DALLAS — A
block from the tourist-swarmed headquarters of the former Texas School Book
Depository sits the old county courthouse, now a museum. In 1910, a group of men
rushed into the courthouse, threw a rope around the neck of a black man accused
of sexually assaulting a 3-year-old white girl, and threw the other end of the
rope out a window. A mob outside yanked the man, Allen Brooks, to the ground and
strung him up at a ceremonial arch a few blocks down Main Street.
South of the city, past the Trinity River bottoms, a black man named W. R.
Taylor was hanged by a mob in 1889. Farther south still is the community of
Streetman, where 25-year-old George Gay was hanged from a tree and shot hundreds
of times in 1922.
And just beyond that is Kirkin, where three black men, two of them almost
certainly innocent, were accused of killing a white woman and, under the gaze of
hundreds of soda-drinking spectators, were castrated, stabbed, beaten, tied to a
plow and set afire in the spring of 1922.
The killing of Mr. Brooks is noted in the museum. The sites of the other
killings, like those of nearly every lynching in the United States, are not
marked. Bryan Stevenson believes this should change.
On Tuesday, the organization he founded and runs, the Equal Justice Initiative
in Montgomery, Ala., released a report on the history of lynchings in the United
States, the result of five years of research and 160 visits to sites around the
South. The authors of the report compiled an inventory of 3,959 victims of
“racial terror lynchings” in 12 Southern states from 1877 to 1950.
Next comes the process of selecting lynching sites where the organization plans
to erect markers and memorials, which will involve significant fund-raising,
negotiations with distrustful landowners and, almost undoubtedly, intense
The process is intended, Mr. Stevenson said, to force people to reckon with the
narrative through-line of the country’s vicious racial history, rather than
thinking of that history in a short-range, piecemeal way.
“Lynching and the terror era shaped the geography, politics, economics and
social characteristics of being black in America during the 20th century,” Mr.
Stevenson said, arguing that many participants in the great migration from the
South should be thought of as refugees fleeing terrorism rather than people
simply seeking work.
The lynching report is part of a longer project Mr. Stevenson began several
years ago. One phase involved the erection of historical markers about the
extensive slave markets in Montgomery. The city and state governments were not
welcoming of the markers, despite the abundance of Civil War and civil rights
movement memorials in Montgomery, but Mr. Stevenson is planning to do the same
Around the country, there are only a few markers noting the sites of lynchings.
In several of those places, like Newnan, Ga., attempts to erect markers were met
with local resistance. But in most places, no one has tried to put up a marker.
Efforts to count the number of lynchings in the country go back at least to
1882, when The Chicago Tribune began publishing each January a list of all
executions and lynchings in the previous year. The Tuskegee Institute began
releasing a list in 1912, and in 1919, the N.A.A.C.P. published what its
researchers said was a comprehensive list of lynchings in the previous three
decades. In 1995, the sociologists Stewart Tolnay and E. M. Beck researched the
existing lists, eliminated errors and duplicates, and compiled what many
consider the most accurate inventory to that time.
The report released Tuesday says that the new inventory has 700 names that are
not on any of these previous lists, many of which Mr. Stevenson said were
discovered during the compilation of the report.
Professor Beck, who teaches at the University of Georgia, has not reviewed the
new list. But he pointed out that, with racial violence so extensive and carried
out in so many different ways, compilers of lists may differ on what constitutes
a lynching; the new list, as opposed to some previous ones, includes one-time
massacres of large numbers of African-Americans, such as occurred in Arkansas in
1919 and in Louisiana in 1887.
“If you’re trying to make a point that the amount of racial violence is
underestimated, well then, there’s no doubt about it,” Professor Beck said.
“What people don’t realize here is just how many there were, and how close.
Places they drive by every day.”
Among Professor Beck’s findings were that the number of lynchings did not rise
or fall in proportion to the number of state-sanctioned executions, underscoring
what Mr. Stevenson said was a crucial point: that these brutal deaths were not
about administering popular justice, but terrorizing a community.
