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When ISIS Ran the American South

I’ve been trying to figure out what to say about this ridiculous controversy the president sparked with his facile Crusades remarks the other day, and the overreaction by partisans of the Left and the Right. If you wait long enough, Ross Douthat will write what needs to be written, and do it better than you ever could. So he has done with this blog post, jumping off his Sunday column. [1] Excerpt:

The problem, in this in as many other debates, is that there seems to be little ground between being “for” and “against” a phenomenon too historically complex to meaningfully “favor” and “oppose” — which is why the religious-conservative rush to answer Obama has produced a lot of arguments (including some of those quoted by Saletan) that effectively whitewash Christian history, romanticize the bloody muddle that was medieval warfare, minimize the harsh reality of pogroms and persecutions, and otherwise present fat targets for secular eye-rolling.  … Wars fought on behalf of Christianity can only be justified as unfortunate necessities, and save in rare exceptions the faith’s warriors cannot — must not — be confused with its martyrs and its saints.

But I’m also not interested in an exercise in historical amnesia where the actual necessities of medieval geopolitics get wiped out of Western memory in favor of blanket condemnation of anyone who took the cross. If you want me to condemn pogroms in the Rhineland or the bloody aftermath of Jerusalem’s fall or the entirety of the Fourth Crusade, I will, and readily. But ask me if I’m sorry that Spain is Spain and not Al-Andalus, or if I regret Lepanto or Jan Sobieski’s gallop to Vienna, or if I wish that Saint Louis had somehow rescued Outremer or that aid had come to Constantinople [2] in the 15th century — I’m not, I don’t, I do. There are parts of Christian civilization’s past that have to be simply judged, rejected, and disowned; that the list is depressingly long, too long for a presidential speech. But the Crusades are nowhere near that simple, and to disown them requires a kind of amputation, a schism with the past, a triumph of forgetfulness over the more complicated obligations of actually remembering.

There was news today that brought to mind something that has been on my mind ever since the savages of ISIS burned that Jordanian pilot. That deed rightly horrified and disgusted us, just as the beheadings have done. But here’s the thing: ISIS is doing nothing that wasn’t widely done in the United States to black people until well within living memory.


The New York Times wrote [3] today on a new research report by an organization that has been studying lynching, and has documented almost 4,000 acts of extrajudicial murder by white mobs from the years 1877-1950. Most, but not all, of the deeds took place in the South. Five of the top 10 counties for lynching are in my home state, Louisiana. Here is a summary of the Equal Justice Initiative’s report. [4] Here is an excerpt from the summary, in which the report’s authors describe the reasons why lynching occurred:

Lynchings Based on Fear of Interracial Sex. Nearly 25 percent of the lynchings of African Americans in the South were based on charges of sexual assault. The mere accusation of rape, even without an identification by the alleged victim, could arouse a lynch mob. The definition of black-on-white “rape” in the South required no allegation of force because white institutions, laws, and most white people rejected the idea that a white woman would willingly consent to sex with an African American man. In 1889, in Aberdeen, Mississippi, Keith Bowen allegedly tried to enter a room where three white women were sitting; though no further allegation was made against him, Mr. Bowen was lynched by the “entire (white) neighborhood” for his “offense.” General Lee, a black man, was lynched by a white mob in 1904 for merely knocking on the door of a white woman’s house in Reevesville, South Carolina; and in 1912, Thomas Miles was lynched for allegedly inviting a white woman to have a cold drink with him.

Lynchings Based on Minor Social Transgressions. Hundreds of African Americans accused of no serious crime were lynched for social grievances like speaking disrespectfully, refusing to step off the sidewalk, using profane language, using an improper title for a white person,suing a white man, arguing with a white man, bumping into a white woman, and insulting a white person. African Americans living in the South during this era were terrorized by the knowledge that they could be lynched if they intentionally or accidentally violated any social convention defined by any white person. In 1940, Jesse Thornton was lynched in Luverne, Alabama, for referring to a white police officer by his name without the title of “mister.” In 1919, a white mob in Blakely, Georgia, lynched William Little, a soldier returning from World War I, for refusing to take off his Army uniform. White men lynched Jeff Brown in 1916 in Cedarbluff, Mississippi, for accidentally bumping into a white girl as he ran to catch a train.

I picked these two out because I personally am aware of two such lynchings — one based on a fear of interracial sex, and the other based on a minor social transgression — that happened in my area in the first half of the 20th century, involving people (long dead) that I know. When you realize that people you know, men who were respected in their community during their lifetime, are actually murderers — well, this gets real, real fast.

