The origin of the word “lynching” has several explanations. The most common account has it derived from Charles Lynch, a justice of the peace in Virginia, who excessively punished Loyalists during the Revolutionary War. Thus, extreme punishment became known as “Lynch Law.” Another explanation, from the Oxford English Dictionary, suggests that the term derives from Lynches Creek, South Carolina. By 1768 Lynches Creek was known as a meeting site for the Regulators, a group of vigilantes who used violence against their opponents. These early definitions of lynching refer to forms of frontier vigilantism. After the Civil War and Reconstruction, lynching took on a new, racial connotation and was primarily carried out by whites against African Americans. This racial violence gave white southerners a way to express and reaffirm their white southern identity. It also deterred African Americans from attempting to assert the equality granted to them under the Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Lynching became so widespread that the years 1882 to 1930 have been termed the “lynching era.” The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) defined lynching during this period as murder committed extralegally by three or more persons who claim to be serving justice. Between 1882 and 1930 the number of lynching victims in the South totaled 2,805. South Carolina, with 156, had the second-fewest lynching victims. Mississippi, with 538 victims, had the most.
The justifications for mob violence had little regional variation across the South as they shared the common intention of disenfranchising blacks. During this era, drawing on scientific racism, white southerners created and articulated an image of African American males as black, beastly rapists whose animal-like sexuality threatened white women’s purity. White men claimed that lynching was a way to protect themselves and, more importantly, their women from black aggression. Racial violence offered white southerners a chance to “redeem” southern society, restoring it to its pre-Reconstruction state. South Carolina governor Benjamin Tillman represented these beliefs about African Americans and southern white male responsibilities. In 1892 Tillman spoke of his own willingness to lead a lynch mob against any black man who had been accused of raping a white woman.
Antilynching advocates, such as Ida B. Wells and Jesse Ames of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, revealed that contrary to white claims, the majority of lynch victims were not accused of raping white women. In actuality, only nineteen percent of black victims in the South were accused of rape. Victims were lynched for a wide range of behavior, including such illegalities as murder, theft, arson, and assault, as well as for such disrespectful actions as trying to vote, being disruptive, and frightening a white woman.
South Carolina was the site of one of the largest lynchings. On December 28, 1889, in Barnwell County eight African American men were accused of murdering a local merchant. A mob broke them out of jail, tied them to trees, and then shot them. In 1926 Aiken was the site of the Lowman family lynching. A sheriff and his deputies, all members of the Ku Klux Klan, arrived to arrest one of the Lowman sons. Upon hearing that the boy was gone, the sheriff attacked his sister. The resulting scuffle ended with mother Lowman shot by the sheriff, who in turn was killed by a stray bullet. The remaining Lowmans were arrested and tried. When one brother was acquitted, a Klan-led mob stormed the jail, dragged them out, and shot them.
The last lynching in South Carolina occurred on February 17, 1947, when a white mob murdered Willie Earle, a young black man who had been arrested for murdering a white taxicab driver. Although those responsible were acquitted, Earle’s murder marked a turning point for lynching in South Carolina. State and federal law enforcement agents conducted an intensive investigation of the crime that resulted in several arrests and a vigorous prosecution of the accused.
The Earle murder was the culmination of a decline in lynching that occurred during the 1930s and 1940s, which reflected a larger social change. The “Great Migration” of African Americans to northern cities in the 1930s changed labor dynamics in the South. Lynchings, which previously were a form of punishment for interpersonal violence, became a form of social repression, targeted not at criminals but at successful African Americans. By the 1940s the social dynamics that had allowed whites to lynch without fear of repercussions were effectively gone, and so gradually the lynching era came to an end.
Finnegan, Terrence R. “‘At the Hands of Parties Unknown’: Lynching in Mississippi and South Carolina, 1881–1940.” Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1993.
Royster, Jacqueline Jones, ed. Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892–1900. Boston: Bedford, 1996. Tolnay, Stewart E., and E. M. Beck. A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882–1930. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.