Building the Archive: Beyond Lynching and Police Killings in the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive

While my search through the NAACP papers at the Library of Congress revealed several “lost” cases, it forced a significant reckoning with the definition of lynching itself.

Margaret Burnham and Melissa Nobles had focused on killings by law enforcement officials, and other forms of racial violence beyond lynching, from the outset of the project. My research was consistent with that scope. Searching for instances of racist violence among documents that pertained to a broader range of instances, it soon became clear that it was necessary wrestle with the historic definitions of lynching and police violence. This became even more true as the archive expanded in size. To accurately document the experience of Black communities throughout the Jim Crow South, I had to include the full spectrum of incidents in which white perpetrators were able to kill Black people with impunity.

This raises the question: does defining a category of violence as uniquely heinous as lynching mask or hide other forms of equally pernicious anti-Black violence?

Overall, there are three reasons why killings at the hands of police have become a prominent part of the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive

1.

Advocacy organizations saw a connection between killings by urban police and lynchings by mobs.

Many in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL) had long understood the distinction between legally sanctioned state violence and lynch law to be arbitrary.

In early 1934, J. R. Steelman of the Alabama College for Women wrote a letter to Walter White that stated: “If we listed all of the cases where officers go with the intention of killing the man, we would have many more lynchings than any other organization lists. I was told by a teacher in Selma, Ala. that ‘the reason we have no lynchings around here is this: when a Negro gets out of line the officers go and bring him in dead – that is the general rule here’.”[1]

Six years later, White heard much the same analysis from lynching researcher Arthur Raper. Commenting on an epidemic of police violence in the urban South, Raper related that “with 27 Negroes killed by police in Atlanta since 1933 and not quite so many in Nashville, Jacksonville, Louisville, and many other city [sic], some of them outside of the South, police brutality is beginning to stand head and shoulder above the lynching phenomenon. Could it just be that these urban police killings represent a new ‘technique’ for doing away with unwanted Negroes in a respectable manner?”[2] 

Even the ASWPL, which allied itself with southern police forces to reduce the number of lynchings, was critical of the role police played in the killing of Black people. This is most clearly seen in a 1937 letter by ASWPL head Jessie Daniel Ames to reporter Winifred Mallon at The New York Times, written in opposition to the passage of a federal anti-lynching law. Commenting upon the death of an African American man by the Atlanta police, killed while resisting arrest, Ames writes “this is the method by which lynchings will continue in the South, probably greatly augmented, if and when a Federal anti-lynching bill is passed. Whenever the officers find themselves with a Negro suspected or accused of murder or rape, their prisoner will be killed either ‘resisting arrest’ or ‘trying to escape.’ …. Almost this same thing happened in South Georgia about two weeks ago. The officers killed a Negro, accused of murdering a white sharecropper, who was ‘attempting to escape.’ The Negro was killed good and dead, while the white sharecropper turned up safe and sound in a couple of days.”[3]

Letter from J. R. Steelman to Walter White, 26 Jan 1934. NAACP Records, Series I, Box C341, Folder 6. Courtesy of the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive.
Letter from J. R. Steelman to Walter White, 26 Jan 1934. NAACP Records, Series I, Box C341, Folder 6. Courtesy of the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive.

Even more explicitly, in a letter to author Lillian Smith, Ames bluntly states “the shooting and occasional killing of Negroes in cities by officers of the law have long been an urban method of committing lynchings. She adds that these “are much more difficult to handle because ostensibly the officer of the law is upholding the law and public opinion and sentiment lean toward him.”[4]

Given the Burnham Nobles Digital Archive’s capacity and potential, the archive demonstrates the connection between lynchings and police killings described by Ames. 

2.

Killings by legally deputized posses and lynch mobs were often indistinguishable. ​

Fundamentally, any stated difference between one group of armed white men hunting an African American man extra-legally, and another of armed white men hunting an African American man with legal sanction is illogical.

Both groups were empowered to kill and could usually do so with impunity. This link between lynching and police violence had long been made by the NAACP, especially as they began to wrestle with how to classify killings by mobs that had been officially (and often arbitrarily) deputized as posses by the local sheriff. Without that act of deputization, posses that wound up killing the people whom they were pursuing would clearly have been lynch mobs. However, when the killing was done under the color of law in pursuit of a fugitive, it became justifiable homicide. Two examples from the NAACP records demonstrate this. 

In 1933, E. Franklin Frazier sent a clipping from the Nashville Banner describing the killing of Nelson Nash by a legally deputized posse. He describes Nash’s killing as a “new fashion in lynching” that might not “meet the metaphysical definitions of our statisticians.” A week later NAACP Secretary Walter White responds to Frazier thanking him for the clipping, informing him that “in announcing the 11 lynchings in 1932, [the NAACP] called attention to the viciousness of the new system of lynching Negroes and then saying that they were killed by posses.” He assured Frazier that “from now on we were going to list the killings by ‘posses’ which in most instances are nothing but out and out lynchings.”[5] Two years later, the NAACP sent a directive to all branches advising them to be aware that during lynching investigations, “efforts will be made … to allege that persons lynched were killed by ‘posses’ or other quasi-legal groups, in order that killings may not be listed as lynchings.”[6] 

A map of lynchings across the U.S. 1900-1931. Courtesy of the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive.
A map of lynchings across the U.S. 1900-1931. Courtesy of the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive.

