Abel Meeropol’s 1939 song “Strange Fruit” immortalized by jazz singer Billie Holiday painted a striking image of Southern lynching during the Jim Crow Era, educating listeners about the grotesque murders of 3,200 African Americans in the South between 1880 and 1930.
Billie Holiday crooned:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit Blood on the leaves and blood at the root black body swinging in the Southern breeze Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees…
Meeropol was a well-known Jewish communist, political activist, and teacher in the Bronx who found the brutal torture, castration, mutilation, burning, and hanging of African Americans disturbing. Northern outcries against lynching are well-known; however, the successful eradication of lynching as a socially acceptable tool of terror, implemented to maintain white supremacy in the twentieth-century stems largely from the significant strides of the indigenous anti-lynching social movement in the form of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL) between 1930 and 1942.
Under the leadership of Executive Director Jessie Daniel Ames from Georgia, the ASWPL was a Christian-based anti-lynching society with a presence in every county in the South comprised of middle and upper-class white women who objected to the lynching of African Americans within their communities. The ultimate goal for the ASWPL was simple: educate the masses and collect enough signed pledges by Southerners to uphold the constitutional rights of African Americans so that one day the eminent Tuskegee Institute would be able to report that “for the first time since the Civil War no lynchings occurred during a year in the United States.” However, as lynching was predicated on the presumed norms of a white-male dominated racial-gender hierarchy that claimed to protect and defend the sexual purity of white womanhood, the ASWPL had to both alter perceptions of white womanhood and brave incredible threats from white supremacists who wanted to silence the organization through intimidation.
In 1877, the last Federal troops stationed in the South after the Civil War withdrew from their posts of occupation, ending the Reconstruction Era, which W.E.B. du Bois dubbed a “splendid failure” due to its inability to successfully protect or assimilate ex-slaves into American society. The perceived threat to white patriarchy and racial control during and immediately after Reconstruction were the catalysts to hyper-anxiety surrounding interracial sex between white women and black men. Characterized with acute sexual ardor, black men who were accused of raping white women were lynched publicly as an example to other black men who did “not know his place.” The typical justification for lynching was that black men threatened Southern white feminine purity. Therefore, in addition to keeping black men subordinate, lynching controlled white women by culturally portraying them as submissive and docile, whose social standing and womanhood was derived through sexual restraint and purity. Conversely, lynching protected and even enhanced while male freedom.
Upon investigation, the ASWPL found that of the 4297 persons lynched since 1886, only 21% of the victims were charged with sexual assault or crimes against white women. In fact, the remaining 79% stemmed from interracial conflict over new forms of economic competition between poor white yeomen farmers who were threatened by black men’s growing socio-economic power after emancipation. Some of the accounts on lynching incidents the women collected explicitly stated that “innocent Negroes were lynched on non-existent grounds at the instigation of white men who coveted the crops the Negroes had cultivated.” Similarly, in Baker County, Georgia two innocent black men were lynched “as an object lesson” after the correct black man who committed a crime could not be found. Of the 84 mob-victims (lynchings that were drawn out into mass spectacles, often with gruesome torture before audiences into the thousands), between 1931-1935, nine men were not accused of any crime but merely targeted by a frenzied crowd, while twenty-five others were only accused of minor offenses that in no way would merit a death sentence. In other words, as racial rigidity was less definable after slavery, poor white men recognized they were losing their historically prominent standing and sought to maintain the lower-class status of black men through creating sexually charged caricatures of blackness punishable by death. Southern churchwomen who were activists within their local community like Jesse Daniel Ames recognized “unless this idea of chivalry could be destroyed, lynchers would continue to use the name of women as an excuse for their crimes.” White Southern women, therefore, in a very subversive act, decided to not only defend themselves but also African Americans by organizing across the South-East to end lynching.
Jessie Daniel Ames, originally a leader in the Women’s Department in the Commission for Interracial Cooperation, sent out a mimeograph on 3 November 1931, urging women to attend the first meeting of the ASWPL on 20-21 November 1931 in the Piedmont Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia. There was a growing consensus among white women reformers that an organization needed to be formed to combat lynching, which hit an all-time high in 1930. Within the context of the burgeoning Great Migration, when 1.5 million Southern blacks moved North, forming the first black industrial labor class in United States history as migration afforded them higher paying, non-agrarian positions and extended their daily freedoms outside the confines of the highly regulated South where race as a social and biological category dictated every facet of forged relationships, a reversal in escalating lynching was needed if the South was to maintain its own labor force. Ames successfully recruited two dozen women,with at least one representative from each Southern state and prominent women such as pastor’s wives and Mrs. Attwood Martin of Louisville, a contemporary novelist who agreed to ask both their local government officials and organizations to support an educational program designed to contest lynching. In her invitation she stated that the meeting’s goal was to be an annual affairto keep the anti-lynching “movement alive, strong, and growing until the time shall come when there will be no lynchings in the South.” Wisely, she recognized changing the social parameters of race relations in the South would not come overnight, warning potential organizers that the program they were embarking on would be spanned over “many years, but with a conviction of the needs, and a determination to succeed in the end, we will attain our purpose.”
The ASWPL used two tactics to combat lynching: the recruitment of government officials and community leaders who pledged to end lynching and the development of anti-lynching education programs. In her 1904 article, “Lynching from a Negro’s Point of View” Mary Church Terrell, a co-founder of The National Association of Colored Women, stated that the two causes of lynching from her perspective as the first college-educated black woman was 1) race hatred and 2) the “lawlessness so prevalent in the section where nine-tenths of the lynchings occur.”
