August 8, 1903

William A. Rogers


Black Americans; Lynching; Riots, Race Riots;

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Cartoonist W. A. Rogers emphatically demands a halt to mob violence against black Americans.  In the artist's vision, the rule of law triumphs over mob rule as the demonic figure of "Lynch Law," who wields a bloody knife, hangman's noose, and torch, is stopped by "The Law."  Specifically, Rogers is praising government and law enforcement officers for quashing race riots in Evansville, Indiana, and Danville, Illinois.  The anti-black violence, though, continued across the country.

"Lynching" occurred when ordinary citizens violated the due process of law by apprehending alleged criminals and summarily executing them (usually by hanging).  Although the cartoon reminds us that not all such events occurred in the South, that region saw the vast majority of lynching in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, with most being white on black violence.  Most scholars agree that black victims were somehow perceived as a threat to the dominant ideology of white supremacy, yet they disagree on why lynching arose in particular places and times, but not others.

The number of black victims of lynch mobs rose steady from 1880 to a peak in 1892-1893 (estimates range from over 90 to over 200 annually).  The numbers then began a slow decline over the decades until reaching a low of less than ten victims annually in 1928-1929.  There were, however, two periods of upturns in the overall decline:  the years around a crest of 60 deaths in 1908, and the post-World War I years in the late teens culminating in the bloody "red" summer of 1919.

African Americans were, of course, active in working and speaking out against lynching.  When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the 1875 Civil Rights Act, Frederick Douglass helped organize a national convention of blacks in Louisville, Kentucky, which was attended by 300 delegates from 27 states.  Delegates called for the enforcement of civil rights for all Americans and denounced the practice of lynching.  Over the decades, black activists held conventions for various purposes, with anti-lynching a theme common to virtually all of them.  

During the rampant anti-black violence of the early 1890s, Ida B. Wells lectured across the country and in England against lynching.  She insisted that the common accusation of rape was greatly exaggerated, a stance supported by subsequent scholarship.  Wells founded the Anti-Lynching League and the National Association of Colored Women, which also campaigned against lynching.  Other black organizations that called for political, legal, and social action against lynching include:  the Afro-American League, founded by T. Thomas Fortune in 1887, and reorganized as the Afro-American Council in 1898; and the Equal Rights Council, established by Bishop Henry M. Turner in 1893.  

Three prominent biracial organizations that placed anti-lynching at the top of their agendas were:  the National Citizens Rights Association, founded by Albion Tourgee in 1891; the Constitution League (1903); and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), established by W. E. B. DuBois and others in 1905 as the Niagara Movement.  These and other organizations financed lawsuits, lobbied government officials, campaigned for legislation, and publicized the problem of lynching.

The first congressional bills addressing lynching were calls for establishing investigatory commissions, such as a bill sponsored by Senator John Logan of Illinois in 1884, and one by Congressman Henry Blair of New Hampshire in the 1890s.  In 1900, Congressman George H. White, a black Republican from North Carolina, introduced the first federal bill aimed directly at lynching.  These and similar bills all died in committee until 1922 when a bill finally reached the House floor, only to be filibustered to death in the Senate.  Attempts were again made in the 1930s and 1940s to pass federal anti-lynching legislation, but all failed.  By the 1950s, though, incidents of lynching had become rare.

Robert C. Kennedy

May 29, 2024

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