Historians point to economic factors as preeminent reasons for the start of The Great Migration around 1915. That is true. However some people began to fear for their safety as well. Prior to 1915, lynchings occurred with an alarming frequency across the last years of the nineteenth century and the first few years of the twentieth century. Activists like Ida Wells Burnett engaged in rigorous protests against the vigilante punishment. However, the shift in technology from agricultural to mechanical jobs also triggered African Americans to leave their homes. This tightening of the economy spurred an uptick in the number of lynchings that occurred across the South.
When people think of lynching, they think of African American males facing vigilante justice for sexual attacks against white women. However, as Ida Wells-Burnett herself pointed out at the time, interracial sexual attacks were rarely the reasons for these punishments that occurred outside of the law. For example the lynching that first stirred her to activism came about because one of her friends dared to open a new grocery store in the black community that threatened to siphon off the business of the grocery store that was already there.
One reason why the word remains firmly a relic of a hundred years ago is because an official definition of the word means two or more people have to be assembled to carry out the punishment. Another reason the word is not used more often is there is the mistaken belief that lynching can only occur with a hanging. However, many don’t know that lynch victims were often burned or shot.
People of various races, sometimes even women, were lynched during this time period. But the repeated use of this vigilante crime against African American males in the first part of the century drove them seek new economic opportunities elsewhere. They feared a lack of safety for themselves and for their children. They also understood that there was no way to obtain justice in the criminal system where they had no voice.
A neighborhood watch official who carries out vigilante justice because he fears increased theft of property in the community and subsequent economic loss is representing more than one person when he shoots someone who he wrongfully believes is engaging in that thefts.
It’s time for that word, lynching, to make a comeback.