To listen to a podcast on Mary Church Terrell’s efforts to stop lynching, please click here. (Image:Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-54)
She did not believe that lynchings could ever “be suppressed in the South, until the masses of ignorant white people in that section are educated.” As a result, the ASWPL focused on restoring law and order institutionally in the South while educating the general public and constituents who could vote into office government officials dedicated to the anti-lynching movement. In Jessie Daniel Ames’ article “Southern Women and Lynching” she explains one of the most affective tactics of the ASWPL was to recruit local county government officials throughout the South to their anti-lynching campaign. As county government was where Jim Crow laws were often written and enforced, the county had great power to abate or heightened sites of racial tension. By “securing signatures of county officials, preachers, teachers” and leading figures of local organizations and civic societies who would pledge in writing to actively work to end lynching and to prosecute its perpetrators and to defend the legal rights of each individual outlined in the Constitution of the United States, a strong message was sent to the community that the local government does not condone or support the lynching of African Americans. In effect, the ASWPL tried to fight the mob mentality image that was synonymous with lynchings, by encouraging leaders such as officers, the county sheriff, and governor to stand up and speak out against them. If prominent members of the community renounced lynching as opposed to supporting or even propagating them, it became easier to unravel the widespread feeling that lynching was a communal and socially acceptable mass experience in the South. By 1936, the original twelve founding members who returned to their home communities developed into thirty-two thousand comprising over thirty-three counties. The members were committed in their 1936 objectives to increasing the number of men and women pledged against lynching in writing to 100,000.
The second focus of the ASWPL was education. The ASWPL believed that only through dialogue and instruction could they “dig out the roots of prejudice and fear which feed lynching.” At the annual 1938 conference in Atlanta, Georgia held 10-11 January, Ames reported to the membership that at least twenty-three states had developed educational programs which they called “round-table discussions on lynching in every Grade A college in the South.” The organization heavily encouraged members to write to their local press and send editors the organization’s literature, that dispels the myths of lynching. Literature was also sent to the city halls, universities, and public libraries in an attempt to penetrate the moral consciousness of as many Southerners as possible. Additionally, in an attempt to culturally disseminate and reinforce positive understandings of race relations, the organization used two one-act plays in schools and amateur community productions entitled Country Sunday by Walter Spearman and Lawd, Does Yo’ Undahstan’ by Ann Seymour which were distributed nationally through mail-in order catalogs free of royalties by the Samuel French Company.
Although the ASWPL was successful very quickly in their campaign to end lynching, they faced seemingly insurmountable odds. As a result, the ASWPL often had to reevaluate their tactics at annual meetings. For instance, before the adoption of their pledge plan, the women tried to appeal to Christian sentiments, highlighting Jesus Christ’s use of the golden rule: Do unto others as you wish to be done unto you. The increased context of the Jim Crow Era, in which both public and private institutions could be legally segregated due to the 1896 Supreme Court Case Plessy v. Furgeson became further entrenched in permissible discrimination every year the laws were maintained. One significant obstacle the ASWPL had to face was the inter-gender class conflict that arose over the fight against lynching. The ASWPL, in their 1931 pamphlet “Suggested Points in Presenting Purposes of the A.S.W.P.L.” which outlined five dominant consistencies in lynching they had documented through carefully combing the details of every lynching specified, beyond the usual traits that perpetrators were “predominantly agrarian and rural” and conducted “by certain classes apparently insecure in their own status.” Most of the reformers in the ASWPL were educated middle and upper-class white women who had to convince many poor white women who stood to economically gain via their husbands’ lynching triumphs that they should not condone such behavior. Poorer white women who subscribed to the mythology of black male promiscuity and prowess sometimes participated in taunting and torture in lynch mobs. Although accepting the helpless representation of white Southern virtue that needed to be defended at all costs cast the poor white woman into a subordinate position between man and wife, it afforded her unprecedented social and political power that were already accessible to members of the ASWPL through education and being married to men with significant economic power. Similarly, the widespread indoctrination and cultural acceptance of lynching by 1930 was great, as a second generation of lynchers who had grown up with their mothers and fathers holding them, “balanced precariously on parents’ shoulders in order to have a better view” resisted recognizing the wrong doings their family perpetuated. The presence of women and children, however, was a decisive rhetorical tool the ASWPL used against proponents of lynching. The women of the ASWPL argued that by mothers bringing their children to lynchings, they were reiterating to their children a general “undermining of all respect for law and the courts in the lives of those who later on would constitute voting citizens,” impressing upon women their traditional role as both moral guardians of the home and the primary educators of their children, the nation’s future leaders.
The second significant obstacle facing the ASWPL was the constant harassment and threat its members had to endure. As one member described, “There was ridicule. There were threats. Organizations which had made the terrorizing of Negroes their chief business since the Civil War opposed the women.”
Women were ordered not to speak by community officials or they attempted to censor the women, who actively sought to publicly educate their community. Household tension often developed as the husbands of ASWPL members wanted to protect their wives, demanded that they renounce their membership. The women would often be confronted by aggressive and quarrelsome white men in communities that had lynched an African American, so they “knew of the constant danger, and they didn’t forget to pray.”
Southern women were contesting not just the socially-constructed understandings of race, but also gender, by reversing myths about heightened black male sexuality and the repressed image of white womanhood that was perpetuated by lynching rhetoric. As Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, a historian of Southern race relations explains, “the anti-lynching movement serves as a declaration of independence and a search for social leverage” as women created and promoted new public forums in which they could promote their ideals and “attacked the traditional patriarchic order upon which the practice of lynching rested.”
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