Social and Legal Justification of Racial Violence

“Six Pickaninnies
Pickin in de Rine”

Lynching and racial violence occurred within the larger context of the creation of the Jim Crow system in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Legal statutes and rulings played an important role in building this system, but beliefs, mindsets, and social expectations were equally crucial, particularly in pushing such a large segment of society to accept violence against fellow human beings as natural and even necessary. The brutality of lynching and other racial violence necessitated that white participants develop beliefs that allowed them to mentally dehumanize the victims of violence. Countless writings and publications, songs and movies, visual art, and even everyday physical items helped reinforce these negative racial beliefs, leading to dehumanization and greater acceptance and use of violence.

Brutally racist postcards like the ones on this page, along with endless other items of memorabilia and advertising produced and consumed during the Jim Crow period, demonstrate the cultural mindset of dehumanization and stereotypes that enabled lynchings.  Viewing an entire group of people as “other,” as seen in these images, made violence against them seem less objectionable, to the point that men, women, and children attended mass spectacle lynchings as a form of entertainment. Many of the postcards displayed here were sent through the mail with cheerful greetings to friends and family, despite, or maybe because of, the images on the front, indicating the widespread social acceptance of these stereotypes.

Newspaper accounts of lynchings echoed many of the stereotypes these postcards display; Tom Brunson, for example, became a “brute” and “black devil in human form” in accounts of his lynching, rather than a man accused of a crime and deserving of justice.  Newspapers described Bill Fourney as “a big black negro brute” and “not overly bright,” Jerico Shivers as a “rascal,” and many victims as “fiends,” dehumanizing them and making their lynchings seem more justifiable.

The postcards displayed on this page were featured in the “Legacy of Lynching” library exhibits, and come from the Wade Hall Postcard Collection at Troy University Library.  For more on racist stereotypes and memorabilia, see the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.

False stereotypes and racist beliefs contributed to “othering” and dehumanization in a way that enabled racial violence, but local, state, and even federal laws and rulings also deliberately created a system of oppression and inequality that gave official approval to discrimination of all types. Dr. Marty Olliff of Troy University has complied a list of over four hundred racially discriminatory laws passed by the Alabama Legislature from 1875, the end of Reconstruction, through 1903, shortly after Alabama fully enshrined Jim Crow in its new 1901 Constitution (which is still currently in use). The laws that legislators enacted during this period vividly illustrate the deliberate process of creating legal Jim Crow; while discrimination and oppression were long standing features of American society, the vast majority of segregation laws were not developed and passed until the 1890s and into the first decades of the twentieth century. As Alabama’s laws demonstrate, legislative efforts to build and enforce segregation and inequality were exhaustively thorough and maliciously creative. This legal context helps explain the prevalence and justification of even extra-legal violence, such as lynching. View these laws at: Jim Crow Laws in Alabama.

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