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At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black Americaby Philip Dray
Synopses & Reviews
It is easy to shrink from our country’s brutal history of lynching. Lynching is called the last great skeleton in our nation’s closet: It terrorized all of black America, claimed thousands upon thousands of victims in the decades between the 1880s and the Second World War, and leaves invisible but deep scars to this day. The cost of pushing lynching into the shadows, however—misremembering it as isolated acts perpetrated by bigots on society’s fringes—is insupportably high: Until we understand how pervasive and socially accepted the practice was—and, more important, why this was so—it will haunt all efforts at racial reconciliation.
“I could not suppress the thought,” James Baldwin once recalled of seeing the red clay hills of Georgia on his first trip to the South, “that this earth had acquired its color from the blood that had dripped down from these trees.” Throughout America, not just in the South, blacks accused of a crime—or merely of violating social or racial customs—were hunted by mobs, abducted from jails, and given summary “justice” in blatant defiance of all guarantees of due process under law. Men and women were shot, hanged, tortured, and burned, often in sadistic, picnic-like “spectacle lynchings” involving thousands of witnesses. “At the hands of persons unknown” was the official verdict rendered on most of these atrocities.
The celebrated historian Philip Dray shines a clear, bright light on this dark history—its causes, perpetrators, apologists, and victims. He also tells the story of the men and women who led the long and difficult fight to expose and eradicate lynching, including Ida B. Wells, James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, and W.E.B. Du Bois. If lynching is emblematic of what is worst about America, their fight may stand for what is best: the love of justice and fairness and the conviction that one individual’s sense of right can suffice to defy the gravest of wrongs. This landmark book follows the trajectory of both forces over American history—and makes the history of lynching belong to us all.
From the Hardcover edition.
Winner of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction
This extraordinary account of lynching in America, by acclaimed civil rights historian Philip Dray, shines a clear, bright light on American history’s darkest stain—illuminating its causes, perpetrators, apologists, and victims. Philip Dray also tells the story of the men and women who led the long and difficult fight to expose and eradicate lynching, including Ida B. Wells, James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, and W.E.B. Du Bois. If lynching is emblematic of what is worst about America, their fight may stand for what is best: the commitment to justice and fairness and the conviction that one individual’s sense of right can suffice to defy the gravest of wrongs. This landmark book follows the trajectory of both forces over American history—and makes lynching’s legacy belong to us all.
A landmark work of unflinching scholarship. -The New York Times
“In this history of lynching in the post-Reconstruction South-the most comprehensive of its kind—the author has written what amounts to a Black Book of American race relations. —The New Yorker
A powerfully written, admirably perceptive synthesis of the vast literature on lynching. It is the most comprehensive social history of this shameful subject in almost seventy years and should be recognized as a major addition to the bibliography of American race relations. -David Levering Lewis
An important and courageous book, well written, meticulously researched, and carefully argued. -The Boston Globe
You don't really know what lynching was until you read Dray’s ghastly accounts of public butchery and official complicity. -Time
From the Trade Paperback edition.
About the Author
Philip Dray is the co-author of We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi, which was a New York Times Notable Book for 1988. Born in Chicago and raised in Minnesota, Dray now lives in New York City. He has been a contributor to many publications, including Mother Jones, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times.
From the Hardcover edition.
Table of Contents
"A negro's life is a very cheap thing in Georgia" — Judge Lynch's Law — To gather my race in my arms — The compromise — "Let the eagle scream!" — Writing history with lightning — The wisest and best response — The shame of America — The tragedy of lynching — States' rights, states' wrongs — It can happen here — Under color of law.
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History and Social Science » African American Studies » General