And then there is this:

Public Spectacle Lynchings. Large crowds of white people, often numbering in the thousands and including elected officials and prominent citizens, gathered to witness pre-planned, heinous killings that featured prolonged torture, mutilation, dismemberment, and/or burning of the victim. White press justified and promoted these carnival-like events, with vendors selling food, printers producing postcards featuring photographs of the lynching and corpse, and the victim’s body parts collected as souvenirs. These killings were bold, public acts that implicated the entire community and sent a message that African Americans were sub-human, their subjugation was to be achieved through any means necessary, and whites who carried out lynchings would face no legal repercussions. In 1904, after Luther Holbert allegedly killed a local white landowner, he and a black woman believed to be his wife were captured by a mob and taken to Doddsville, Mississippi, to be lynched before hundreds of white spectators. Both victims were tied to a tree and forced to hold out their hands while members of the mob methodically chopped off their fingers and distributed them as souvenirs. Next, their ears were cut off. Mr. Holbert was then beaten so severely that his skull was fractured and one of his eyes was left hanging from its socket. Members of the mob used a large corkscrew to bore holes into the victims’ bodies and pull out large chunks of “quivering flesh,” after which both victims were thrown onto a raging fire and burned. The white men, women, and children present watched the horrific murders while enjoying deviled eggs, lemonade, and whiskey in a picnic-like atmosphere.

This was by no means a one-off thing. From the Times‘s story on the report:

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 1920.

ISIS filmed that poor Jordanian pilot burning to death as an act of revenge and terror. We call those Islamist fanatics animals. But white people did this often, and sometimes even made a public spectacle of it. “The white men, women, and children present watched the horrific murders while enjoying deviled eggs, lemonade, and whiskey in a picnic-like atmosphere.”

In the EJI report is a photo of a 1919 clipping from a Jackson, Miss., newspaper reporting on a planned lynching in Ellisville, one that the Mississippi governor absurdly claimed he was powerless to stop. The paper reported that the Rev. L.G. Gates, a Baptist pastor from Laurel, Miss., was headed to Ellisville “to entreat the mob to use discretion.”

Oh, for the days when leading Christian pastors entreated lynch mobs not to stop in the name of God, but instead, to use discretion.

See the photo that illustrates this blog post? It shows the charred remains of Jesse Washington, a black man lynched by a mob in Waco, Texas, on May 15, 1916. He had confessed under police interrogation to murdering a white woman. From the Wikipedia account of his lynching: [5]

Washington was tried for murder in Waco, in a courtroom filled with furious locals. He entered a guilty plea and was quickly sentenced to death. After his sentence was pronounced, he was dragged out of the court by observers and lynched in front of Waco’s city hall. Over 10,000 spectators, including city officials and police, gathered to watch the attack. There was a celebratory atmosphere at the event, and many children attended during their lunch hour. Members of the mob castrated [6] Washington, cut off his fingers, and hung him over a bonfire. He was repeatedly lowered and raised over the fire for about two hours. After the fire was extinguished, his charred torso was dragged through the town and parts of his body were sold as souvenirs. A professional photographer took pictures as the event unfolded, providing rare imagery of a lynching in progress. The pictures were printed and sold as postcards in Waco.

That was not the Middle Ages. That was 99 years ago, in Texas. The killers were not berserker jihadis. They were the people of Waco, Texas, including the leadership of the city.

Just now, as I was googling for more information, I see that Bill Moyers wrote about the Waco lynching the other day [7] — inspired, as I was, by ISIS burning the Jordanian pilot. Excerpt:

Sure enough, there it was: the charred corpse of a young black man, tied to a blistered tree in the heart of the Texas Bible Belt. Next to the burned body, young white men can be seen smiling and grinning, seemingly jubilant at their front-row seats in a carnival of death. One of them sent a picture postcard home: “This is the barbeque we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your son, Joe.”

The victim’s name was Jesse Washington. The year was 1916. America would soon go to war in Europe “to make the world safe for democracy.” My father was twelve, my mother eight. I was born 18 years later, at a time, I would come to learn, when local white folks still talked about Washington’s execution as if it were only yesterday. This was not medieval Europe. Not the Inquisition. Not a heretic burned at the stake by some ecclesiastical authority in the Old World. This was Texas, and the white people in that photograph were farmers, laborers, shopkeepers, some of them respectable congregants from local churches in and around the growing town of Waco.

More Moyers:

Yes, it was hard to get back to sleep the night we heard the news of the Jordanian pilot’s horrendous end. ISIS be damned! I thought. But with the next breath I could only think that our own barbarians did not have to wait at any gate. They were insiders. Home grown. Godly. Our neighbors, friends, and kin. People like us.

