Some More Restrictive Laws

proportion to their population, more blacks were in prison in the north than in the south. In Chicago, a full quarter of blacks inhabited slum areas, and this group committed a substantial number of crimes—largely of larceny, burglary, and robbery. Similar to what Du Bois found of Philadelphia, Chicago crime showed an increase over a 25-year period to 1897 correlating with migration from the south and with prisoners from southern states disproportionally represented in the population. Where the law and incarceration were inefficient or simply insufficient to satisfy the mob, public violence and intimidation substituted for
legal sanction. Lynching became a regular feature of African American life, especially in the American south, where it was a chilling method of social control—a reminder to surrender any remaining protected civil rights and submit to white hegemony. Lynching itself is not confined to hanging but refers to an entire class of brutality, including maiming, burning at the stake, castration, shooting, and various types of amputation or dismemberment.

Reasons for lynching were suspected crimes of theft, attempting to register to vote, insolence or conflicts with whites, and insults to whites otherwise undefined. In truth, no substantive reason was actually necessary; lynching served as a tool of terror. One particular crime for which black men could be regularly accused was rooted in the white political assertion and social mythology of black men’s insatiable urge to rape white women. Rape included a range of imagined offenses against white womanhood, and the rhetoric of rape and miscegenation punctuated the speech of white terror groups of the era as well as political discussions of “the Negro Question.” Estimates of the number of African Americans lynched between 1882 and 1950 range from a conservative estimate of approximately 3,400
to some estimates of well over 5,000.

What have often been termed race riots of the 19th and early 20th centuries are more accurately described as mass murders, mass lynchings, or political coups. Unbearable conditions in the south, which included the Black Codes, lynchings, disenfranchisement, and economic re-enslavement in the penal or sharecropping systems led to large-scale black migration to the northeast and west. In addition, World War I produced a body of black veterans who were less inclined to accept
the racism in America after having seen the more liberal operation of race in Europe. In the case of the Wilmington, North Carolina, Riots of 1898, the riot was sparked by white resistance to black political participation in the city and the resulting stolen election, which included a campaign of intimidation and violence. In 1919, similar “riots” resulted in large numbers of black deaths in more than 25 conflicts across the south, midwest, and Texas.

The so-called riots were, in fact, acts of mob violence by disgruntled whites against black communities for some imagined slight, purported threat or evidence of blacks failing to submit to white authority, or evidence that blacks’ civil rights were being honored. Riots in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1866; Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898 (and spawning Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition); Atlanta, Georgia, in 1906; Springfield, Illinois, in 1908; Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921; and Columbia, Tennessee, in 1946 are representative cases. The first modern race riot that characteristically involves destruction of property within African American communities is generally believed to have been the 1935 Harlem Riot, which occurred after a Puerto Rican youth was inaccurately reported to have been beaten to death in a Kress Five-and-Ten store.

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