By Russell Contreras
RIO RANCHO, N.M. (AP)—The U.S. Congress is once again at an impasse over a widely backed bill to designate lynching as a federal hate crime. And as in previous attempts to pass anti-lynching legislation, the proposal is being blocked by a white southern representative this time, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky.
Merriam-Webster defines lynching as “to put to death (as by hanging) by mob action without legal approval or permission.” Throughout American history, lynching has been used as a tool of terror against people of color to maintain racist social orders and prevent people of color from voting, asserting human rights or seeking employment. Black, Native American and Mexican American activists have sought for more than a century for federal legislation aimed at ending the practice and imposing harsh penalties for it.
Here's a look at how lynching evolved in the U.S. as populations of color grew and demanded civil rights:
Almost as soon as European settlers came to the present-day United States, white mobs attacked peaceful Native American villages. Black slaves who revolted faced death and, at times, slave owners and overseers, could kill a slave without fear of much punishment.
Though debated, some historians say the country's first lynching took place in St. Louis.
On April 28, 1836, Francis McIntosh, a free Black steward, disembarked of the steamboat Flora and onto a levee, according to “The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States” by Walter Johnson. He walked into town but was overtaken by two sailors running from the police. Deputy Sheriff George Hammons and Deputy Constable William Mull abandoned their chase of the sailors and took an innocent McIntosh into custody. He was eventually burned to death. Two years later, a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln denounced McIntosh's lynching and called it a threat to the Republic.
JIM CROW ERA
Following Reconstruction and the withdraw of federal troops from the American South, newly freed Black slaves fell victim to lynchings by white mobs who blamed them for the South's economic troubles. A paramilitary group known as the Ku Klux Klan attracted former Confederate soldiers who attacked African Americans. In 1866, a dispute between white and Black Civil War ex-soldiers in Memphis, Tennessee, resulted in Blacks' lynchings by white mobs and police. Two months later, a white mob lynched 37 Blacks attending a suffrage convention in New Orleans.
States in the former Confederacy passed laws preventing Black men from voting and used the threat of lynching to halt objections. But lynchings also were used to enforce racial segregation and prevent African American economic advancement.
Often Black men and women were taken from their homes at night and beaten before public lynchings. From 1882 to 1968, more than 4,700 lynchings were recorded in the U.S., according to the NAACP, the oldest civil rights group in the country founded in response to lynchings. About 70% of those lynched were Black.
Photos of Blacks being lynched later appeared on postcards with racist poems or words. The images often included a Black mutilated body hanging from a tree while smiling whites, sometimes with children, looked at the corpse.
Mexican Americans after the U.S. Civil War became victims of lynching by white mobs in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, and California as white settlers tried to impose their own racist social order in land taken from Mexico. In towns, villages, and cities in the West, Mexican Americans were subjected to torture, lynchings and other violence at the hands of white mobs and law enforcement agencies such as the Texas Rangers. Historians say that from 1910 to 1920, an estimated 5,000 people of Mexican descent were killed or vanished in the U.S.
Often the violence was so barbaric it attracted the attention of newspapers abroad and the fledgling NAACP.
Asian Americans also faced lynchings in California. Jean Pfaelzer's 2008 book “Driven Out: The Forgotten War against Chinese Americans” documents from 1848 into the 20th Century how lawless white mobs attacked Chinese miners and workers in California and the Pacific Northwest in violent acts of ethnic cleansing. If the victims weren't forcibly loaded onto railroad cars, they were lynched.
In 1930, Robert B. Martin, a local lumber worker and Filipino veteran of World War I, was found hanging in a tree in Susanville, California. His crime: he had been seen talking to white women.
Journalist Ida B. Wells led an anti-lynching crusade in the late 1800s by writing about murdered African Americans, even risking her life by traveling to the South to investigate stories. She brought her campaign to the White House in 1898 and called for President William McKinley to make reforms.
Between 1920 and 1938, the NAACP flew a flag outside its New York City headquarters every time it received another lynching report. Meanwhile, the group tried to seek state and federal anti-lynching legislation—proposals that always faced fierce opposition from politicians from the American South.
In 2018, the Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery-based legal advocacy group, opened the nation's first memorial and museum to lynching victims. The organization said 650,000 people have visited the memorial and museum since the sites opened.
Last month, an online video emerged showing the February 23 shooting death of unarmed 25-year-old Black man Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia by two white assailants. Rev. James Woodall, state president of the Georgia NAACP, called the unprovoked killing of Arbery, who was jogging, a “modern-day lynching.”