In 1940, the NAACP released its report, Lynching Goes Underground: A Report on a New Technique.  Based on the investigations of Howard Kester, the white leader of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and NAACP ally, Lynching Goes Underground sought to prove that lynchings had not declined as the ASWPL had been claiming. Rather, they had gone underground.

One of the cases the NAACP chose to support their contention was the fatal shooting of Claude Banks at the hands of a legally deputized posse. Banks’ only “crime” was driving past a heavily-armed and all-white posse on the hunt for someone else. As Kester explained, “the evidence seems to indicate that the group of men who fired upon Banks … was a legally deputized posse” and “it is positively known that both deputies and members of the local police force were among those who shot Claude Banks.” He concluded that “whether a posse or a plain mob matters little to Claude Banks or his parents and brother … The posse … acted as similar groups always act. A white man had been attacked by a Negro: A Negro must pay, the right Negro if possible, but a Negro at whatever costs. Two careless, happy Negro boys rode by. When it was discovered that they were Negroes and did not stop, they became immediately guilty in the eyes of the white man who formed the posse … They were just ‘two niggers’ and as such could be shot down like wild animals seeking to escape before the hunter.”[7]

3.

There is also the broader question of culpability and complicity in lynchings by police.​

Even in those instances where the perpetrators are not police and not part of a deputized posse, the police were often complicit in covering up the actions of the mob. This generally took two forms.

The first are those instances in which police officers witness the killing, but later claim to be unable to identify any members of the mob. Alternately, police authorities decide not to investigate or make any arrests deferring instead to “the will of the people” their white friends, neighbors, and constituents.

Second are those instances in which the police facilitate the actions of the mob while not actually witnessing the killing firsthand. For example, in 1933 local police authorities in South Carolina left the jail unattended or unlocked, knowing that Bennie Thompson was wanted by a mob. Police in Sherman, Texas chose to direct traffic rather than fight the mob that arrived to kill George Hughes in 1930. 

In either case, the actions of the police assured the mob that they could kill with impunity and with little to no fear of punishment.

Organizational records on the killing of Bennie Thompson in 1933. Courtesy of the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive.
Organizational records on the killing of Bennie Thompson in 1933. Courtesy of the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive.
Bennie Thompson among other victims, lynched in 1933. Courtesy of the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive.
Bennie Thompson among other victims, lynched in 1933. Courtesy of the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive.

Repercussions...

Far more Black people have been killed at the hands of police than have ever been lynched. According to the Washington Post, 2,127 black people have been killed at the hands police between 2015 and 2023, an average of 236 per year.

Contrast this annual figure against the highest number of lynchings recorded in a single year, which according to Tuskegee Institute was 230 in 1892.

Though these are categorically different forms of violence, my research through the NAACP records demonstrated to me that lynching, police violence as well as individual acts of violence undertaken with impunity all exist upon a continuum.

The Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive presents a history of racialized violence that preserves lynching as a uniquely horrifying category while not losing sight of the more mundane violence that killed far more people.

Authored by Dr. Jay Driskell, CRRJ’s Lead Historian, who has served as a consulting historian for the National Museum of African American History and Culture.  His book in progress is “A History of Impunity: Lynchings and Police Violence in the Twentieth Century.”  He is the author of “Schooling Jim Crow: The Fight for Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High School and the Roots of Black Protest Politics” (U. VA Press, 2014) and many articles and book chapters. Driskell holds a PhD and MA from Yale University (History), and a BA from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Footnotes:

[1] J. R. Steelman to Walter White, 26 Jan 1934. NAACP Records, Series I, Box C341, Folder 6.

[2] Arthur Raper to Walter White, 17 May 1940, NAACP Records, Series II, Box A62, Folder 2.

[3] Jessie Daniel Ames to Winifred Mallon, 25 May 1937. ASWPL Records, Reel 2, File 8, Library of Congress.

[4] Jessie Daniel Ames to Lillian E. Smith, 4 June 1940. ASWPL Records, Reel 2, File 8, Library of Congress.

[5] “Negro Suspect in Murder Is Hanged,” Nashville Banner, 20 Feb 1933 – annotated by E. Franklin Frazier; Walter White to E. Franklin Frazier, 1 March 1933, NAACP Records, Series I, Box C357, Folder 30, Library of Congress.

[6] “N.A.A.C.P. Warns of Further Lynchings,” 16 Aug 1935, NAACP Records, Series I, Box C341, Folder 13, Library of Congress.

[7] Lynching Goes Underground: A Report on a New Technique (New York: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1940).  Copy in NAACP Records, Series I, Box C359, Folder 22, Library of Congress. 

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