Historical & Current Events dictionary



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.

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Juneteenth, Jim Crow laws, Emancipation Proclamation, Confederate flag
Examples of lynching
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
... racists in Mississippi have so much anger and hatred in their hearts that they continue to shoot up Emmett Till’s memorial signs and markers ... That’s what lynching looks like in America many years after the fact.
@eugenegu, October 2019
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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 the verb lynch and noun lynching by the 1830s.

By the turn of the 19th century lynching came to refer to the murder of Black people 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 US South.

Various 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 Black people, whose bodies were typically left to hang in public spaces as a warning to others. Often, lynchings were social occasions for white people.

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While lynching became less common into the 20th century, it still continued. 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 white people, 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, 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?

In contemporary discussions, lynching retains its historic sense—the execution of a Black person or other member of a minority group 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 that those who supported the removal of Confederate monuments in Louisiana should be lynched. He later apologized.

Some civil rights activists use lynching to refer more generally to the murder of Black people by white people based solely on the color of their skin. Using the word lynching in this way attracts attention to the 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.

Lynching can also refer to any kind of vigilante justice or extrajudicial murder, typically of a member of a minority group. 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 sacred in the Hindu religion.

Lynching is also sometimes figuratively used when someone is felt be wrongly persecuted, as if hounded by a metaphorical lynch mob. Due to the history of lynching, using lynching in this way is widely considered offensive and insensitive.

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This is not meant to be a formal definition of lynching like most terms we define on Dictionary.com, but is rather an informal word summary that hopefully touches upon the key aspects of the meaning and usage of lynching that will help our users expand their word mastery.