America's History of Lynching Is More Horrible Than We Ever Thought


President Barack Obama has been taking some heat for comparing the atrocities committed by the Islamic State militant group in its rampage throughout Iraq and Syria to gruesome chapters of the Western world's own history of religiously justified violence, including the Crusades and slavery in the American South.

Right-wing critics have accused the president of exaggerating our own sins to paint a fake picture of moral relativism, but a new study by the Equality Justice Institute has found that if anything, Americans are seriously underestimating just how cruel life in the South remained for blacks in the century after the Civil War.

The study: EJI staff spent four years studying so-called "terror lynchings," extralegal executions by hanging intended to strike fear into the hearts of the American black community, in the United State's "12 most active lynching states" between the years of 1877 and 1950.

Between interviews with historians, survivors and descendants, as well as reviews of newspaper and court records from the eras in question, the EJI documented at least 3,959 lynchings — a minimum of 700 more than previously thought. What's more, the researchers noticed that certain states and localities had far higher rates of lynching than others, meaning that individual communities lived under the constant threat of white violence.

"Racial terror lynching was a tool used to enforce Jim Crow laws and racial segregation," the authors wrote. It was "a tactic for maintaining racial control by victimizing the entire African-American community, not merely punishment of an alleged perpetrator for a crime."

EJI researchers similarly found evidence that lynchings had played a successful role driving the "forced migration of millions of black Americans" from the South, as well as a refusal among the states involved to acknowledge that this campaign of terror had every happened.

Evan Vucci/AP

During Obama's prayer breakfast speech, he cautioned the public not to jump to the conclusion that Islam was somehow intrinsically more violent than other faiths, using our own past as an example of how religion can be perverted to justify horrible abuses of human rights.

"Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ," Obama said. "In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

In response, the president was pilloried by right-wing Christian leaders and groups from former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore (R) to the Catholic League to conservative pundit Michelle Malkin. One Fox News guest even dubbed it "verbal rape."

But EJI's report documents exactly the kind of "terrible deed" Obama was talking about: As the Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates recently wrote, the Southern racists committing them often justified them with references to Christianity and the Bible.

"Its moral justification was not 'because I said so,' it was 'Providence,' 'the curse against Canaan,' 'the Creator' and 'Christianization,'" Coates observed. "In his 'Segregation Now' speech, George Wallace invokes God 27 times and calls the federal government opposing him 'a system that is the very opposite of Christ.'"

Slate's Jamelle Bouie adds that the lynchings weren't just "celebratory acts of racial control and domination." They were rituals, often laden with religious symbolism like burning crosses or the supposed moral purity of white women:

"It is exceedingly doubtful if lynching could possibly exist under any other religion than Christianity," wrote NAACP leader Walter White in 1929. "No person who is familiar with the Bible-beating, acrobatic, fanatical preachers of hell fire in the South, and who has seen the orgies of emotion created by them, can doubt for a moment that dangerous passions are released which contribute to emotional instability and play a part in lynching."

Maybe the president's critics could afford to take a history lesson before they start taking potshots. Our own history with mass murder and violence demonstrates just how close many pious American Christians came to the abyss, supposedly backed by their faith in a God whose Old Testament values had more in common with our current-day enemies in the Islamic State group than perhaps they'd like to admit.