What is a Lynching?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 13 August 2019
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Lynching is a form of vigilante justice in which someone is summarily executed without a trial. Classically, lynching involves the torture and hanging of a presumed offender, and while it has become infamously associated with the United States, it occurs all over the world. The practice has been largely banned, thanks to a number of anti-lynching laws introduced in the 20th century, but documented instances continue to occur in rough regions of the world.

This practice is named for Charles Lynch, a notorious vigilante who lived in Virginia during the American Revolution. Lynch used his position of authority to mete out rough justice to anyone suspected of criminal activity, without the benefit of a trial, and his name came to be synonymous with a hanging without trial.

For the United States, the most infamous examples of lynchings occurred in the wake of the Civil War, when civil unrest led to the lynching of almost 5,000 blacks between 1860 and 1968. Blacks already had limited access to the legal system, and lynchings disenfranchised them even further. Angry mobs whipped up by acts of violence would lynch any black man or woman they found on the street, whether or not that individual was involved in the crime, and sometimes even in cases where whites had clearly committed the crime.


The incidence of lynching tends to rise in communities experiencing civil unrest. Colonies and nations in the grip of a civil war are prone to lynchings, as citizens may strike out at convenient targets, taking advantage of general confusion to engage in vigilante justice without consequences. Victims of lynchings are often cultural, racial, or ethnic minorities, and a lynching may be viewed as a public spectator event and cause for celebration, as numerous haunting images from lynchings in the United States testify.

The frequency of lynchings around the world started to decline in the 1960s, in response to civil rights movements and a push to end lynching in the United States. The formulation of strict laws about lynching also promoted a decline in the incidence of this form of justice, as lynch mobs are now forced to face very real consequences for their actions. However, this crime still takes place in various regions of the world as an act of vengeance, vigilantism, or an unspoken message. Ongoing drug wars, for example, often claim lynching victims as police and drug investigators are publicly hung to underscore the consequences of interfering with drug barons.


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Post 4

There is never a reason to execute anyone by lynching or shooting or whatever means. Everyone deserves a chance to defend themselves in a court of law or arbitration.

It's true that lynchings still take place in some unstable countries where civil war is going on. In these countries where there is a state of chaos, and people are suspected of crimes, some way should be set up to give them legal rights to defend themselves in some form. But realistically, this probably will never happen.

It's a real travesty when law enforcement officers are lynched on orders from the drug lords, in public, as an example to tell public officials to stay away from the drug business.

Post 3

Lynching in this country, along with other cruel treatment of the blacks, after the Civil War for many years to follow is something most of us are very ashamed of.

Just on the suspicion of committing a crime of rape, murder, or simply stealing some food, a group of white people would chase down a black and hang him. He/she had no opportunity to defend himself, much less go to a court of law.

These lynchings were hate crimes. Unfortunately, the police and legal system just looked the other way.

Post 2

@MrsWinslow - I'm pretty sure you're thinking of the great African-American journalist Ida B. Wells, but yes, there was a case like that in the 1890s. The three men were friends of hers, and it got her started on an anti-lynching campaign.

Lynching in America is such a sordid part of our past. It would be bad enough if blacks had been lynched for simply interacting with white people, but that's not it. They weren't allowed to be successful even within their own communities if it took away business that a white person wanted.

Post 1

I remember reading that lynchings were sometimes used as a form of socioeconomic control through lynching blacks who became successful or who competed with whites economically. Of course, that's not what they would tell the lynch mob. The offense was almost always getting too close to a white woman.

I don't remember the details, but I'm pretty sure there was a case Ida B. Hayes (?) was involved with where black men were lynched after opening a grocery store. She said, "No one believes the old threadbare lie that black men rape white women."

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