Collective Punishment Reveals White Supremacist Theology
Donald Mathews explicated the connection between white supremacist lynchings and the religious milieu that existed among whites in the South in his article “The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice” (2000). He concluded his manuscript by writing, “The primary focus has been to suggest a connection between the South’s most dramatic act of brutality and the pervasive drama of salvation preached from pulpits throughout the region.”
The connections Mathews highlights are certainly intriguing and insightful, but whatever the connections between lynchings and white Southern religion, the primary aim of lynchings and other forms of anti-Black violence can be simplified. Lynchings were about reinforcing white economic power and social control over Black lives. Ida B. Wells, the most renowned anti-lynching activist during the height of the lynching era, explains in her autobiography (Wells 1970) that lynching was simply “[a]n excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized and ‘keep the nigger down.’” In other words, lynchings were conducted to stymie Black economic progress and to instill fear in affected Black communities.
Economic power and social control are also implicated as the rationale for white extra-legal violence in one of the most influential movie pictures in the early 1900s: The Birth of a Nation. Released in 1915, the film depicted the Klan redeeming the white South from the clutches of “Negro rule” (Blum 2007). A white Jesus appears at the end to bless the machinations of the Klan, which, at first glance, dovetails nicely with Mathews’s thesis. But the appearance of white Jesus is not for the purposes of sanctifying a lynching or accepting a blood sacrifice. Instead, the white Jesus appears in order to bless the rise of the Ku Klux Klan which has wrested control of the South away from the depicted predatory black beasts and placed them under the control and authority of white men (Hutchinson 1996).
Near the end of the film, the horse-riding Ku Klux Klan sweeps into town to save white families besieged by Black Union army veterans (portrayed by a combination of Black actors and white actors in blackface). Klan members align themselves on their horses in the fashion of a blockade in order to prevent Black men from voting (as women were not yet allowed to vote). By blocking Black men from voting, white Klan members were solidifying and securing white political power for future generations. When the white Jesus appears on the screen, it is a divine seal of approval for white power and control.
Whereas Mathews describes how religion in southern white society helps to contextualize and explain lynchings, it may be that the reverse is also true. Perhaps it is truer that lynchings helped reveal the real religious impulse of white lynchers. In his book The Cross and The Lynching Tree, James Cone elucidates the connection between lynching and racial power even further:
Lynching was the white community’s way of forcibly reminding blacks of their inferiority and powerlessness. To be black meant that whites could do anything to you and your people, and that neither you nor anyone else could do anything about it.
This is illuminated further in Edward Blum’s W.E.B. Du Bois: American Prophet, where Blum discusses “white supremacist theology” and highlights a phalanx of white racist authors, clergy, and novelists who fashioned racism into virtual articles of faith at the beginning of the 1900s. He notes:
They had tried to sanctify the segregation of African Americans and widespread racial violence by characterizing “Negroes” as soulless beasts. …whites crafted a variety of religious and theological rationales for structures of exploitation…. By 1900, white supremacist theology was firmly rooted in white American mainstream culture.
Hence, white supremacist theology was rendered even “crafted” to justify racial violence, domination, and exploitation as “lynchings became acts of Christian service, black men became devils incarnate, and white women became angels” (Blum 2007).
Lynching is described by Mathews the “South’s most dramatic act of brutality,” but in fact there were forms of white supremacist violence that were broader in scope and even more murderous in scale—white supremacist terrorism and mob violence (more commonly referred to as race riots). Through the use of widespread terrorism in the form of targeted assassinations and voting intimidation, southern whites were able to steal the gains obtained during Reconstruction as Douglas Egerton shows in The Wars of Reconstruction (2014). This terrorism or political violence was so widespread that Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act, which was signed by President Ulysses Grant on April 20, 1871. It is precisely this white supremacist terrorism that D.W. Griffith attempted to sanctify in The Birth of a Nation by rewriting history through fiction, transfiguring the democratic gains of Black Reconstruction into the demonic grist of white supremacist Redemption.
