, sometimes reaching mob size. One haunting image is the picture of a small group of black and white boys gathered around the ashes and remains of a burned African-American male.

Lynching clearly defined itself as the most brutal force used against the black race during the period following Emancipation.

The 'Princess of the Press'

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, or the “Princess of the Press” as her peers called her, the child of Mississippi slaves and one of the most respected journalists and black rights leaders in history, compiled “The Red Record,” a study done through the use of white-run newspapers to tell the story of lynchings of blacks in America.

Wells-Barnett argued that during the post-Civil War period up until 1900, 10,000 blacks were murdered in “cold blood,” and only three white men were tried, convicted and executed for their crimes.

In her essay in Black on White, “The Case Stated,” Wells-Barnett explained how there were three main excuses given by whites for the murder of blacks: “The first excuse given to the civilized world for the murder of offending Negroes was the necessity of the white man to repress and stamp out alleged ‘race riots.’ … Then came the second excuse, which had its birth during the turbulent times of reconstruction. By an amendment to the Constitution, the Negro was given the right of franchise, and, theoretically at least, his ballot became his invaluable emblem of citizenry. … the murderers invented the third excuse—that Negroes had to be killed to avenge their assaults upon women.”

Wells-Barnett claimed that all three excuses whites gave for the murdering of blacks were flawed.

First, she said, “no Negro rioter was ever apprehended and proven guilty, and no dynamite ever recorded the black man’s protest against oppression and wrong.”

Second, Wells-Barnett suggested that the creation of the KKK, lynchings and lawless mobs successfully deterred many blacks from voting and put to an end the idea of “Negro domination,” or the belief that the black vote would lead to black control of government, legislation and society.

Third, with regard to claims of sexual assaults, Wells-Barnett argued that “During all the years of slavery, no such charge was ever made, not even during the dark days of rebellion, when the white man, following the fortunes of war went to do battle for the maintenance of slavery. While the master was away fighting to forge the fetters upon the slave, he left his wife and children with no protectors save the Negroes themselves.”

Wells-Barnett claimed the whites’ excuse for killing blacks because of an alleged rape was unwarranted. Yet, she added that “With the Southern white man, any mesalliance existing between a white woman and a colored man is a sufficient foundation for the charge of rape,” which shows just how protective white males were of their patriarchal privileges.

The 'Lynching Ritual'

Trudier Harris, a professor of English at the University of North Carolina, argued along the same lines as Wells-Barnett in her essay, “White Men As Performers in the Lynching Ritual,” in Black on White.

Harris said that, through lynchings and castration, white males were able to literally tear away the myth of black male superiority in sexual intercourse while at the same time preying on a male’s worst fears: “In simultaneously perpetuating and attempting to destroy the myth of black male sexuality, the white men involved in the lynchings and burnings spent an inordinate amount of time examining the genitals of the black men whom they were about to kill.”

Harris claimed that lynchings and, in particular, castration gave white males total satisfaction and gave them “the ultimate release from all tension.”

Indeed, the white male’s fascination with the black male’s genitals is a common thread that can be found throughout many stories of lynchings, including those by Baldwin and Ellison, and is also evident in many of the lynching photographs online.

Overall, as Harris concluded, “Perhaps the worst fear any man can have is the fear that someone will cut off his penis. … He does to the black man what, in his worst nightmares, he perhaps imagines other adversaries doing to him; before he becomes victim, he victimizes.”

The social creation of race

Through the transformation of race from a legally restricted classification of slavery to a socially restricted classification, Southern white males were able to maintain their dominance over patriarchal whiteness.

Claims of race riots, “Negro domination” and sexual assault gave the white patriarch excuses to kill free blacks.

As Wells-Barnett wrote in her essay in Black on White, “It must appear strange indeed, to every thoughtful and candid man, that more than a quarter of a century elapsed before the Negro began to show signs of such infamous degeneration.”

The KKK, intimidation, murder, lynching, mobbing, burning, torture and violence all proved to be effective tactics in the white male’s attempt to preserve patriarchal whiteness in the post-Civil War era.

As James Roark explained in Major Problems: “Old patterns could be perpetuated or restored intact only if Southerners would remain loyal to their traditions and affirm their total resistance to change. Even slavery in some form
was not beyond their grasp, they thought, if Southerners would stand firm on principle and conviction … .” And, by the late 1970s, “state by state, political power returned to conservative white Southerners.”

Yet, as Harry Haywood remarked in “Shadow of the Plantation” in Black on White: “Plainly the South can progress only by breaking the oppression of the Negro. ‘A people which enslaves another people forges its own chains,’ said Karl Marx. The same idea was expressed in colloquial language by Booker T. Washington: You can’t hold the Negro in the ditch without staying in it with him.”

In the end, white males, “the holders of death,” were able to once again keep the black race down and maintain their privileges of patriarchal whiteness. In the process, race came to have a significantly new meaning. The people of the United States would struggle for another century to break down the barrier of race constructed in the early 1600s and redefined in the late 1800s.

The 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865 following the Civil War, abolishing and prohibiting slavery in the United States. Three years later in 1868, the 14th Amendment was ratified, granting citizenship to all people “born or naturalized in the United States.” Finally, in 1870, the 15th Amendment was ratified, prohibiting any government bodies in the United States from preventing a citizen from voting because of his or her race, color or previous status as a slave.

However, many Southern states found other ways to deny the vote to blacks in spite of the 15th Amendment, including violence, intimidation and “Jim Crow” laws, which included literacy tests and poll taxes.

Not until the National Voting Rights Act of 1965—just 42 years ago—did blacks have a full and equal right to vote in the United States. However, even today, that right is still denied in some parts of the country.

As reported by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in his Rolling Stone report, “Was the 2004 election stolen?” (viewable at, in the 2004 presidential race in Ohio: “The GOP illegally targeted black voters, attempting to knock 35,000 citizens off the rolls—almost half in the Democratic stronghold of Cleveland. Unequal distribution of voting machines forced black voters to wait in lines almost three times longer than whites.”

The tactic was one of many Kennedy’s investigation detailed that he alleged helped deliver President George W. Bush a second term in the White House.

From the Feb. 28-March 6, 2007, issue

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