I see from the graphic in the EJI report that they appear to have documented at least 10 lynchings in West Feliciana Parish, where I live. I have written EJI for a copy of the report. I want to know who was killed, and under what circumstances. We all need to know these things, and face down what our ancestors did. These weren’t Crusaders sacking Constantinople. These were our fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers, doing it to the fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers of our black neighbors. Attention must be paid. That may be the only atonement available now, but it’s better than what we have had, which is nothing.

No, the American South (and other parts of America where racial terrorists ran rampant) was never run by fanatical theocrats who used grotesque public murders as a tool of terror. But if you were a black in the years 1877-1950, this was a distinction without much meaningful difference.

222 Comments (Open | Close)

222 Comments To "When ISIS Ran the American South"

#1 Comment By M_Young On February 12, 2015 @ 5:40 pm

“[NFR: Huh? — RD]”

Eric isn’t gonna be satisfied until you post a selfie in the same position as these chaps.

#2 Comment By M_Young On February 12, 2015 @ 5:44 pm

Eric, being run down by a bunch of violent racists is not the same as being shot by the cops, particularly when the person shot has attacked the cops.

BTW its a good bet that many of the cops doing the shooting are ‘people of color’ in the cases you mention.

#3 Comment By Sands On February 12, 2015 @ 5:44 pm


How many whites have been killed in the past 380 days. Believe me, you don’t want to compare white on black violence with black on white violence. The latter has always been greater than the former in my lifetime. And scaring the hell out of forty.

#4 Comment By M_Young On February 12, 2015 @ 5:44 pm

Oops, forgot the link. This will satisfy Eric


#5 Comment By Ryan Booth On February 12, 2015 @ 7:51 pm

The South from 1877 to 1950 was the closest thing the US has ever seen to a theocracy

Alan Cross, you have made a lot of good points in these comments, but this is not one of them. It isn’t true.

Most of the colonies were founded with religious charters with explicit religious discrimination. Look at the history of the Massachusetts Bay colony and the founding of Rhode Island. Even after the Revolution, Massachusetts citizens were required to be members of a parish church, the denomination of which was chosen by a majority vote of town residents.

I would argue other situations were also closer to theocracy (Utah Territory?), but I don’t have time.

#6 Comment By Eric Hancock On February 12, 2015 @ 9:27 pm

M_Young was doubtful about numbers. Having been shown numbers which he cannot now acknowledge, he moves on to manner of death. He objects to Michael Brown being on the list but cannot address the other 15. Apparently he not only cannot make links, he doesn’t read the ones that are there.

To Sands, I would note this: in 2013, unarmed Miriam Carey hit a barricade at a White House checkpoint, was chased, shot and hit five times, killed while her daughter was in the care. In 2014, a knife wielding man jumped a White House fence, sprinted untouched across the lawn, overpowered a Secret Service agent, entering the first family’s residence through an unlocked door and made his way into the East Room reception area. He was tackled and has been indicted.

Guess which person was black.

To Mr Dreher, who has a problem I assume with people from New York, I would say that I grew up in Texas. For 23 years. Apparently he does not know that people move.

[NFR: Eric, the five years I lived in New York City were among the happiest of my life. Good luck to you there. — RD]

#7 Comment By Sands On February 12, 2015 @ 11:12 pm

Eric, I’ll ask again: how many whites were killed in the past 380 days? Do you even know, or even care? You throw names out here and want us to believe (I guess) that no whites were killed in the same time frame. You certainly didn’t make any comparisons.  But  the bottom line is: more whites are killed by the police than any other race, more whites are the victims of black violence than vice versa, and blacks murder police officers and commit other violent crimes disproportionately. 

You’re trying to make the absurd case that lynching of blacks is still occurring, but it ain’t gonna work.  And it ain’t gonna work because, well, it’s absurd.

#8 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On February 13, 2015 @ 1:24 am

Lynching of blacks is not still occuring.

IF it is true that more whites are killed by blacks than the other way around, the significance of this statistic depends on the percentage of people of either demographic directly involved. If something under 0.5% of whites are killed by something under 0.5% of blacks, then any racial characterization would be beyond incredible. And frankly Sands, you haven’t lived very long, not long enough for your personal experience to be relevant to drawing historical trends of any significance.

Shootings by police are sufficiently different in circumstances that each should be dealt with on its own individual merits. Dontre Hamilton is not Michael Brown who is not Trayvon Martin, and the young man killed by the police officer who should never have been hired in Cleveland is none of the above. Hamilton’s killing involved some poor judgement and breaches of protocol, which may well have merited dismissal, but was not criminal. Hamilton himself should not have been wandering the street, he should have been in a day or residential setting with people who knew his condition and were trained to work with it. Michael Brown may well have brought it all on himself — although police in Ferguson seem to have a poor record of dealing with the public they “protect and serve,” which predisposed people to believe the worst. Martin may have been a dislikable thug, but George Zimmerman was blatantly stalking him, and if George had minded his own business, Martin would be alive today. The shooting in Cleveland was simply inexcusable.