“Many of these lynchings were not executing people for crimes but executing
people for violating the racial hierarchy,” he said, meaning offenses such as
bumping up against a white woman or wearing an Army uniform.
But, he continued, even when a major crime was alleged, the refusal to grant a
black man a trial — despite the justice system’s near certain outcome — and the
public extravagance of a lynching were clearly intended as a message to other
The bloody history of Paris, Tex., about 100 miles northeast of Dallas, is well
known if rarely brought up, said Thelma Dangerfield, the treasurer of the local
N.A.A.C.P. chapter. Thousands of people came in 1893 to see Henry Smith, a black
teenager accused of murder, carried around town on a float, then tortured and
burned to death on a scaffold.
Until recently, some longtime residents still remembered when the two Arthur
brothers were tied to a flagpole and set on fire at the city fairgrounds in
“There were two or three blacks who were actually around during that time, but
you couldn’t get them to talk about it,” Ms. Dangerfield said.
She helped set up an exhibit in the county historical museum, the only
commemoration of the lynchings she knows of in a town with prominent public
memorials to the Confederacy. The prospect of a permanent marker had not
occurred to her.
“It would be a fight,” she said. “Someone is going to have some resistance to
it. But you know, I think it wouldn’t hurt to try it.”
A version of this article appears in print on February 10, 2015, on page A11 of
the New York edition with the headline: History of Lynchings in the South
Documents Nearly 4,000 Names.
Feb. 2 — For every infamous killing that tore at the South in the 1950s and
’60s, there were many more that were barely noted, much less investigated.
Virtually all such cases gained momentum only when the victims of the past found
voices in the present, like those that helped arrest a 71-year-old man last
month in connection with the Klan killings of two black teenagers in Mississippi
in 1964. Rather than police officials, it has often been journalists and
filmmakers who have combed through documents and tracked down witnesses, fueling
some 15 years of successful prosecutions.
Only now, with time running out because potential witnesses and suspects are
dying off, have law enforcement officials begun to take a systematic approach to
unsolved civil rights crimes. The Federal Bureau of Investigation recently
canvassed its field offices for the first time, compiling a list of 51 victims
in 39 cases, most of which were never investigated by the bureau.
The list was prompted not by the string of convictions, but by a letter about
the lynching of two black couples at the Moore’s Ford Bridge, east of Atlanta,
in 1946, said Chip Burrus, the assistant director of the F.B.I.’s criminal
“When I read the letter, I said, ‘I’ve never heard of Moore’s Ford. What is this
about?’ ” Mr. Burrus said. “There’ve got to be more of these things.”
That a single letter prodded the F.B.I. to action illustrates how slender are
the time-brittled fibers that knit together the outcome in these fading crimes.
In the case that produced the recent arrest, timing was crucial. If the bodies
of the victims, Henry H. Dee and Charles E. Moore, had been found just three
weeks earlier in the summer of 1964, their deaths might have been largely
The two friends, a sawmill worker and a college student, were 19 when they
disappeared in May 1964, last seen hitchhiking on the highway near Meadville,
Miss. They were beaten and drowned by Klansmen who mistakenly believed the two
were involved in plotting an armed uprising. Two months later, on July 12, a
fisherman spotted the torso of Mr. Moore in a Mississippi River backwater called
the Old River. Mr. Dee was found the next day.
At the time, an extensive search was under way for three civil rights workers,
two of whom were white New Yorkers, who had disappeared on the opposite end of
the state in what became known as the “Mississippi Burning” case. The initial
classification of Mr. Moore’s body as that of a Caucasian male, and thus
potentially one of the missing rights workers, caused a spurt of media coverage.
That fleeting interest had two results, said David Ridgen, a Canadian
Broadcasting Corporation producer who has made a documentary about the case. It
prompted the F.B.I. to investigate, and it ensured that there was enough in the
historical record to arouse the curiosity, decades later, of scholars and
Countless other race killings, however, were minimally recorded. In the late
1980s, when the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., was creating
its memorial to 40 civil rights martyrs, most of whose cases remain
unprosecuted, researchers found more than 80 victims who could not be included
because not enough was known about the circumstances of their deaths.
