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“The oppression doesn’t end, it adapts”: America’s history of lynching and its resonance today

A historian explains the larger context surrounding the deaths of Robert Fuller and other black Americans.

Three people hold candles at a vigil.
Attendees at a vigil on June 13, 2020, to demand a full investigation into the death of Robert Fuller.
Apu Gomes/AFP/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

When Robert Fuller was found dead, hanging from a tree in a square across from Palmdale’s City Hall, authorities said it was a suicide.

“It is not the first such incident since the COVID-19 pandemic began,” the California city said in a statement, according to CNN, adding that “the city remains committed to addressing mental health issues during these difficult times.”

But family members of the 24-year-old, and others in the community, were deeply skeptical. As one woman put it at a recent press conference, “No black man would hang himself in public like that.”

Her comment is a reminder that Fuller’s death happened in a country with a centuries-long history of lynching — one that may have changed in recent years but hasn’t gone away. Thousands of black Americans were lynched in the decades following Reconstruction, and although such vigilante killings may have decreased in the 20th century, efforts to pass legislation banning them were repeatedly thwarted. Meanwhile, these killings were essentially replaced by racist policing and the state-sanctioned execution of black Americans, historian Nicholas Creary told Vox. “The oppression doesn’t end,” he said. “It adapts.”

Amid worldwide protests against such oppression, Fuller was one of two black men found hanging from trees in Southern California within days of each other. The first was Malcolm Harsch, found dead less than two weeks before Fuller in Victorville, California. In response, protests and calls from family members led to both deaths being more fully investigated. While a surveillance video confirmed on Friday that Harsch did die by suicide, there have been additional hangings in recent days — a black teenager in Texas and a 27-year-old black man in Manhattan. Many say that around the country, the deaths of black men are often dismissed by authorities as self-inflicted without a full inquiry. The NAACP even has a name for such cases, calling them “quick call suicides,” as Sue Sturgis reports at Facing South.

And that lack of investigation, too, has an important historical context. In the 19th and early 20th century, Creary said, lynchings were almost never prosecuted. Instead, authorities would rule that the victim “met his death at the hands of parties unknown.” For Creary, a quick announcement that someone committed suicide may be just “a more contemporary twist on that.”

Now the associate director of the Center for Diversity and Enrichment at the University of Iowa, Creary previously studied the history of lynching in Maryland, and helped spearhead the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a statewide body to investigate lynchings. He spoke to Vox, in a conversation that has been condensed and edited, about the history of racist violence in America, and how that violence has evolved over time — but never disappeared.

Anna North

Can you define the term “lynching”? For many, it conjures a specific image, but it seems like even within the term itself there’s a lot to talk about.

Nicholas Creary

I like to use the NAACP criteria: Number one, somebody had to have been killed. Number two, it had to have been committed by a group, to distinguish lynching from just straight-up murder. That recognizes that lynching is fundamentally a community action. There are a whole lot of people involved and there is coordination. That sort of gets us to the third criterion: it has to have been done ‘in the name of the race’ or ‘for justice’ or for something. So when we talk about lynching, somebody was killed, it was perpetrated by a group of people, and it was done in support of some kind of cause, more than likely associated with white supremacy.

Anna North

When did lynching begin to appear, and to what extent has it continued across time?

Nicholas Creary

There were lynchings that happened before Reconstruction. Just in the case of Maryland, the earliest documented case of lynching that we have goes back to 1856. And that was a lynching of a free black man.

But in terms of what we think about as racial terror lynching, a lot of that really began to take off during Reconstruction and particularly in the period following Reconstruction with the rise and implementation and enforcement of Jim Crow. The numbers just really took off beginning in the 1890s.

This is really a phenomenon that happens in the wake of general emancipation with the passage of the 13th Amendment. It becomes a tool to keep blacks in their so-called place. This includes if blacks were being too economically successful.

Take a look at Ida B. Wells’ book Southern Horrors. She laid it out: a lot of this was about black economic success. And then, a lot of those cases where there were allegations of rape or of black men attacking white women, that was code for the existence of a clandestine, consensual, interracial sexual relationship.

If you look at some of these things, they would announce it in the newspaper: “Hey, we’re going to be lynching this person this afternoon.” And literally thousands of people would show up to watch this.

They’re just so grotesque. I read [descriptions of] them because the research requires it, but I get to the point where I refuse to watch any more of these videos of black men being murdered. It becomes a real challenge to be able to go back through and read these things. These were traumatic events.

The other thing that invariably happened: the coroner or the inquest to investigate the cause of death [would come to the conclusion that] “this person met his death at the hands of parties unknown.”

One of those major elements of the act of lynching is the silencing: the silencing of the black community saying, “Don’t talk about this, [because] if you do, you run the risk of suffering the same fate.” But then there’s also the silencing that’s part of the cover-up: “Oh, we don’t know who did this.”

