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New report details racial violence, lynching history

The Equal Justice Initiative released a report titled “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror” in early February. It catalogues the legacy of lynching in the U.S., documenting more than 4,000 cases from 1877-1950.

The report details cases from across 12 southern states, including North Carolina, and breaks down lynching cases per county. While there were no recorded lynchings in Orange County, there were several in neighboring counties, including Chatham and Alamance.

There were 102 lynchings in North Carolina during that period. Georgia had the most total lynchings, with 586.

“We documented more lynchings than had ever previously been published in these states,” said John Dalton, staff attorney for EJI. “We issued this report, as the title suggests, to confront our legacy of terrorism in this country.”

It explores the prevalence of lynching, the social conditions that made lynching possible and the lingering effects of racially motivated terrorism in today’s social landscape.

“The report makes it clear that a tradition that lasted from the end of the Civil War on up to the 1940s obviously had long tentacles that extend to the present day,” said Fitzhugh Brundage, chairman of UNC’s history department.

“There is value in taking the conversation about the legacy of lynching from an abstract, general, national concern and then targeting it down and reminding people in specific places that this was not just history that happened somewhere, but in very specific locations and communities,” he said.

Violence against blacks predates the Civil War, but picked up in the Reconstruction era. After slavery was abolished, whites lost the control they traditionally held over black populations, said Joseph Glatthaar, professor of history at UNC.

“In the aftermath of the Civil War, whites used it to terrorize black populations, trying to restore control through violence and intimidation,” he said.

The post-Civil War era was also one of the first times white people met blacks in the justice system as legal equals.

“There was widespread conviction that African-American men in particular had turned into uncontrollable, violent criminals who posed a threat to both property and white lives,” Brundage said.

“There was a preference of whites to deal with African-Americans outside of the justice system, where whites could impose justice as they saw fit, without having to recognize the civil rights of African-Americans,” he said.

This history of racial terrorism in the U.S. is directly related to racial stereotypes that persist today, said William Ferris, professor of American studies at UNC. He compared the legacy of racial violence to the Holocaust.

“Does that continue to haunt Jewish families? I think the answer would be a resounding yes — when you have racial trauma, that is something that will never be forgotten.”

“Race is the Achilles’ heel of our campus, our region and our nation, and we are still struggling to come to terms with the legacy of slavery and racial violence, which continues today,” Ferris added.

Despite the heritage of racial violence, Dalton said EJI is hopeful their work on issues of race and poverty can confront the root problem of racism — the unaddressed history of lynchings and violence.

“I think a college campus especially is a great place to have moments of truth and reconciliation, and really address each person’s legacy and our legacy as a country.”

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