[This review was published in The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, Summer 2002, pp. 253-256; and also in The Occidcntal Quarterly, Summer 2002, pp. 101-104.]


Book Review


At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America

Philip Dray

Random House, 2002


There is no subject that lends itself more to anti-American (and, most recently, anti-white) alienation than lynching. The scenes, after all, were often of the utmost cruelty. No decent individual, sensitive to human suffering, wishes to defend that cruelty.

It is unfortunate, however, if that means that no one is willing to speak in defense of the mainstream of American society during the century following 1865, placing this very cruel subject in context and perspective. Such a failure leaves the field to those who like to paint the picture of white Americans of that period as one of viciousness, rapacity, unbridled racism, and hypocrisy; and who like to picture blacks as victims who received the brunt of that cruelty.

This latter view has long-since become the conventional wisdom among the opinion-makers in the United States. And elsewhere, as well: this reviewer wrote a legal studies monograph in 1995 (published by this journal) analyzing the history of lynching and placing it in perspective from a scholarly point of view and it has been barred from Canada as "hate literature" (an act that is arguably as intellectually disgraceful to Canada as Stalin's insistence on Lysenkoism was to the Soviet Union). Herbert Marcuse's prescription, in his discussion of "repressive tolerance," that all views from the left should be permitted and all from the right prohibited has become reality.

Philip Dray's new book on lynching fits into that conventional wisdom. Unless one is predisposed to question the Left's image of white Americans, a reader will be inclined to accept its narrative at face value. Dray has written a readable chronology of lynching, with emphasis especially on the South, and shows the product of considerable research into the subjects he considers important.

This said, it remains important to note the ways his book lacks perspective. (What follows is a discussion of just some of those ways, since a complete examination of them would go far beyond the scope of a book review):

1. His entire theme ("the lynching of black America") repeats the now-customary premise that lynching was primarily an expression of racism. "Lynching," he says, "was a form of caste oppression... the white world's cruelty"; and, elsewhere, "victims were chosen for their race."

What is odd is that he cites quite a lot of counter-evidence, but never reflects about it. He tells about the San Francisco Vigilante Committees of 1851 and 1856; about the hanging of the white gamblers in Vicksburg; about the lynching of eleven whites in New Orleans in 1891 after the Police Superintendent was shot from ambush; that half the thirty lynch victims in Illinois after 1882 were white; that thirty-five whites were lynched in North Dakota in the mid-1880s for cattle rustling; and much more. Lynching was not limited by race or by region of the country.

Robert Zangrando's The NAACP Crusade Against Lynching, 1909-1950, cites the figures compiled by the Tuskegee Institute: that during the 87 year span between 1882 and 1968 a total of 1,297 whites and 3,445 blacks were lynched. If racism were the prime mover, the almost 1,300 whites require some explanation. The major explanation as an alternative to the racial one is the amount of crime to which local communities were reacting.

We know, of course, of the cattle-rustling and other crimes committed in the "wild west." What most people today don't know about is the extent of black crime in the South. In his book on lynching, James Elbert Cutler quotes with favor a statement that during those years "the worst instincts of the negro came to the front; the percentage of criminals among negroes increased to an alarming extent; many were guilty of crimes of violence of the most heinous and repulsive kind." Another author tells that "in 1921-22, the homicide rates in Atlanta, Birmingham, Memphis, and New Orleans per 100,000 Negro population were 103.2, 97.2, 116.9, and 46.7 respectively, while the corresponding rates for the white population were 15.0, 28.0, 29.6, and 8.4." W.E.B. DuBois, the black-activist leader whom today's conventional wisdom perhaps respects most from among the black leaders of that day, spoke candidly of "a class of black criminals, loafers, and ne'er-do-wells who are a menace to their fellows, both black and white." That three-quarters of those lynched were black isn't surprising under those circumstances.

Dray makes the point that some of the lynchings were for trivial offenses, but fails to mention that there were whites as well as blacks who ran afoul of this. In Pine Level, North Carolina, in 1908, blacks themselves lynched a black entertainer for "putting on a poor show."

2. To those of us who value the long-standing ideal of the "rule of law" and of "due process," even one lynching is one too many. This is underscored, especially, when the lynching is carried out with the utmost cruelty. But even this is worth understanding in perspective. Records show that there were, as we have seen, 4,742 lynchings in the United States during an 87 year period, with three-fourths of these being of blacks. Match this against the 85 to 100 million that reputable European scholars estimate were killed under Communism after 1917. Match it against the unknown number of blacks killed by other blacks in drive-by shootings in recent years. Match it against the genocides committed on an on-going basis around the world: an estimated 500,000 to 800,000 in Rwanda, one and a half million in Sudan, 200,000 in Liberia and so on, seemingly ad infinitum. Those hundreds of thousands and even millions don't, of course, excuse even a single vicious act in the United States. But they do have a bearing on the gravamen of the alienated intellectuals' case against the United States: that American "racism" has been almost uniquely virulent.

3. This raises a significant question: Why another book about "lynching in America" in preference to a book discussing any of those other enormities? It would seem that it is ideology, not compassionate concern for human beings, that has determined Philip Dray and Random House's selection of subject.

4. The charge of "ideology" isn't out of place. Dray makes no effort to hide his leftward orientation. It is now seventy years since a good many Western intellectuals "heard the screams" and turned away from Communism, but today's conventional Left has learned nothing from that. We can't imagine Dray saying that "so-and-so had Nazi sympathies, but was nevertheless a beneficent leader"; but he is able to say this about Paul Robeson: "A Communist sympathizer, he was also a strong, unbowed black man." He describes Communist theoretician Herbert Aptheker as "the scholar Herbert Aptheker." The conventional wisdom's double standard toward the two great totalitarian systems of the twentieth century is, of course, well known, so Dray is hardly exceptional in it. We are simply reminded how much we are awash in ideology.

5. Dray's ideology produces an eagerness to make a point, and this in turn affects the integrity of his presentation.

Why, for example, does he stop his narrative in 1965? Doing so is polemically convenient; it allows him to stop while the "black struggle" still seemed a fight for due process and social-political equality. But if he had taken the story just a few months more, he would have had to tell about the rise of "black power" and the ousting of whites from the civil rights movement. Taking it somewhat further, he would have had to tell about the rise of a dual-track system applying one set of rules to minorities and another to whites (such as can be seen in the existence of "black student unions" when no such thing would be tolerated for whites). And, beyond that, he would have had to discuss the "multiculturalism" that has replaced the civil rights movement for blacks and portends to make both whites and blacks a minority in the United States in just a few years. Dray's book is published in 2002. It is not as though the almost immediate transmutation of "due process" and "equality" isn't pertinent.

Or we might ask why he didn't stop the narrative in the 1930s. Lynching had almost died out by the late 1920s, completing a decline that had started in 1884 for whites and 1892 for blacks. There was some revival during the Depression years of the 1930s, but that proved temporary. Dray speaks of 1944 as the year "when lynchings first began to decline strongly." That's nonsense.

Our review could go into a great deal else. What we have said is, however, enough. Those who read the book should be warned to bring their critical capacities to bear on it. Unfortunately, many young people assigned to write book reports about it in school will be inclined to accept it at face value. This will simply re-enforce the image they have been given from many sources that the American past was essentially despicable.


            Dwight D. Murphey