Every day I get an email about lynching.
It arrives in the early afternoon, slides between announcements of school Covid closures, work projects, bills due. The email comes from a Google alert: a tool that crawls the web and gathers every news story in which the word “lynching” appears.
I created the alert years ago while I was working on Deep South, the podcast my partner, Taylor Hom, and I made about a lynching from 1954. I didn’t think, at the start of our work, that the alert would return much. I didn’t realize how near the surface lynching remains, how regularly it is still summoned as a threat. I also had no idea that lynching is a relatively common tool of terror in other parts of the world.
I don’t read all of the emails; I can’t. But after opening hundreds of them, I can tell you that lynching, and its legacy, are alive and well across the world. And in the U.S., it is fully embedded in who we are.
If you’re white, my guess is that you don’t know much about this. But you will know that today marks the one-year anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Many stories will appear in the papers today. Most of them will miss the connection between the events of January 6, 2021 and the lynchings described each day in my inbox.
Here’s the point: The crowd that stormed the Capitol was a lynch mob.
Any serious examination of that day’s violence—from its dark carnival atmosphere and its encouragement by conservative politicians to the crowd’s sense of impunity and even the ubiquitous selfies—reveals a heritage that can be traced back to the mobs that once terrorized Black people. What’s more, they can be seen as direct descendants of the enormous “spectacle lynchings” of the later 19th and early 20th centuries—more about those in a moment.
The fact that no one was actually lynched at the Capitol is, to borrow the words of Arkansas historian Guy Lancaster “rather immaterial.” This is because lynchings in America were only partly about murdering Black Americans. Their main aim was to reinforce white supremacy, to make white people feel safe and powerful. These were exactly the goals of the mob that attacked the Capitol, and the politicians who supported them.
Ashraf compared spectacle lynchings to baseball games: They were often planned, pre-meditated, well-organized. Most of this also happened on January 6.
The white media seem mostly to have missed this. In the days after January 6, the first article I found that made the connection was written by Lancaster, the historian. A pair of pieces written by academics followed in The Washington Post and Al Jazeera. Then, in March, Time magazine ran an essay by the son of the man who wrote “Strange Fruit”—the anti-lynching song made famous by Billie Holiday.1
Not one of these stories was produced by a journalist. Why? In the past, American media was beyond sympathetic toward lynchers, and often treated lynchings as entertainment. Our modern silence isn’t so much a departure from that history as submersion within it: white people—and I include most mainstream journalists here—are so steeped in the legacy of lynching, the forces that fueled it, that we routinely fail to see them.
I’m a good example of that failure.
I grew up in Massachusetts, a place that imagines itself immune to white supremacy—at least to the strains that produced lynching. The truth is that we weren’t immune, merely ignorant. Sometime in the late 1960s my high school, which stands not 20 miles from what was once the center of the American abolition movement, named our sports teams The Rebels.2 The school band began playing “Dixie” at football games. And as team our symbol we adopted the Confederate battle flag.
When I got to high school, the flag and the name meant almost nothing to my friends and me. But they were not meaning-less. By wearing the flag on t-shirts, by using phrases like “Rebel Pride” and “Rebel Yell,” we became clueless participants in a side project of white supremacy: the long-standing effort to reframe the narrative of the Civil War and conceal the race terrorism that followed it.
During The Age of Lynching white people murdered some 5,000 Black people. That’s one lynching nearly every five days for 50 years.
In our thin education lynchings became isolated events, perpetrated by a few ex-Confederates, always involving a tree and a noose. We were given to believe the murders were terrible, but rare. Our concept of what lynchings were, and who carried them out, was narrow and set comfortably in the past. The word “lynching” itself never acquired much texture and so it became slick. You could toss it around.
This is the understanding I carried into adulthood, into my career as a journalist. If a crime didn’t look exactly like the textbook example—body, noose, tree—how could it be a lynching?
It was only a few years ago that I learned about The Age of Lynching, roughly 1890 to 1940, when white people murdered some 5,000 Black people. Put another way, that’s one lynching nearly every five days for 50 years.3
During the research for our podcast, a professor at Wesleyan named Ashraf Rushdy told my partner and me that lynchings took many forms, and they slowly grew into bustling pageants of terror attended by crowds of ten thousand or more. Eventually we dedicated an entire episode of our podcast to the American practice of lynching. We know we could’ve filled several more.
Rushdy helped us to see spectacle lynchings in context. The closest analogy, he said, was a baseball game. These crimes were often planned, pre-meditated, well-organized. Mayors sometimes cancelled school to accommodate them. Law enforcement directed traffic. Special transportation was arranged for the crowds. Newspapers printed notices. Vendors sold food. Parents brought children. Photographers made photographs of murdered bodies and these images became postcards—literal crime scene shots sent through the mail without fear of prosecution.
I asked him if I was taking the comparison too far.
“No,” he said. “You’re not.”
Behind the lynch mobs stood their enablers. Christian preachers who urged their congregations to go out and get “justice.” Politicians who encouraged lynchers and then defended them before Congress. Historically, most lynchers were never punished. And investigations into the crime, along with more than 200 attempts to pass anti-lynching legislation, have been routinely blocked—often by U.S. Senators from the South.4
Most of this should sound familiar. Most of it happened, in one way or another, on or before January 6. Some of it is still going on.
The parallels are undeniable.
Last year, a few days after January 6, I called Rushdy. By that point I still hadn’t seen any stories in the media connecting the Capitol mob to the lynch mobs of the past. My head was a mess of anger and disconnected thoughts. I asked him if I was nuts, maybe taking the comparison too far.
“No,” he said. “You’re not.”
Remember, he told me, that at the heart of every American lynching was a group of white people who claimed to speak for the masses. They decided the only way to get justice was to make it—by taking the law into their own hands. This let them feel powerful. It helped them feel safe. It gave their violence a veneer of respectability, even patriotism.
“This “Stop the Steal” movement is precisely that,” Rushdy said. Without any legal or factual basis, it’s part of the long history of popular sovereignty in America, and the violence that goes with it.”
Speaking with him made me feel less crazed, but no gladder. What I felt was the weight of the mob’s legacy, something shared by all white people in this nation, whether they are aware of it or not.
There has never been a national reckoning with lynching. I’m not convinced there’ll be one for the Capitol attack. And I do not expect much today in the way of analysis from my media colleagues.
The anniversary will pass, our reflection will be brief. One of the better takes I’ve read describes us creeping towards “normalization” of the insurrection, a kind of “yeah, it happened” attitude that lets it all slide. The writer warns that “there will be more January 6ths.”
I hope his prediction fails. This afternoon I’ll be watching my inbox, waiting for the email that brings news of lynching. Someone with a platform much larger than mine may yet pick up the line between our troubled moment and the unfinished business of the past.
Most of the scholars we spoke with consider these numbers an undercount. More lynching likely occurred than we’ll ever know.