Saturday, July 2, 2016

September 16,1897: Lynching in Georgia

Today we feature an editorial which comes to us through the pages of The New York Times (New York, N. Y.) dated September 16, 1897:


Public Sentiment Favors It as Punishment for the Single Crime That Brings It About.

To the Editor of The New York Times:

THE TIMES has always been a fair paper, and, while decided in its convictions, has always been willing to do justice to the South. It has seen the unmixed folly of exciting on the part of its readers antipathy to a class of their fellow-countrymen whose prosperity they shared and whose adversity affected them seriously. To misstate the individual facts has been less a habit on the part of the Northern press than to misplace them and to draw conclusions from them which are not true. That our reporters, in their anxiety to make a sensation, are largely responsible for this misreading is doubtless true, but still much of it arises from a want of acquaintance with all the circumstances.

Many persons, from reading the accounts of our own dailies, and especially as these statements of theirs are reproduced with comments in the Northern press, would draw a conclusion that in Georgia we were a race of lawless savages; and, naturally, the law-abiding will avoid our State in seeking homes.

It is useless to deny much that is said to be true, but there is so much that is true that is not told that I think perhaps there might be a different verdict if these untold facts were known.

I am free to admit that any man of any race who assaults a woman with vile intent will likely be hanged by the mob without bringing him into court or giving him a legal trial.

I admit as candidly that the men who do this lynching are never arrested, nor is their act considered by the people generally as criminal.

It is useless for our papers to say that public sentiment is against lynching for rape. The lawyers are opposed to it, the daily press opposes it, and the preachers condemn it, but the masses of the people approve it, and say, "When brutes cease to rape helpless women men will cease to hang the brutes. Till then, not."

It is also true that it is a rare thing for a white man or a mulatto to be lynched. The victims are generally black negroes of the lowest order.

For other crimes than rape there is not often any lynching. Dr. Ryder, a white man, whose case has excited great attention, who had shot and killed a beautiful and accomplished young lady in a fit of jealous rage, and who had been found guilty by a jury, and a negro who shot at his wife and killed another woman, and then killed in cold blood a prominent merchant, are the only cases I now recall.

For other crimes than rape the law takes its tedious way.

Tom Woolfolk murdered his whole family to get the estate. No man doubted his guilt, the jury convicted him before leaving the box, but it took two years and two jury trials and an expenditure of $20,000 to get him to the gallows.

A negro killed an old man near Macon in cold blood for a few dollars worth of supplies, and after a long delay was hanged by the Sheriff.

A negro had killed his wife coolly and brutally. It took two years and two trials to hang him when he was hanged by the Sheriff, but a negro assaulted a few weeks ago a little girl of six years, and nearly killed the child. He was hung by the mob. A negro assaulted a fair young lady of one of our best families, and she barely escaped with her life. He was hanged by the mob.

A white man assaulted a young woman who was afterwards found to be a woman of doubtful reputation. The jail was broken open by the mob and he was hanged.

I merely mention these cases because they came almost under my own eye, and were in one section of the State.

The reason the negroes are generally the victims of lynch law is because the negro is generally the criminal. It is not hostility to the race, else he would be lynched for other crimes, it is because he seems particularly given to this odious crime. Nearly all our thieves and burglars and house-burners are negroes, but for these crimes they are never punished save by regular legal process, and as we said above, lynching is generally done for one crime alone, and is rarely done, for that crime is not common. It is almost always committed by negroes, and negroes of the lowest order. Among the hundreds of thousands of this race in Georgia there are but few who have been charged with this crime. When it is committed the utmost care is taken to identify the criminal and only when his identity is beyond question is the execution ordered. It is done in a quiet, decided way as a general thing, although in cases of great atrocity sometimes the criminal is shot as well as hanged.

I am not defending this extra judicial process of punishing crime, but it is not more cruel than a long confinement in a close dungeon, and a halter in the jail yard at the end of it.The only ground of objection to this mode of dealing with these criminals is the fear that the innocent might suffer. As the most careful precautions are taken against this result it is not a likely thing lest the wrong man is executed.

Before the law, all are equal; juries have no respect to color in making their verdicts. A rich planter left $400,000 to a negro woman, said to be his child. The kinspeople tried to break the will, but it was sustained in every court; but, while all this is true, a man who assaults a woman, black or white, will be hanged.

Mrs. Felton, who defended the unwritten law, spoke the sentiment of the people. It is well enough to admit it. Our people say:  We would like to have the good opinion of our Northern friends, but we can get along without it if it is to be secured by falsehood. The Northern people are not here. If they were, the first time one of their daughters was assaulted they would head the mob. The Northern people could help to remedy this evil. If those who have given the negroes so much money and so great sympathy would simply say, "This thing must stop; if your people commit these crimes they ought to die, and you need not expect sympathy from us," then the preachers and teachers who are their beneficiaries would speak out, and there would be a change of sentiment, which would be a great blessing to those who make it.

Our daily press denounces lynching, our Governor denounces it, our preachers denounce it, but it is simply falsehood to say that the people are with them. It may be a sad truth, but I am sure that the people are fixed as destiny, and there is, as far as I can see, only one remedy for it, and that is to stop the crime. It was almost unknown before the negro was freed. It is now always committed by young negroes, who have been born in freedom. They are not ignorant; they are simply vile, and they must know the inexorableness of the doom. 

I do not think the people who condone the offense of the lynchers like lynch law no more than those who resisted the fugitive slave law liked the rebellion against the United States Government, nor those who managed the underground railroad were glad to be habitual law breakers. They simply recognize the fact that there were extraordinary measures demanded by extraordinary occasions.

The number of those who commit these crimes are not many, and the dread of those who have never lived in the South of violence to their families is not well founded.

The daily papers make the most of every case, and seem to delight in magnifying the evil. One would suppose, who was not well-informed, that his family would be in peril because of the presence of these savages, and judging from the fact that many negroes are criminals he might come to the conclusion that the whole race was debauched. The fact is, we are not a law-breaking people, in the main, neither white men nor negroes—but the fact is that while we have a great many law-abiding negroes, a great many good citizens among them, nearly all our criminals come from that class.The people who compose your criminal classes do not come this way, and our white people are generally law-abiding and so the robberies, burglaries, assaults, in our land come generally from the negroes. They do not often murder white men, for difficulties between these two races are rare. They murder each other. They have their own dives kept by people of their own color, and this is where the gambling and drinking goes on, and where the blood is generally shed.

It may seem strange to those who think this is a land of cutthroats to say that in no land is there a morality more Puritanic than in Georgia. A glass of soda water may not be sold on Sunday. A fruit stand my not be opened. A freight train is not permitted to turn a wheel; in a hundred counties no whisky is sold; $1,000,000 a year is spent on the common schools.

A Republican is as highly esteemed as a Democrat. If our Individual States are not competent to manage these local troubles, they cannot be managed, and it is not the wisest course for those who are far removed from the scene of danger to decide positively what ought or ought not to be done.

I have attempted to defend the lynchers, no more than to defend the Vigilance Committee or committees of safety, but simply to state the case as I am sure it really is.


Thank you for joining me and, as always, I hope I leave you with something to ponder.

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