Whereas in point of fact, if you read some of these accounts in the Baltimore Sun and other newspapers, either the reporters had to have been there, or they spoke to people who were there. There is no way that they could have reported the detail of what happened without either having witnessed it firsthand or spoken with people who witnessed it.

We know that people could be identified. Just in some of the preliminary research that the research committee for the Maryland [Lynching] Truth and Reconciliation Commission has done, they have identified names of people who were involved. It exposes the lie that “we don’t know.”

Anna North

I want to come back to the issue of silencing, but I also want to ask: To what extent does lynching persist to the present day? Do we see lynchings happening now? And what is the connection between racist violence today and lynchings of the past?

Nicholas Creary

Reports show that the number of lynchings begins to decline substantially in the early decades of the 20th century, and they identify a correlating and corresponding increase in the number of legally state-sanctioned executions of black men. So the oppression doesn’t end, it adapts. It changes.

By the early 20th century, lynching is becoming an embarrassment. The NAACP is going full-on [with] advocacy and activism, trying to get anti-lynching legislation passed. The Dyer anti-lynching law is introduced in the House [in 1918]. This is when the machinery of the state, the arrest and the prosecution and execution of black men, becomes a significant vehicle.

And the policing that everybody’s talking about now, you can take it all the way back to slave patrols. It’s like, “Do you have a pass to be off your plantation?” We call it broken windows now, right? But it’s basically the same thing. Are you out of your place?

The net effect is, you’re still killing black people. It’s just now it’s officially sanctioned by the state, it’s not being done by a vigilante mob.

Another piece of the research that I did [was] looking at actual cases where [perpetrators of] lynching of black people were tried and convicted. [Out of anywhere between 3,500 and over 6,000 cases of lynching] we found only 18 possible cases where convictions were obtained. Seven of them, either the convictions were overturned on appeal, or the conviction was thrown out, or they said, “Okay, time served.” So the likelihood of punishment of lynchers was infinitesimal.

Compare that with the numbers of police that are actually convicted or in any way meaningfully punished for having killed black people. You don’t have to do you a whole lot of advanced math to see that those numbers are comparable.

Anna North

What about killings of black people by civilians, as opposed to by police. The killing of Ahmaud Arbery, for example, has been described as a modern-day lynching — do you see it as part of this history?

Nicholas Creary

Absolutely. The way that he was stalked and basically hunted down, it fits the pattern of a lynching. If you apply the criteria from the NAACP, the three of them were ‘concerned for the safety of the neighborhood.’ I think that’s sort of a contemporary riff on ‘doing it in the name of justice,’ but it’s still fundamentally undergirded by a notion of white supremacy, just using more contemporary coded language.

Anna North

To get back to this issue of silencing, are there cases where lynchings or suspected lynchings have been explained away by authorities as suicides?

Nicholas Creary

In the era of lynching, generally no. There was never an outright denial of the attack. A mob broke into the prison and took them out and strung them up, or burned them or shot them or all of the above. There was no denying that.

But inevitably after every one of these things, the state’s attorney or the county coroner’s office [would] investigate, what was the cause of death? And as I said, invariably, in every single one of those cases, it was, “He met his death at the hands of parties unknown.”

So to now hear that, “Oh, well, this is suicide.” Isn’t that basically just sort of a more contemporary twist on that? “He must have committed suicide” becomes the modern “died at the hands of parties unknown.”

Anna North

That leads me to my last question, which is, can you talk a little bit about the impact of deaths like those of Robert Fuller? You mentioned the trauma of going back through some of these records of lynching, and the trauma of watching videos of men dying at the hands of police. Can you talk about the effect on black Americans of hanging deaths of black men, given all the history that we’ve talked about?

Nicholas Creary

Immediately, that sends a clear message to black communities. Even young kids know what this is about. This is something I got asked about a few years ago, with the increased incidents of nooses being placed in the DC area. You don’t even have to kill people, just the noose, in and of itself, is sending a message. That piece of rope, it says everything. It’s a message of violence. It’s a message of hate. It’s a message intended to terrorize people.

So to take that and now put bodies in trees, this is the history coming back to life. And that, I think, says a lot about who we are as a society, who we are as a nation. It serves to once again make ring hollow all of these great words that we like to use to describe ourselves. We’re the greatest country in the world? No, we’re not. You want to talk about terror? Let’s talk about the racial terror that has been visited upon black people.

If you look at [NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund President] Sherrilyn Ifill’s book, looking at two [lynching] cases in Maryland, she titled it On the Courthouse Lawn. Because for many of these things, they happened literally in front of the courthouse. And so to have Robert Fuller hung from a tree across the street from City Hall, this is literally taking a page out of that old playbook. It exposes the lie that we’ve made progress.