The History of Lynching and Black Disenfranchisement

Lynching D. D. Teoli Jr. A. C. ( 43) : D.D. Teoli Jr. as ...

Episode 21: Lynching and Disenfranchisement

A New History of the American South

Dr Edward Ayers (2018)

Film Review

According to Ayers, the extrajudicial massacre (initially via riots organized by groups of White southerners) of Black southerners began during Reconstruction to discourage them from campaigning for the Republican party. Lynching (which Ayers defines as the illegal execution by vigilantes of alleged criminals), began in the 1880s and reached its peak in the 1890s. Strongly influenced by the mass hysteria promoted by southern newspapers, white southerners became convinced freed slaves were intrinsically criminal and violent. Nearly every issue of every southern newspaper would carry some report of Black wrongdoing somewhere, and free Blacks were universally blamed for the rising tide of southern crime.

Jim Crow laws in themselves increased crime rates, by allowing most southern jurisdictions to arrest Black men for vagrancy if they failed to produce employer letters verifying their employment. Once arrested, Black prisoners were leased to local farmers and businesses.

Ayers suggests lynching evolved in part to address the burden of growing prison populations. Much of the lynching that occurred was based on white fantasies about Black men lusting after White women. In fact, Blacks could be lynched for merely speaking to or looking at a White woman.

Lynching was most common in regions of Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas with scattered farms, few towns and high numbers of transients. Not only did similar circumstances foster fear and insecurity, but limited contact with the outside world meant there were fewer checks on vigilante behavior.

In this lecture, Ayers also discusses disenfranchisement, the rewriting of all southern state constitutions (between 1880-1910) to deny Black men the right to vote without incurring the penalties of the 15th amendment.* Democratic officials were mainly concerned about the presence of large majority Black districts that were voting Republican. Mississippi held the first disenfranchisement convention in 1890. In their new constitution, they established voting requirements that included a poll tax, selective use of criminal records (disqualifying voters with a history of petty theft) and an “understanding clause.” The latter required voters to demonstrate an understanding of the state constitution to a white voter registration clerk.

In their own conventions, the other southern states all adopted a poll tax. Georgia also adopted a requirement for voters to own property and pass a literacy test. Louisiana opted for an “understanding clause” that exempted everyone whose father or grandfather had voted prior to Reconstruction.

Following the adoption of these disenfranchisement clauses, voter turned out dropped from 75% to 15-34%.

*Which provided loss of federal representation for states that denied Blacks the right to vote.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

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The Deplorables: The 400-Year History of the US Working Class

White Trash

Talk by Nancy Isenberg (2015)

Film Review

In this talk about White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America, author Nancy Isenberg begins by exploring British attitudes towards poverty and vagrancy. The latter would heavily influence attitudes towards the landless poor in colonial America.

Prior to colonization, according to Isenberg, British elite viewed the New World as a vast wasteland they could use to construct a giant workhouse for Britain’s landless vagrants.* For several decades, the British government kidnapped vagrants (including street children) off the street, branded them, and involuntarily shipped them to North America as indentured servants.

Adopted by wealthy colonists, these attitudes provided a major impetus for opening the American West to settlement. In the eyes of the founding fathers, the supposedly “empty” lands of the western continent provided an opportunity for Eastern settlements to rid themselves of “human garbage.”

Like the British aristocracy, New World colonists were obsessed with the so-called “idleness” of the landless poor. which they viewed as hereditary. They took their physical appearance (with pervasive malnourishment leading to white hair, and yellow, prematurely shriveled skin) as evidence that their condition was congenital.

In 1790, 70% of Kentuckians were landless poor whites. By the 1850s, 35-40% of the population of most Southern states consisted of landless poor whites.

The 1950s economic boom, which would lead to the rise of the middle class and the myth of America’s classless society. This period would see the rise of trailer parks in most cities, enabling the transformation of “white trash” to “trailer trash.”

Today Reality TV, which Isenberg describes as “white trash voyeurism” is the best known cultural outlet for US working poor.

* Vagrancy was a new phenomenon in the 17th century, brought on by a series of enclosure acts between 1604 and 1814. This would drive hundreds of thousands of peasants off land that had always been held communally.