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Legacies of Lynching

Racial Violence and Memory

2004
Author:

Jonathan Markovitz

Legacies of Lynching

Traces the changing meanings of lynching and examines the political power of lynching as metaphor

Legacies of Lynching examines the evolution of lynching as a symbol of racial hatred and a metaphor for race relations in popular culture, art, literature, and political speech. Jonathan Markovitz credits the efforts of the antilynching movement with helping to ensure that lynching would be understood as a terrorist practice and America’s most vivid symbol of racial oppression.

Legacies of Lynching offers a sophisticated and uncommonly trenchant discussion of the continuing power of representations of lynching in contemporary American culture.

W. Fitzhugh Brundage, editor of Under Sentence of Death: Lynching in the South

Between 1880 and 1930, thousands of African Americans were lynched in the United States. Beyond the horrific violence inflicted on these individuals, lynching terrorized whole communities and became a defining characteristic of Southern race relations in the Jim Crow era. As spectacle, lynching was intended to serve as a symbol of white supremacy. Yet, Jonathan Markovitz notes, the act's symbolic power has endured long after the practice of lynching has largely faded away.

Legacies of Lynching examines the evolution of lynching as a symbol of racial hatred and a metaphor for race relations in popular culture, art, literature, and political speech. Markovitz credits the efforts of the antilynching movement with helping to ensure that lynching would be understood not as a method of punishment for black rapists but as a terrorist practice that provided stark evidence of the brutality of Southern racism and as America’s most vivid symbol of racial oppression. Cinematic representations of lynching, from Birth of a Nation to Do the Right Thing, he contends, further transform the ways that American audiences remember and understand lynching, as have disturbing recent cases in which alleged or actual acts of racial violence reconfigured stereotypes of black criminality. Markovitz further reveals how lynching imagery has been politicized in contemporary society with the example of Clarence Thomas, who condemned the Senate's investigation into allegations of sexual harassment during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings as a “high-tech lynching.”

Even today, as revealed by the 1998 dragging death of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, and the national soul-searching it precipitated, lynching continues to pervade America's collective memory. Markovitz concludes with an analysis of debates about a recent exhibition of photographs of lynchings, suggesting again how lynching as metaphor remains always in the background of our national discussions of race and racial relations.


Legacies of Lynching

Jonathan Markovitz is a lecturer in sociology at the University of California, San Diego.

Legacies of Lynching

Legacies of Lynching offers a sophisticated and uncommonly trenchant discussion of the continuing power of representations of lynching in contemporary American culture.

W. Fitzhugh Brundage, editor of Under Sentence of Death: Lynching in the South

Legacies of Lynching: Racial Violence and Memory builds its archive by focusing on extreme moments when the language of lynching flares up in cinematic, journalistic and institutional discourse.

Interventions

Markovitz assesses the dynamic nature of America’s collective memory of lynching. His case studies illuminate the ongoing dialog between past and present.

American Studies

Markovitz’s thesis is provocative and the analysis sophisticated.

Contemporary Sociology

Legacies of Lynching provides an important alternative perspective to more conventional studies of mob violence.

Patterns of Prejudice

Jonathan Markovitz’s Legacies of Lynching will continue to stand as a model for balancing scholarly rigor with accessibility, historical specificity with a keen understanding of contemporary culture. It is a gift to our nation as we struggle to deal with the painful truths that the photographs encourage us to face. Legacies of Lynching is a valuable contribution to southern history because lynching has so frequently been remembered as a southern phenomenon, but Markovitz shows how it has shaped national discourse, both past and present. Markovitz equips readers to recognize when memories of racial violence are mined for contemporary purposes. Just as importantly, he offers tools for assessing the validity of the invocations.

Tennessee Historical Quarterly

Legacies of Lynching

Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction: On Memory and Meaning

1. Antilynching and the Struggle for Meaning
2. Cinematic Lynchings
3. Lynching as Lens: Contemporary Racialized Violence
4. The Hill–Thomas Hearings and the Meaning of a “High-Tech Lynching”

Conclusion: Not Just Memory

Notes
Works Cited
Index