In Mississippi, lynching—an extralegal, often ritualized execution for alleged crimes—and other forms of mob violence were inextricably linked with racial domination. From the dawn of the Civil War to the civil rights movement in the 1960s, white Mississippians attempted to preserve white supremacy through racial murder and terror.
Although mob violence occurred in antebellum Mississippi, it was not an interracial phenomenon. White cotton planters frequently used limited forms of coercive violence to enforce the labor discipline of their African American slaves, but most victims of vigilantism were white. Only during the Civil War did lynching and mob violence begin to be directed toward the black population, and African Americans became the prime targets for mob attacks after 1865, reflecting white southerners’ determination to maintain social, economic, and political control. During Reconstruction, vigilante groups such as the Ku Klux Klan intimidated, tortured, and murdered hundreds of African Americans in Mississippi as well as in other states of the former Confederacy.
Despite federal legislation that outlawed the Klan, mob violence against blacks continued unabated after the end of Reconstruction in 1877. In the 1880s lynching emerged as the dominant method to enforce the region’s racial hierarchies. White southerners of all classes participated in these public rituals of murder, which turned increasingly barbaric in the ensuing decades. In many cases, hundreds of spectators watched as white men tortured, mutilated, and finally killed the black victims. Most were hanged, though others were burned alive or died in a hail of bullets. Many whites justified these heinous crimes as necessary to protect their wives and daughters against “black beast rapists.” Yet few of the victims, most of whom were young men, were actually accused of interracial rape. More often, this charge served as a pretext for punishing violations of the region’s racial etiquette.
Lynchings took place in rural areas of Mississippi as well as in cities such as Hattiesburg, Meridian, and Natchez. Because lynchings were not recorded until the 1890s, the real number of victims will never be known. Conservative estimates put the number at 476 victims (including 24 whites) in Mississippi between 1889 and 1945—almost 13 percent of the 3,786 lynchings in the United States during that period and the highest total of any state. White southerners’ support for this brutal vigilantism was almost unanimous, reflecting their belief that lynching was a legitimate form of informal law enforcement. Police officers, too, condoned the violence, and white newspapers frequently commended the murderers. And local, state, and federal officials made no effort to stop the violence, forcing African Americans to protect themselves. Blacks occasionally repelled white mobs with gunfire, but resistance was difficult. Supported by local police and state militia, heavily armed white mobs crushed most black protection efforts and brutally retaliated against the defenders.
In the mid-1930s the number of lynchings in the South began to decline, and Mississippi saw almost no incidents of mob violence against blacks between 1940 and 1945. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other antilynching groups launched publicity campaigns that brought the prospect of federal intervention and changed public opinion. In addition, the increasing mechanization of the region’s cotton plantations reduced the need for a submissive African American labor force and thus undermined the socioeconomic roots of lynching.
But these changes did not bring an end to white violence. Rather, racial murder became an increasingly secret and covert affair that could generate national indignation if the incident became publicly known. In 1955, for example, white men beat and shot black teenager Emmett Till after he allegedly whistled at a white woman in Money, a small town in the Mississippi Delta, dumping his body in the Tallahatchie River. In stark contrast to earlier lynchings, the Till case made front-page news across the nation, leading to the indictment (though not the prosecution) of the killers.
Mob violence and extralegal killings persisted into the 1960s in Mississippi. In 1962 several thousand whites rioted on the campus of the University of Mississippi in Oxford when James Meredith attempted to integrate the all-white school. Voter registration drives in rural areas of the state also ran into violent resistance, especially from the revived Ku Klux Klan. Although concerned about the region’s rampant lawlessness, the federal government refused to protect civil rights activists until 1965, when officials began taking legal action against white extremists and attempting to disrupt the Ku Klux Klan. In addition, African Americans organized informal defense groups across the state, guarding their own communities. By the late 1960s, Mississippi’s traditional forms of lynching and mob violence had ceased to exist.
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- Crystal N. Feimster, Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching (2009)
- Neil McMillen, Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow (1990)
- Stephen J. Whitfield, A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till (1988)
- Akinyele O. Umoja, Radical History Review (Winter 2003)
- Jason Morgan Ward, Hanging Bridge: Racial Violence and America’s Civil Rights Century (2016)
- Kidada E. Williams, They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I (2012)