What does lynching mean?

Lynching is the mob killing of a person suspected of a crime, especially by hanging, that is done outside of the law. Lynching is most commonly associated with the hanging death of black men by white people in the United States, especially in the Jim Crow South.

Related words:

  • cow vigilantism
  • hate crime
  • mob rule
  • racism
  • public execution
  • sundown town
Examples of lynching


Examples of lynching
An Israeli citizen has been sentenced to 100 days of community service for lynching an African asylum seeker. Has justice been served?
@trtworld, July, 2018
On Saturday, an African-American student, Richard Collins III, was stabbed and killed on the campus of the University of Maryland in what was widely – and rightly – called a lynching.
Steven W. Thrasher, The Guardian, May, 2017
Most black Jasper residents know the reality of the murder. They also know about the long history of Klan activity in East Texas. They know about the dozens of lynchings of black people—including those for which no one has ever been prosecuted.
John Savage, Pacific Standard, June, 2018

Where does lynching come from?


The origins of lynching are disputed. Some claim it is named for Captain William Lynch, the head of an informal tribunal in Virginia in 1780 that punished suspected British Loyalists during the American Revolutionary War. This process was described as “Lynch’s law.”

Others claim that the name comes from a different Virginian active around the same time, one Charles Lynch, who is also associated with a “lynch law” similarly connected to the suppression and incarceration of Loyalists. The city of Lynchburg, Virginia is likely named for his brother, John Lynch.

Whatever its exact origin, Lynch law is heard by the 1810s and lynch and lynching by the 1830s.

By the turn of the 19th century lynching came to refer to the murder of blacks and other minorities blamed for some crime by white mobs without any official legal authority. One of the first lynchings recorded as such occurred in 1835 in St. Louis, when a black man accused of killing a deputy sheriff was chained to a tree and burned to death publicly in front of a crowd. By the end of the 19th century, the term was widely used to describe mob rule and public execution by hanging, particularly in the South.

Many ethnic groups were victims of lynching, including Mexicans, Chinese, and European-Americans. But from the late 19th century on, black Americans were the primary target of lynching as white Americans sought to maintain racial control following the end of the Civil War.

According to the Tuskegee Institute, 3,446 blacks were lynched between 1882 and 1968. During this period, lynching became closely associated with the hanging execution of blacks, whose bodies were typically left to hang in public spaces as a warning to others. Often, lynchings were social occasions for white people. Messed up.

Edwardian Promenade

Lynching became less common into the 20th century, though disturbingly not non-existent. The lynching of Michael Donald by two Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members in Mobile, Alabama in 1981 is generally considered one of the last traditional lynchings in the United States. However, the idea of lynching looms over the United States. In the 21st century, murders of black Americans by whites, regardless of motive, are sometimes referred to as lynching.

In 2018, the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act was introduced to make lynching, at last (WTF), a federal crime. In April that year, a National Memorial for Peace and Justice was opened in Montgomery, Alabama to commemorate black lynching victims.

Who uses lynching?

Lynching is most often used as a noun, as in “there was a lynching last night,” but it can also be used as a verb.

In contemporary discussions, lynching retains its historic sense—the execution of a black person or other minority for a perceived crime by white people taking the law into their own hands. For example, in May 2017, Mississippi state representative Karl Oliver posted, astonishingly, that those who supported the removal of Confederate monuments in Louisiana should be lynched. He later apologized. Disgusting.

Civil rights activists use lynching to refer more generally to the murder of black people by whites just for the color of their skin. This usage is a bit detached from its historical meaning. While horrific, the murder of blacks by a white mob is not typically a publicly supported act in the modern American context. Using the charged word lynching, however, attracts attention to the very real problem of hate crimes. As an example, the murder of black University of Maryland student Richard Collins III by a white man in May 2017 was referred to as a lynching by some commentators, even thought there was no public aspect to it.

Outside of the racialized, and particularly American, context, lynching can refer to any kind of vigilante justice or extrajudicial murder, typically of a minority. For instance, the Indian Supreme Court ruled in July 2018 that “mob lynching is a crime no matter what the motive is” in response to “cow vigilantism”—the murder of those who eat cows, which are scared in the Hindu religion.

Lynching can also be figuratively used to refer to anyone being (wrongly) persecuted, as if hounded by a metaphorical lynch mob. But, please don’t use it to defend Trump.

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