Within ten years preceding the Rodney King protests, LA police had a reputation for pulling over black female motorists and raping them in the back seat of their own cars. All LA police? Of course not. But enough of them, with sufficient impunity, to create a jaundiced view of the police as an institution.

Idle and empty sloganeering, larded with broad narratives, is not a path to the truth.

#9 Comment By NGPM On February 13, 2015 @ 2:09 am

“[NFR: I’m talking about many of the responses that I haven’t posted, not the ones that I have. — RD]”

In that case, sir, I would like to politely reiterate my confusion as to why you placed Mr. Salian’s post in the context of “examples” of posts you have received? Would you care to take up my challenge to address the points we have made?

#10 Comment By Marcus On February 13, 2015 @ 10:15 am

Rod, you do realize that we’ve evolved past lynchings. Apparently ISIS hasn’t. That what’s makes us different from savages.

[NFR: I wouldn’t be too sure of that. By 1914, Germany had “evolved” past burning heretics in the public square. — RD]

#11 Comment By Eric Hancock On February 13, 2015 @ 11:01 am

Sands and Siarlys, neither the killing of Emmett Till or James Byrd, Jr or most of the thousands in between or the hundreds since Mr. Byrd’s murder would be considered a lynching by the definition of the study cited by Mr Dreher. For the authors of the study, a lynching was a murderous act by more than three people done in public. Once could say that Mr Garner was lynched, though.

So, no, all those black and brown bodies on the ground, piling up, have not been lynched. And yet they are dead. And the dead black and brown bodies that I think are lives ended in continuity with lynchings — the lives that Mr Dreher cannot extend his moral sympathies to and points about — are innocent, unarmed men and women, killed by white power structures who almost are never indicted much less tried. And we don’t know what to do about ourselves seeing this piling up of black and brown bodies. And Mr Dreher has refused to venture into the present and offer commentary on who we are. It’s easier for him and us to talk about fathers and grandfathers.

And it’s easier for Sands to talks bout total murders. Murders from the drug trade, murders from the trailer park, murders up on 5th avenue by alienated sons of hedge fund managers. It’s easier for Sands to talk about murders by murderers, deviant men (mostly) undone by poverty, drugs, lack of education, hopelessness, or sheer ugly inhumanity. It helps Sands. Sands cannot face the piling up of black and brown bodies killed by white power, killers who get off scot-free. Who among us can?

[NFR: Eric, I’m not ignoring you because I concede your points; I’m ignoring you because I don’t believe that you are arguing in good faith. — RD]

#12 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On February 13, 2015 @ 2:34 pm

Eric is certainly a bit confused. Sands is no doubt entertained to see Eric shooting off some “friendly fire” in my direction because he doesn’t like my choice of words when I refuted Sands…

James Byrd and Emmett Till were both murdered. One difference is that the murderer of James Byrd was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced. I didn’t follow up whether George W. Bush’s promise that the death sentence would be executed was kept or not. Whether these murders constituted a lynching, per se, is not significant.

What is more important than counting black or brown bodies piling up (seriously, nobody is black, anymore than anybody is white, we just have differing concentrations of a single brown pigment to show off), is how different bodies became dead. Eric does point out that there is a rather diverse number of reasons. That being the case, it is not helpful to blame “the white power structure.” If we look closely at the details, there are a number of economic and power disparities involved, and addressing each more precisely could be quite helpful.

I never tire of recommending Jason De Parle’s American Dream, which highlights that what is now considered “black ghetto culture” originated in the back quarters of the larger plantations, Senator James Eastland’s for one. I suspect that throwing off this significant contributor to the number of dark brown bodies would be a movement clearly identifying that this “ghetto culture” was conceived, concocted, imposed and inculcated by “white” plantation owners. If you want to be authentically black and proud, throw ghetto culture away as the imposition by whitey that it truly is.

But no, “ghetto culture” is not the only cause of premature, violent death for young people with dark complexions. There is an interesting perspective available in the NY Times from the FBI director, who candidly points out that police develop unfortunate reflexes from the fact that many of those they do legitimately arrest are dark-skinned, and work needs to be done to develop more respect for the larger mass of people the officers are sworn to “serve and protect.” It will take some work.

