Reviewed by Suzanne Hall
Vol. 13, No. 2, 1991, pp. 23-24
Racial Violence in Kentucky, 1865-1940: Lynching, Mob Rule, and “Legal Lynchings,” by George C. Wright (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990.)
“Some folks just need killing,” a Kentuckian explained not long ago during a conversation about violence in the state. Just who needs killing is the interesting question. In Kentucky, as in the rest of the South and nation, the people in power are often able to decide such matters. Powerful white Kentuckians, George Wright convincingly argues, determined which blacks lived or died in the
post-Civil War period. Individuals, mobs, and juries subjected African-American Kentuckians to violent acts ranging from harassment and beatings to lynchings. Old arguments that the border state had a less violent racial history than the deep South no longer stands. In fact, Wright asserts that Kentucky’s violent legacy is not confined to the Appalachian region; western Kentucky and the Jackson Purchase area rival the east “as the most violent part of the Bluegrass.”
Whites used violence to keep blacks in their place after the disruption of the society and culture following the Civil War. Mob attacks and illegal lynchings occurred with greater frequency than earlier studies have found. Wright discovered at least 353 lynchings in the state as opposed to the earlier figure of 205. These mob actions resulted from the economic activities of African-Americans, not from rapes of white women. Wright argues that “blacks who were prosperous or independent threatened the entire system of white supremacy.
Lynching one black sent a brutal message to an entire neighborhood of black citizens. And even a killing was not enough in some cases. White tobacco farmers, who had joined to fight the Duke Tobacco Trust in 1904-1908, drove out blacks in Marshall County. some of whom owned prime tobacco land. Three hundred and forty-eight blacks lived in that western Kentucky county in 1900. After the killings and raid 135 remained. By 1960, no blacks resided. Apparently, the Marshall County blacks lost all or most of their property. Whites in the area now claim the blacks were criminals and troublemakers, a common rationalization for racial violence.
After the turn of the century, mob lynchings became less “respectable” among progressive Kentuckians, who sought a better image to attract business to the state. Governors such as Augustus E. Wilson, Augustus 0. Stanley, and Edwin P. Morrow, openly and vigorously opposed lynching. But with the decline in illegal killings came a rise in what Wright aptly terms “legal lynchings,” executions following hasty, procedurally inadequate jury trials. Law-and-order advocates praised the swift enforcement of justice and did not analyze the inequitable distribution of punishments among white and black criminals. Kentucky remained a dangerous place for blacks despite the decline in some forms of extralegal violence.
Wright’s story could become a gruesome recitation of victimization; however, he demonstrates black Kentuckians’ ability to fight back and create lives for themselves and their families. Some shot back at white mobs, others organized and petitioned officials. Many showed their distaste for the state and left. Between 1900 and 1950, the black population of Kentucky steadily declined, especially in rural areas. The myth of benign “polite” racism in the Bluegrass joins the other legends of the Old South. Wright’s finely written story, though painful and depressing. is one that must be told. To overcome completely the failures of the past, we need to understand their complex origins and history. George Wright provides readers with the hard evidence and skilled analysis to achieve a fuller understanding of Kentucky’s. and the South’s, violent heritage.
Suzanne Hall is an Assistant Professor of History at Reinhardt College.