White Americans established the patterns that were on full display on Jan. 6 in the late 19th and early 20th centuries during the lynching era. Through it all, they were afforded the benefit of the doubt, treated cautiously by law enforcement, announced plans well in advance and willingly took and posed for photographs while engaged in illegal activity. While there are important differences between the mobs that lynched African Americans and the one that descended on the Capitol last week, namely their proposed victims and the move of law enforcement since the attack to enact consequences, their similarities are a concerning sign that America’s history of mob violence has not gone away.
The years between 1890 and 1920 remain one of the darkest chapters in American history. The most recent counts tabulated by the Equal Justice Initiative indicate lynch mobs killed 3,959 African Americans in the South. Lynching represented a blowback against many things: a diversifying economy, Black economic successes and political engagement and competing notions of justice. Most important, however, it was an extralegal tool to reestablish White supremacy following the abolition of slavery after the Civil War.
The turn of the century advances in technology specifically in the areas of communication and photography, also shaped mob violence in important ways. Planners were able to communicate their intentions to a wide audience, which led to the presence of large crowds of onlookers while photography allowed them to document their crimes. These photographs were often turned into postcards that members of the mob confidently mailed through the U.S. Postal Service without fear of prosecution.
One of the most infamous lynchings occurred in the small town of Paris, Tex., in 1893. There, local authorities accused a Black man named Henry Smith of raping and killing a 4-year-old White girl named Myrtle Vance. Apparently, Smith had had a previous altercation with the child’s father and some witnesses claimed they saw Smith and the young girl together earlier in the day. Authorities never scrutinized those claims. Instead, Smith immediately became the only suspect. Following the accusations, he fled to Arkansas. After several days of searching, authorities apprehended him and took him by train back to Paris, where local Whites had spent the intervening days making plans to lynch Smith, even constructing a scaffold with the words “JUSTICE” painted across the front.
A mob of several hundred White residents met the authorities at the train station, where Smith was willfully handed over to them after authorities claimed he had confessed to the crime. The mob subjected Smith to the most brutal treatment before killing him.
Newspapers reported on the spectacle and photographers captured those who led the violence as it unfolded. Yet, no one was ever held accountable or punished for what happened to Smith. Instead, supporters defended the lynching vigorously. The most pronounced defense came from John M. Early, a successful White businessman. He justified the mob’s actions and blamed the victim. Early described Smith as “the chiefest among sinners” who “incited” the mob by allegedly raping and murdering the child. He described the mob as “very refined.” In essence, he rationalized the sadism as a necessary punishment for the atrocities committed by African Americans against White society — all while ignoring the gross violations of norms that occurred because the mob allowed for no due process.
What occurred in that East Texas town was not an isolated incident, nor was it unique. Smith’s lynching, the sadistic events that led up to it and the justifications that followed exemplified the pillars of white supremacy of the Jim Crow era: a system that classified African Americans as inferior and therefore unworthy of the social, political and economic rights of citizenship.
Mobs across the country routinely stormed jails to forcibly remove prisoners. Frequently, law enforcement officers willingly handed them over. Newspapers covered these atrocities, often announcing the intention of the lynch mob well in advance of the killing. Mob participants posed for photographs, often smiling as if proud of their actions, and postcards featuring lynched African Americans circulated throughout the United States.
Why were so many lynch mob participants willing to announce their intentions and document their actions which violated the law? Because they knew nothing would happen to them in response. No prosecutions. No social ramifications. Law enforcement officers who refused to protect people in their custody did not lose their jobs. Nothing. And, they were right.
The goal behind the impunity with which lynch mobs were allowed to operate was the manifestation of white supremacy. There was nothing that a White person could not do to a Black person.
Over the course of the 20th century, mob violence became less frequent. The mechanization of agricultural production, declining profitability of cotton, Black flight from the South and grass-roots and institutional efforts by African Americans to reframe how Americans viewed lynching contributed to that decline. State and local authorities also increasingly opposed extralegal punishment and instead utilized the formal criminal justice system as another tool to perpetuate Black oppression.
Yet, key elements of this mob mentality still exist and they were on display on Jan. 6. Their target was not a Black man, but the nation’s political system. By spreading false claims of voter fraud, the leaders of the lynch mob roiled their listeners into a frenzy, not unlike leaders of lynch mobs in the Jim Crow-era who warned White crowds of the threats Black men posed to the White women of their community.
The mob participants announced their intentions well in advance of the storming of the Capitol on social media and major television networks warned of what was impending. Yet, law enforcement agencies in the nation’s capital were unprepared. While reporting indicates hundreds of law enforcement officers valiantly tried to thwart the mob, some seemed all too acquiescent. To date, two Capitol police officers have been suspended and at least another 10 are under investigation for their actions during the siege.
Then there were the photographs taken. People, like Adam Johnson and Jacob Chansley, posed for photographs in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, on the Senate dais and with the House lectern while others recorded videos and live-streamed their actions. None seemed to fear prosecution because in their view they were “protecting” their “community” from a threat.
While these events were terrifyingly similar to the actions of lynch mobs in the past, this is not the Jim Crow-era. The Justice Department has already opened roughly 200 cases, with the FBI making more than 100 arrests in conjunction with the attempted insurrection. Authorities have promised more charges are forthcoming, as are congressional investigations.
In short, there are consequences.
The mob of Jan. 6 overplayed its hand because, much like lynch mobs of the last century, violent white supremacy shaped participants’ actions and false assumptions. The arrests made in connection with the Capitol riot suggests times may be changing. However, this history reminds how critical holding those guilty of inciting mob violence accountable will be and how much work Americans still have to do to blot out this insidious strand of thinking.
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