By Paul Beers
Beers is a Roanoke lawyer and author of “The Wythe County Lynching of Raymond Bird, Progressivism vs. Mob Violence in the ‘20s,” which appeared in the Fall 1994 Appalachian Journal, a publication of Appalachian State University.
An excellent commentary by the University of Virginia’s Bob Gibson (“The Monuments Virginia Doesn’t Have Yet,” July 21) included his insightful observation that the Commonwealth has long memorialized its Confederate past with historical markers and monuments but not its abhorrent experience with vigilante justice between 1880 and 1930. Standing sentry in front of Virginia courthouses are statues commemorating soldiers who died in defense of the Lost Cause. Absent from Virginia courthouse lawns and portals is any acknowledgment of the mobs who upended our justice system by colluding with corrupt law enforcement officials bent on upholding white supremacy in the decades leading up to and following the First World War.
While the focus of Mr. Gibson’s fine commentary was on a recently installed historical marker describing lynchings in Albemarle County and surrounding communities he described as lying within “Central Virginia,” memorializing the outbursts of mob rule in Roanoke and other parts of Southwest Virginia is particularly important. More lynchings took place between 1880 and 1930 in Southwest Virginia than in any other region of the state.
Explanatory markers or monuments erected by the Commonwealth attesting to the lawlessness of lynchings in Southwest Virginia would remind us of an historical principle that is as perplexing as it is universal: even seemingly respectable and humane citizens here and in other lands are capable, en masse, of orchestrating irrational violence against neighbors who belong to ethnic or racial minorities.
Historical markers and symbols of remembrance endorsed by Virginia’s governor would be important as both expressions of atonement and platforms for education. Lynchings were complex phenomena that call for collective analysis, not merely collective shame. Defining “lynching” is itself challenging. The history of lynching varied from state to state. But whether lynchings occurred in Virginia or in the cotton belt (where mob rule was far more widespread than it was here), these horrific events often had three characteristics in common. First, lynching as a form of homicide was distinguished by its public character. Murders usually are executed furtively. Lynchings were conspicuous celebrations designed to terrorize and teach blacks the deadly risks of breaching their assigned boundaries in a segregated caste system. Lynchings almost invariably culminated in a public display of the corpse. Dragging the lifeless or mortally wounded victim across long stretches of road behind a car or truck was a common feature of early 20th century lynchings. The procession very often came to rest where the suspect allegedly committed his offense. The disfigured victim was left hanging from a tree or lamp post. Lynching was about spectacle.
A second feature of many lynchings was the high level of community approval these crimes received. The identity of lynchers usually was widely known among local residents and law enforcement officers. Prosecutions were rare. Death “at the hands of parties unknown” became the familiar verdict of grand juries who pretended to probe lynchings. Commonwealth’s attorneys in Virginia secured convictions in just four percent of lynching prosecutions between 1900 and 1932. Investigating and charging members of lynch mobs with homicide or related offenses was politically risky for sheriffs and prosecutors in Southwest Virginia, who depended upon popular support for survival in their elected offices. Lynching was about impunity.
Third, Southern whites frequently justified lynchings on the grounds that the criminal justice apparatus was too slow and uncertain to be entrusted with the essential task of punishing blacks, particularly those accused of sexually assaulting Caucasian women. (Allegations of interracial rape or miscegenation accounted for six of the eight documented lynchings which occurred between 1910 and 1926 in Virginia.) An editorial in the 1890 Virginia Law Journal, published by the University of Virginia School of Law, blamed the persistence of lynching upon the “slow and uncertain process of law.” In 1926 the distinguished Virginia Law Register declared it was “glad” to publish a classic apology for lynching by Chas. E. George, whom the Register’s editors praised as “one of the most forceful writers on legal subjects in America.” George defended lynchings as expressions of the citizenry’s justified indignation “at the law’s delays or the inefficiency of our courts” in prosecuting rapists and murders. Lynching was about expediency.
Unwilling to await the slow and “uncertain” criminal justice system, with its panoply of due process safeguards for the accused, Virginia lynch mobs took virtually all of their victims from the custody of collusive sheriffs’ deputies. “Lynching goes unpunished in Virginia,” the Norfolk Virginia-Pilot explained in February 1927, “because, deny it as one will, it commands a certain social sanction. An unwritten code is invoked to give the color of social necessity to a crime . . . .”
A monument or historical marker erected by our governor that acknowledged Southwest Virginia’s experience with lynching would do much to ensure this wholesale failure of our judicial system never again “commands a certain social sanction.”