Through the deployment of collective punishment, white supremacist mobs violently wiped out entire Black communities, committing mass atrocities against whole Black communities often spurring widespread forced displacement (Rucker and Upton 2007). White supremacist mob violence occurred in the following cities with the accompanying fallout:
- Wilmington, North Carolina (1898)—caused a mass exodus of 2,100 Black residents, a coup d’état of a mixed raced government, and the deaths of up to 250 Black people
- Atlanta, Georgia (1906)—dozens of Black residents killed after Atlanta newspapers printed stories of attacks on white women
- Springfield, Illinois (1908)—the destruction of the Black business district known as Levee and the burning of the Black neighborhood known as the Badlands; two Black men were also lynched and approximately 2,000 Black residents fled the city
- Tulsa, Oklahoma (1921)—the Greenwood community’s destruction was carried out via dynamite dropped from planes and a white mob that killed more than 200 Black residents, leaving over 10,000 Black people homeless
- Rosewood, Florida (1923)—the whole town was destroyed by an angry white mob; as many as 300 Black residents were murdered
These are only a sample of the cities where Black communities were targeted by white supremacist mob violence. Others cities could be listed such as East St. Louis (1917) or the approximately 25 cities that witnessed white supremacist terrorist violence during the Red Summer of 1919 in cities ranging from Cleveland to Washington D.C. to Omaha to Chicago. As James Loewen points out in Sundown Towns (2005), racial cleansing—another tool of white supremacists—took place as far west as Oregon and as far north as Maine. Loewen writes:
The claim that whites had the right to control the black population through lynching and other extralegal forms of mob violence [emphasis mine] was grounded in the religious belief that America is a white nation called by God to bear witness to the superiority of “white over black.”
Sundown towns were created by explicit and implicit violence, by the rise of the second Klan, and via ordinances, official government action, freeze-out, buyouts, or the creation of sundown suburbs (ibid). This form of racial cleansing reached its high point in the period between 1890–1930 in thousands of cities across the entire country. As Du Bois noted in Darkwater: Voices Within the Veil, written during the explosive violence of the Red Summer of 1919, the logical conclusion of white supremacy is death: “But say to a people: “The one virtue is to be white,” and the people rush to the inevitable conclusion, “Kill the ‘nigger’!”
Thus, when we review the array of racist violence during this period, we cannot view lynchings in a vacuum. We must account for not only the 3,959 lynchings of Black people between 1877 and 1950 (Equal Justice Initiaitve 2015), but include the white supremacist terrorism, mob violence, and racial cleansing that damaged and destroyed the lives and communities of Black people all across the country—not only in the South. Hence, southern white religion could not have been the animating religious context driving white supremacist violence in Oregon or Maine. Additionally, lynchings were not the only type of violence being exacted against Black people. Only a nationwide white supremacist theology could constitute a religious connection between white supremacist terrorism and mob violence, lynchings, and racial cleansing leading to sundown towns. It was this nationwide white supremacist theology that was crafted to justify white supremacist violence—providing the fuel and rationale for white economic power and the social control over Black lives and communities.
Editor’s Note: Lawrence Brown is the grandson of sharecroppers who lived in the Mississippi Delta and is a native of West Memphis, Arkansas. He is an Assistant Professor at Morgan State University in the School of Community Health and Policy. He is engaged in Baltimore communities as an activist for equitable redevelopment along with housing stability and studies the impact of forced displacement, historical trauma, and masculinity on health.
Blum, Edward. 2007. W.E.B. Du Bois: American Prophet. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Cone, James H. 2011. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Du Bois, W.E.B. 1920. Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.
Egerton, Douglas R. 2014. The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era. New York: Bloombury Press.
Equal Justice Initiaitve. 2015. Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror. Montgomery, Alabama. http://www.eji.org/files/EJI Lynching in America SUMMARY.pdf
Hutchinson, Earl Ofari. 1996. The Assassination of the Black Male Image. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Loewen, James W. 2005. Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. First. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Mathews, Donald. 2000. “The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice: Lynching and Religion in the South, 1875–1940.” Journal of Southern Religion 3.
Rucker, Walter C, and James N. Upton. 2007. Encyclopedia of American Race Riots. Greenwood Milestones in African American History. Westport, Conneticut. http://www.loc.gov/catdir/toc/ecip0619/2006026195.html
Wells, Ida B. 1970. Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.