It is easy to shrink from our country’s brutal history of lynching. Lynching is called the last great skeleton in our nation’s closet: It terrorized all of black America, claimed thousands upon thousands of victims in the decades between the 1880s and the Second World War, and leaves invisible but deep scars to this day. The cost of pushing lynching into the shadows, however—misremembering it as isolated acts perpetrated by bigots on society’s fringes—is insupportably high: Until we understand how pervasive and socially accepted the practice was—and, more important, why this was so—it will haunt all efforts at racial reconciliation.
“I could not suppress the thought,” James Baldwin once recalled of seeing the red clay hills of Georgia on his first trip to the South, “that this earth had acquired its color from the blood that had dripped down from these trees.” Throughout America, not just in the South, blacks accused of a crime—or merely of violating social or racial customs—were hunted by mobs, abducted from jails, and given summary “justice” in blatant defiance of all guarantees of due process under law. Men and women were shot, hanged, tortured, and burned, often in sadistic, picnic-like “spectacle lynchings” involving thousands of witnesses. “At the hands of persons unknown” was the official verdict rendered on most of these atrocities.
The celebrated historian Philip Dray shines a clear, bright light on this dark history—its causes, perpetrators, apologists, and victims. He also tells the story of the men and women who led the long and difficult fight to expose and eradicate lynching, including Ida B. Wells, James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, and W.E.B. Du Bois. If lynching is emblematic of what is worst about America, their fight may stand for what is best: the love of justice and fairness and the conviction that one individual’s sense of right can suffice to defy the gravest of wrongs. This landmark book follows the trajectory of both forces over American history—and makes the history of lynching belong to us all.
From the Hardcover edition.
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|Title of eBook: At the Hands of Persons Unknown|
|Release Date: 12-18-2007|
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|Publisher: Random House Publishing Group|
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At the Hands of Persons Unknown
"A Negro's Life Is a Very Cheap Thing in Georgia"
Smartly dressed, with his walking cane in hand, W.E.B. Du Bois left his home in Atlanta on April 24, 1899, and began walking downtown along Mitchell Street. He was carrying a letter of introduction to Joel Chandler Harris, the white author of the Negro dialect tales known as the Uncle Remus stories and an editor at The Atlanta Constitution. At thirty-one, Du Bois was himself an acclaimed author, with degrees from Harvard and two years' study at a prestigious German university to his credit. In addition to his teaching duties as a professor of economics and history at Atlanta University, he also supervised an ambitious program of social research there.
Although he had lived in Atlanta since 1897, he had never bothered to seek out Harris, even though they had mutual friends; Du Bois rarely left the university to go into downtown Atlanta because he refused to ride the city's segregated streetcars. But a sensational rape and murder in rural Georgia in mid-April had caused an uproar, and a black farmhand, Sam Hose, said to have brutally killed his employer, Alfred Cranford, and to have "outraged" Cranford's wife, Mattie, had been lynched.
Du Bois had studied the lynching phenomenon and he knew that in such instances things usually weren't as they seemed. "It occurred to me," he said later, "that I might go down to the Atlanta Constitution and talk with Joel Chandler Harris, and try to put before the South what happened in cases of this sort, and try to see if I couldn't start some sort of movement." In addition to his letter of introduction, Du Bois also carried a letter he'd written protesting the action of the lynch mo...