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The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow A Century of Segregation
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Lesson Plan 7: "Domestic Terror": Understanding Lynching During the Era of Jim Crow
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Introductory Activity:
(one class period)

  1. Ask your students to define lynching. How, for example, does it differ from murder? Are lynchings by definition racially motivated? Are victims necessarily African American? In your students' opinions, what circumstances must have occurred before they would consider a specific crime to be a lynching? As your students discuss the matter, list on the blackboard the criteria they consider crucial to defining the term.
  2. Present students with the following four-point definition that the NAACP often used for determining whether a specific incident should be categorized as a lynching. (You may want to post this beforehand, on a covered section of the blackboard.)
    1. there must be evidence that someone was killed;
    2. the killing must have occurred illegally;
    3. three or more persons must have taken part in the killing; and
    4. the killers must have claimed to be serving justice or tradition.
  3. Pose the following questions to your students:
    • How does this definition compare to the set of criteria the students have put forward?
    • Why do you think the NAACP would have set forth this set of criteria to define lynching?
    • In what way(s) is/are the NAACP definition more expansive than the definition established by the class (i.e., would this definition include incidents that your students' definition would not consider lynchings)?
    • In what way(s) is/are the students' definition more expansive?
  4. Ask your students what this exercise suggests regarding the challenge of compiling statistical information relating to lynching.

Learning Activity:
(one class period)

  1. Print out the following Web pages from Professor Doug Linder's "Famous Trials" Web site. Make enough photocopies of these pages for your students' use (students can be divided into small groups of three or four for this exercise). You will also want to refer students to the Timeline on THE RISE AND FALL OF JIM CROW Web site.

    Lynchings: By State and Race, 1882-1968

    Lynchings: By Year and Race

    Causes Of Lynchings, 1882-1968


  2. Distribute the handouts and have the students study them in small groups. Give them a few minutes to look over and discuss these statistics.
  3. Have your students refer to the first set of statistics:

    Lynchings: By State and Race, 1882-1968

    • According to the table, in which states have the greatest number of lynchings of black people taken place?
    • Which areas of the country had the fewest lynchings of black people?
    • In which states were the number of lynchings of whites greatest?
    • What factors might have accounted for the lynching of whites in these states?
    • Which areas of the country had the fewest lynchings of white people?
  4. Now have your students consider the next set of statistics:

    Lynchings: By Year and Race

    • In what periods were there increased numbers of recorded lynchings of black people?
    • Referring to the Timeline on THE RISE AND FALL OF JIM CROW site, what explanations might there be for the high number of black lynchings during certain periods of time
    • During what years were there higher recorded numbers of white people lynched?
    • What factors might have accounted for the high number of white lynchings?
  5. Refer your students to the third set of statistics:

    Causes Of Lynchings, 1882-1968

    • Does the information in this table include both white and black victims of lynching? How do you know this?
    • How reliable is this table as an indication of the actual guilt or innocence of lynching victims?
  6. The following questions should be considered by way of concluding this segment:
    • Why were statistics of this sort compiled by anti-lynching advocates?
    • How might these statistics have been used to push for federal anti-lynching legislation?
    • What information do these statistics fail to convey?
    • Who compiled these statistics? Why is it important to know the source of this information?

Culminating Activity/Assessment:
(two class periods)

"We must first give statistics, which are horrible enough, and then a few details, which are more horrible."
P. Thomas Stanford, THE TRAGEDY OF THE NEGRO IN AMERICA (Boston, 1897), p. 137.

African American writers and journalists and the organizations and news publications they worked for tried to give issues like lynching the coverage they deserved. Lynching and other acts of violence towards African Americans, especially those living in the South, were seldom treated in the white National press. The reporting of lynchings in the white Southern press was generally biased and sometimes advocated violence towards African Americans.

This portion of the lesson plan investigates the coverage of lynching in the works of two black writers. Ida B. Wells-Barnett was an energetic journalist and anti-lynching activist. The pamphlet LYNCH LAW IN GEORGIA was published in 1899 in response to a series of lynchings that occurred in Georgia in that year. THE TRAGEDY OF THE NEGRO IN AMERICA was written by the Reverend P. Thomas Stanford, the pastor of a church in Birmingham, England. Stanford, himself black, visited America in the mid-1890s to investigate the condition of American blacks, "in the hope of helping create a strong, healthy public opinion that will make it impossible for outrages and lynchings to be much longer continued."

  1. To make the best use of your available class time, have your students read Ida B. Wells' pamphlet LYNCH LAW IN GEORGIA as a homework assignment. Photocopies of the pamphlet should be distributed to all students. The pamphlet is available on the American Memory Web site, at the following location:

    LYNCH LAW IN GEORGIA, by Ida B. Wells-Barnett

  2. Discuss the following questions with your class:
    • Ida B. Wells' pamphlet LYNCH LAW IN GEORGIA uses the reporting of Atlanta newspapers which covered a series of lynchings in Georgia. How does she use this reporting to make her own case?
    • When did the lynching of Sam Wilkes occur?
    • How long did it take for Ida Wells and her Chicago group to prepare this account for the press?
    • What, reports the detective, was the response of whites in Newman when asked about Sam Wilkes' motives for the murder?
    • What does the detective have to say of claims that Sam Wilkes assaulted Mrs. Cranston?
    • Who does the detective claim was complicit in the lynching of Wilkes?
    • How does the detective's accounts of the lynchings of Rev. Strickland and the shooting of the five black men in Palmeto compare to the newspaper accounts given earlier in the pamphlet?
  3. Rev. Stanford describes 19 different episodes of lynchings in 15 pages of his book, THE TRAGEDY OF THE NEGRO IN AMERICA. Prior to this activity, access the Stanford publication on the following Web page:

    P. Thomas Stanford, THE TRAGEDY OF THE NEGRO IN AMERICA (Boston, 1897).

  4. Copy and paste pages 140 to 165 into a word processing program and print out the 18 lynching descriptions on separate sheets of paper. (Most of the descriptions are a single paragraph in length, although one or two include newspaper accounts that are two or three pages in length. You may elect not to use the lengthier accounts.) Print out enough copies to ensure that each student has a copy of one account.
  5. Allow your students enough time to read the individual accounts carefully. Have students briefly summarize the various accounts. Ask students to respond to the following questions:
    • What reasons were given for these lynchings?
    • How often were the victims of lynching the apparent subjects of mistaken identity?
    • Many of these accounts are marked by disturbing descriptions of torture and mutilation. What seem to have been the purpose behind these acts of torture?
  6. Many of the incidents in Ida B. Wells and Rev. Stanford's accounts are described in graphic, horrifying detail. Have your students consider the following questions:
    • How are these details meant to affect the reader?
    • Are the readers of these books likely to be black or white, Southerners or Northerners?
    • In LYNCH LAW IN GEORGIA Ida B. Wells writes that "the real purpose of these savage demonstrations is to teach the Negro that in the South he has no rights that the law will enforce." In Stanford's chapter on lynching he writes that "Lynch Law might as well be written into the constitution of many states; it is in force and flourishes in not a few of them." How do the lynching narratives support these claims?
    • Federal anti-lynching bills were introduced to Congress on a yearly basis, only to be defeated by Southern Congressmen and their allies, who often argued that there was no need for a federal anti-lynching law as these cases could be dealt with locally. What evidence do Wells and Stanford give that local law enforcement was incapable or unwilling to prosecute lynchers?

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