Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

November 7, 1942

Guest post by Brian Lloyd, History MA student at Arizona State University.

The newspaper article by Joseph Johnson, which is titled, “Lynching!!: A Fifth Column Attack on National Unity,” was written and published in the Chicago Defender on November 7, 1942. The article begins by speaking about Ida B. Wells’ contributions in denouncing the practice of lynching. Johnson highlights Wells’ involvement in the anti-lynching cause, such as her having formed anti-lynching committees and the impact that her anti-lynching lectures had in bringing lynching out of the shadows. Additionally, the article is important because it reaches general conclusions regarding the issue of lynching, and these conclusions discuss the history of lynching and how it can be stopped altogether. For example, Johnson mentions in one of his conclusions, that lynchings began in the South and that 450,000 cases of lynchings occurred between 1866 and 1942. Johnson also explains that Georgia and North Carolina passed anti-lynching laws in 1893. What is very surprising is that both of these laws, which were aimed at reducing the number of lynchings, seemed very progressive in wanting to completely eradicate lynchings. The Georgia anti-lynching law, for instance, stated that any means was necessary to prevent mob violence and that anyone involved in lynchings could receive up to twenty years in prison. However, it is important to note that such anti-lynching laws were not carried out appropriately or even carried out at all.

In the book To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells by Mia Bay, Bay states that by the 1890s, the British Anti-Lynching Committee brought much attention to racial violence in the South, and as a result, Southern white officials often denounced anti-lynching “as a plot designed to sabotage the Southern economy.”131  Accordingly, such anti-lynching laws were hardly ever supported by white community leaders. Thus, this newspaper article allows for strong connections to be made with Bay’s book.  Johnson mentions that one of the reasons why lynching was allowed to occur into the twentieth century was due to the continued obstacles confronting African Americans and their right to vote. Relatedly, in post-Reconstruction, white Northerners started to turn away from and care less about the rights of free African Americans in the South, and these were rights that African Americans in the South sought during Reconstruction. Furthermore, white people in the South often argued for the disenfranchisement of African Americans during the nineteenth century, specifically at the end of Reconstruction, because white Southerners saw African Americans as a racial threat to white supremacy. Consequently, African Americans, after the Civil War and into the twentieth century, oftentimes failed in gaining significant political power in order to change laws and create societies that could better meet their needs and wants as a people.

Finally, Johnson makes an excellent point that lynching was not a problem just for black people. According to Johnson, vigilantism was occurring against migrant workers in western states too, and vigilantism is the same thing as lynching. Likewise, Wells also saw lynching as not just a black, or even a black and white people problem, but a problem that encompassed the entire civilized world. So, as long as people sat idly by and allowed lynching to continue, such people hampered the notion of freedom and democracy just as equally as actual lynchers. As Johnson illustrates in his article, both he and Wells saw lynchings, and injustices in general, as crimes against the nation that only continued to impede national unity. By mobilizing as a collective, African Americans can better stand against such crimes, and as a result, social and political change, over time, can gradually be seen in American society.

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