The gruesome images of killings by ISIL (a.k.a. the Islamic State), including some of US citizens, evoke scenes from a time when similarly vicious and warrantless executions happened on a regular basis on American soil.
A report released Tuesday from the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) names 3,959 victims of racially-motivated lynching of black people in 12 states in the American South between 1877 and 1950. The four-year long project adds 700 names to previous counts, making it the most comprehensive list to date of this kind of vigilante justice, according to the organization, a non-profit criminal justice advocacy group.
Just as ISIL publicizes its cruelty by posting videos of its executions online, 70 years ago white southerners disseminated images of the lynchings they carried out. Political commentator and Former White House press secretary Bill Moyers writes on his blog that after hearing of the killing of a Jordanian pilot burned alive by ISIL last week his “mind kept roaming” to retrieve an image he had seen in his youth. It was a picture postcard from the lynching of 17-year-old Jesse Washington who was burned alive in the town square of Waco, Texas in 1916 after he was accused of killing a white woman. Moyers recalls the postcard’s content: “This is the barbeque we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your son, Joe.”
The groups have different agendas. ISIL is aiming to recruit new fighters and send an “eye-for-eye” message to the forces trying to eradicate them. The lynchers sought to humiliate and subjugate a minority population. But the groups share terrorist tactics, using fear mongering to achieve their goals.
“Racial terror lynching was a tool used to enforce Jim Crow laws and racial segregation—a tactic for maintaining racial control by victimizing the entire African American community, not merely punishment of an alleged perpetrator for a crime,” the EJI report says.
The white executioners found many reasons to kill their African-American neighbors. Some were accused of violent crimes, some for what the report calls “casual social transgressions.” Jesse Thornton was lynched in Luverne, Alabama in 1940 “for referring to a white police officer by his name without the title of ‘mister.’” Another man was killed in 1904 in South Carolina for knocking on a white woman’s door. Up to 25% of lynchings occurred after an accusation of sexual assault, a result of a “wildly distorted fear of interracial sex.”
The states of Florida, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana had the highest per capita rates of lynchings in the United States, with Georgia and Mississippi having the highest total numbers.
So why is it important to be reminded of the America’s history of lynchings as an outraged world watches ISIL executions? EJI underlines the overwhelming implications of this history for today’s racial issues in the US. “The narrative of racial difference that lynching dramatized continues to haunt us,” the report states. “Mass incarceration, excessive penal punishment, disproportionate sentencing of racial minorities, and police abuse of people of color reveal problems in American society that were framed in the terror era.”