The Legacy of Lynching: Part I

By Richard Morin
Sunday, September 25, 2005

For decades, scholars have sought to answer this bloody question: Why has the murder rate been disproportionally high in the South for more than a century? Some argue it's the weather -- hot, steamy conditions setting tempers on edge and provoking deadly violence. Others blame widespread poverty and illiteracy. Still others fault a so-called southern "code of honor" that requires any slight to be avenged.

Now three sociologists have found an additional explanation: lynchings.

Steven F. Messner of the State University of New York at Albany and his collaborators examined county data from 10 southern states where historically reliable information on vigilante lynchings is available: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. (Some counties where boundaries had changed were aggregated into groups of counties.)

This data set, originally collected by other researchers, contained the number of lynchings in each county in each state between 1882 and 1930, a period that scholars call the "era of lynchings." Then they gathered homicide data from the FBI and National Center for Health Statistics for each county covering the period from 1986 to 1995.

Based on this information, Messner and his colleagues produced two maps. One showed homicides: Those counties with the highest rates were colored black; those with lower rates were shaded gray, while those with the lowest rates were white. The second displayed lynchings, using the same shadings. Counties with the most lynchings were colored black, those with a lower rate were gray and those with the lowest rates were white.

A quick glace at the maps revealed a chilling pattern. The dark areas roughly overlapped: the counties with the most lynchings had the highest homicide rates, while counties with fewer lynchings had comparatively fewer murders. The overlap wasn't perfect, but it was apparent even to the naked eye, Messner reported in the latest issue of the American Sociological Review.

A more sophisticated statistical analysis confirmed the relationship. Counties with the most lynchings had homicide levels roughly 5 percent higher on average than those counties with the fewest lynchings -- a correlation that didn't disappear when the researchers controlled for factors known to influence the murder rate, such as population, poverty, low levels of education, the percentage of young people in the population, the unemployment rate and the percentage of single-parent households. They even developed an elaborate method to account for the code of honor, and found that that the correlation remained strong.

Why would a brutal practice that began more than a century ago affect these same areas today? Messner isn't yet sure. "That's the million-dollar question. We see these analyses as the first word, not the last." He hopes others will join in searching for the reasons. But Messner is confident that "lynching seems to matter and is relevant to our understanding of contemporary lethal violence" in the South.

The Legacy of Lynching: Part II

Is capital punishment the modern equivalent of lynching?

Yes, argue three researchers who found that the states that sentenced the most criminals to death also tended to be the ones with the most lynchings in the past.

Sociologist David Jacobs of Ohio State University and collaborators Jason T. Carmichael of Ohio State and Stephanie L. Kent of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas found that the number of death sentences for all criminals -- black and white -- was higher in states with a history of lynchings. But the link was particularly strong when they analyzed only death sentences for black defendants.

The sociologists theorize that the death penalty became a legal replacement for the lynchings of the past. They found that the number of death sentences in states with the most lynchings increased as the state's population of African Americans grew larger, suggesting that "current racial threat and past vigilantism largely directed against newly freed slaves jointly contribute to current lethal but legal reactions to racial threat," Jacobs and his colleagues write in a forthcoming issue of the American Sociological Review.

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