#13 Comment By Eric Hancock On February 13, 2015 @ 5:09 pm

Not in good faith?! I’m showing miraculous faith: I’m responding on The American Conservative!

That’s fair, though. My claim is that you used the lives of those who were lynched in bad sensationalizing faith. Because you did not close the circle with ourselves. You scapegoated.

#14 Comment By Lawrence Lamb On February 15, 2015 @ 1:48 am

Total depravity is the first of five Calvinistic principles that most people reject out of hand. Reading this, one would have to at least consider that we are all very capable of the currently unimaginable. If history is any guide, nice people will continue to find a “moral” rationale to execute mass murder against those that make them uncomfortable.

#15 Comment By Strategy King On February 15, 2015 @ 1:07 pm

Enough has been written here so I have only one question. Why did you call the President’s comments ‘facile’? What exactly was facile about them, especially given what you’ve written afterwords seems to suggest the exact opposite?

What is it about the President that gets you guys? So many things he says you agree with (Cuba etc), yet you cannot say a word of thanks, you have to say something derogatory. Why? Why does it bother you that the President might say some sensible things?

#16 Comment By Ryan Booth On February 16, 2015 @ 2:31 pm

Interesting news on this front:


#17 Comment By Christopher Scott On February 24, 2015 @ 12:03 pm

There is an easy difference between lynching in the U.S. and terrorist killings by ISIS. In the U.S., the lynchings described by Rod Dreher were always condemned by respectable opinion. Also, almost all of the lynching victims were guilty of very serious crimes such as murder of aggravated rape that were routinely punished by death at the time. He can point to a small number of racially motivated extra-judicial killings of relatively innocent victims. Americans at the time viewed such acts as bloodlust and took steps to stop these attacks. I encourage Rod Dreher to move to another country where he thinks their history is less blood-soaked than our history.

[NFR: That is not true. In the South, the “respectable” were often either committing the crimes or cheering them on. At one point in my town, the local judge and the sheriff were both Klansmen. I personally know of a case in which a black man was murdered in broad daylight, on Main Street, in the next town over from mine for allegedly failing to show proper respect to a white man. Nobody ever was prosecuted for that. This happened over and over throughout the South. You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts. — RD]

#18 Comment By Peter Kirsop On November 1, 2015 @ 2:17 am

I am coming late to this topic, but I see “Darth’s” comment (11th February “[i] So, did the Old South hire USA’s best directors and producers to film a movie about their cruelest lynchings which they then had circulated as widely as possible, to proudly show the world “this is what we are”, and to promote immigration into those states?”[/i]The South didn’t have to, its supporters had D W Griffiths direct and Pres W Wilson to endorse [i] Birth of a Nation [/i] which while it did not show any lynchings glorified the Klan ano endorse the film

#19 Comment By Adriana I Pena On May 25, 2017 @ 10:08 am

It is a sobering reminded that evil is in all of us.

Also a warning not to judge foreign cultures too hastily. They might just be decades behind us, but that is not the same as being unchangeable, nor unwilling to learn.

There is one thing about Southerners, though. I get their point about Northern hypocrisy – God knows that there is a lot of it around. But when they turn around and accuse us of being wicked, and Godless, and libertines, and in need of salvation, and not being true Christians, well… then I feel telling them that true Christians are NOT supposed to lynch.

[NFR: Where, exactly, are the Southerners in the year of Our Lord 2017 who say this about Northerners? Outside of your own imagination, I mean. — RD]

#20 Comment By Fr. John Whiteford On January 26, 2018 @ 8:52 am

As bad as the Jim Crow south was for black people, the comparison with ISIS is hyperbolic to say the least. An average of 54 killings a year compared to the genocide ISIS waged in a couple of years does not compare. Anytime an innocent person is murdered, it is a horrible tragedy, but here you are comparing governments and people, and there, the comparison doesn’t work

[NFR: The comparison is that black people of the South in those days had to live under a similar kind of terror as Christians (and others) had to live under with ISIS. The idea that you could be killed at random, and there was nobody to protect you. No justice. Where I come from, one of the judges back in the day was also the head of the local KKK. — RD]

#21 Comment By Fr. John Whiteford On January 26, 2018 @ 8:56 am

And ISIS did not kill people because they acted as a mob rightly or wrongly thought their victims were guilty of a crime. ISIS killed people simply because of their religious beliefs, and it was a policy, not an outburst of misdirected anger.

#22 Comment By Cicero On January 26, 2018 @ 10:05 pm

The similarities are trivial and the differences are fundamental.

Time to take a breather, Rod. That’s my suggestion. I say this as a longtime fan who’s purchased two of your books and shared countless of your articles on my blog and Facebook.