“It was so frustrating and sad,” said Sarah Bullard, the project’s chief
researcher. “If the information wasn’t there I couldn’t include them, no matter
what I suspected or felt.”
Mr. Burrus of the F.B.I. said he was not familiar with the monument or the
center’s research, but that the bureau had also consulted civil rights groups in
compiling its list.
Because local newspapers often ignored such killings, Ms. Bullard pored over
microfilm of national newspapers and records compiled by the Tuskegee Institute,
internal memorandums of the N.A.A.C.P. and other civil rights groups, and
cartons of news clippings collected by a research group called the Southern
Regional Council and stored in the basement of a Korean grocery in Atlanta.
Ms. Bullard recalled references to an unidentified teenager who was found in the
Big Black River in Mississippi wearing a Congress of Racial Equality T-shirt.
After scouring all her sources, she learned only his name, Herbert Oarsby.
“There were activists who were trying to pay attention,” Ms. Bullard said, “but
at the same time there were African-American communities who knew that racist
crimes amongst them were not going to be investigated or reported and made the
choice not to seek justice because it would bring on further violence against
That may have been the case with Mr. Moore’s mother, Mazie, who made her elder
son Thomas promise not to avenge or seek justice for his brother’s death. In
1964, when reporters found her at the country shack where she had lived all her
life, she repeatedly praised the white residents of Franklin County, a Klan
stronghold, and said there was nothing to be done.
Alvin Sykes, a civil rights advocate who has urged the federal government to
pass the Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Bill, which would provide $11.5 million per
year to investigate these cases, said part of that money would be used to
encourage people scared into silence at the time to come forward. “We have
absolutely no idea how many of them are out there,” Mr. Sykes said.
Mazie Moore died in 1977, and in 1998 Thomas Moore finally decided to seek
justice, contacting the local district attorney, Ronnie Harper, who was unaware
of the case. Mr. Harper requested information from the F.B.I., and was told that
no file on the case existed.
But in 2000 two journalists, Jerry Mitchell of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson and
Harry Phillips of ABC News, obtained copies of the F.B.I. investigation file
that was said to be missing, which had led to the arrest of Charles M. Edwards
and James F. Seale in November 1964, though the charges were dropped when the
district attorney said there was not enough evidence to make a case.
Mr. Phillips used the file to track down the F.B.I.’s principal informant,
Ernest Gilbert, then 74, persuading him to do an on-camera interview about the
case, and Mr. Mitchell reported that because the crime began in the Homochitto
National Forest, where the two victims were tied to trees and beaten with
switches, federal prosecutors might have jurisdiction in the case.
But even those breakthroughs did not force prosecutors to act. Mr. Harper says
he was told by the F.B.I. that Mr. Gilbert would not testify. The F.B.I. closed
the case in 2003 because the jurisdiction issue could not be resolved, said
Deborah Madden, a spokeswoman for the F.B.I. office in Jackson. Mr. Gilbert died
Thomas Moore, living in Colorado Springs, grew tired of telling reporters his
brother’s story with no result. But in 2005, Mr. Ridgen, the documentary
producer, convinced him that the two should go back to Mississippi together.
On that trip, they discovered that Mr. Seale was not dead, as several newspapers
had reported, but was still living in Franklin County. Then came a coincidence:
Thomas Moore had served in the same Army unit as Dunn Lampton, who became the
United States attorney in Jackson in 2001. Mr. Moore and Mr. Ridgen persuaded
Mr. Lampton to reopen the case, resulting in the recent arrest of Mr. Seale, who
has pleaded not guilty.
“Thomas Moore had a lot of information about what happened, and I made use of
that,” Mr. Lampton said. “You don’t come into an office and go back and start
digging through all the old files to find something to do. It’s only when
someone brings that to your attention.”