No volume recounting the history of lynching could ever be fun to read. But Philip Dray's book At the Hands of Persons Unknown is timely, impressively researched and written well the next best thing to enjoyable.
Although Dray goes back many centuries into history to demonstrate the inhumanity of the dominant culture against minority cultures, his book focuses on the years 1882 to 1962, coinciding with detailed archives at Tuskegee University, a predominately African-American college in Alabama. Researchers at Tuskegee relied mostly on newspapers and magazines to learn about lynchings, publishing a yearly tabulation that, Dray says, "came to be considered a definitive tally a kind of Dow Jones ticker of the nation's most vicious form of intolerance."Dray, who teaches African-American history at New York City's New School, learned about the Tuskegee archives in 1986. Before mining the archives' awful riches, he says, "Like most people, I was aware that lynching had been an aberrational form of racial violence in the Deep South, and a means by which cattle rustlers and card cheats had sometimes received rough frontier justice." After seeing the extent of the archives' holdings, Dray understood that lynchings were far less sporadic than he had realized. "A holocaust!" Dray heard himself saying.
That all-American holocaust is filled with flesh-and-blood human beings who transcend the horrifying statistics. The book is populated with victims, lawless lynchers and heroic outsiders like journalist Ida B. Wells and W.E.
B. Du Bois, both of whom valiantly crusaded to halt the practice. Given the near-extinction of lynchings by the mid-1960s, Dray's by-definition depressing book ends with a hint of optimism. But as lynchings have waned, they still seem timely. Why? Partly because lynching is usually a manifestation of racism, and racism remains in 2002, and partly because every year hundreds of innocent individuals are convicted of crimes in U.S. courtrooms. Some of those wrongly convicted individuals end up on death row. That phenomenon cannot accurately be called lynching, but it is certainly lynching's first cousin.
Steve Weinberg is a book author and magazine writer in Columbia, Missouri.