Winner of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction This extraordinary account of lynching in America, by acclaimed civil rights historian Philip Dray, shines a clear, bright light on American history’s darkest stain—illuminating its causes, perpetrators, apologists, and victims. Philip Dray 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 commitment to 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 lynching’s legacy belong to us all.
- Pulitzer Prize
Between 1882 and 1944 at least 3,417 African-Americans were lynched in the United States, an average of slightly more than one a week. It was not until 1952, as Dray notes, that a full year went by without a reported racial lynching. Covering the South's resistance to racial equality from Reconstruction and the 1875 Civil Rights Act (which gave rise to the widespread acceptance of public murders) through the mid-20th century, this prodigiously researched, tightly written and compelling history of the lynching of African-Americans examines the social background behind the horrific acts. Yet Dray (We Are Not Afraid) also covers the myriad attempts of popular and judicial resistance to lynching, in particular the campaigns led by Ida B. Wells and by the NAACP. He has pulled together a wealth of cultural material, including D.W. Griffith's 1915 Birth of a Nation, Reginald Marsh's famous 1934 antilynching cartoon in the New Yorker, among much else, to supplement his impressive survey of the breadth of lynching in Southern society. While there is much shocking material here the 1918 lynching and disembowelment of eight-month-pregnant Mary Turner; California governor James Rolph Jr.'s 1933 statement that lynching was "a fine lesson for the whole nation" Dray never lets it dictate the complex social and political story he is telling. He faces the underlying sexual impulse of most lynchings head-on and shows how, in the 1913 lynching of Leo Frank, the fear of blacks was transferred to a Jewish victim. Whether he is explicating why the feminist-run Women's Christian Temperance Union refused to speak out against lynching, or why FDR refused to endorse antilynching legislation in the 1930s, Dray balances moral indignation with a sound understanding of history and politics. The result is vital, hard-hitting cultural history.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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January 06, 2003
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Excerpt from At the Hands of Persons Unknown by Philip Dray
"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 mob.
The crime that had "dethroned the reason of the people of western Georgia," as the Constitution put it, had occurred on Wednesday, April 12, 1899, in the small farming town of Palmetto, just southwest of Atlanta. The Cranfords, who were in their mid-twenties, were descendants of two of the area's most established families. Alfred's family owned extensive land, and Mattie (n�e McElroy) had been known before her marriage as "one of the belles of Newnan," the historic courthouse town that was the seat of Coweta County.
Alleged murderer Sam Hose, twenty-one, had grown up on a farm near Macon and had come to work for the Cranfords only six months earlier. The fact that he was unknown in Coweta may have enabled him to disappear more readily after the assault on the Cranfords, but it also made it more certain he would receive no quarter from the hundreds of lawmen and self-appointed guardians of the community's well-being tracking him along the back roads of west-central Georgia, in what was called the largest manhunt in the state's history. This "monster in human form," explained one much-reprinted account of the Cranford murder given by Georgia congressman James M. Griggs,
. . . crept into that happy little home . . . with an ax knocked out the brains of that father, snatched the child from its mother, threw it across the room out of his way, and then by force accomplished his foul purpose. [He] carried her helpless body to another room, and there stripped her person of every thread and vestige of clothing, there keeping her till time enough had elapsed to permit him to accomplish his fiendish offence twice more and again!
Georgia governor Allen D. Candler, widely known to endorse lynching as a method of controlling black criminality, termed the Palmetto murder "the most diabolical in the annals of crime" and declared the details of the Cranford murder "too horrible for publication." In truth, the newspapers found them quite suitable for publication. Turn-of-the-century news accounts of incidents such as the Hose-Cranford case constituted a kind of "folk pornography" that made for welcome, titillating reading. Stories of sexual assault, insatiable black rapists, tender white virgins, and manhunts led by "determined men" that culminated in lynchings were the bodice rippers of their day, vying in the South's daily newspapers with expos�s about black dives and gambling dens, drunkenness and cocaine addiction, and warnings about domestics who stole family heirlooms. The cumulative impression was of a world made precarious by Negroes.