The best books on the history of lynching

Many authors have picked their favorite books about lynching and why they recommend each book.

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At the Hands of Persons Unknown

By Philip Dray,

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

In my own work, I draw extensively on the lynching to document and analyze racial dehumanization. From the time of the collapse of reconstruction during the late nineteenth century until well into the twentieth century, thousands of African Americans, most of them men, were murdered by white mobs. If you are like most people, you think of lynching as nothing more than extrajudicial execution, but in fact it often involved hours of the most hideous torture imaginable, ending with the victim being burned alive before a crowd of hundreds or even thousands of avid spectators. Philip Dray’s book is a fine entry point into the historical literature on lynching.


Who am I?

I have an international reputation as an expert on dehumanization. I have researched this subject for the past fifteen years, and have written three books and many articles, and given many talks on it, including a presentation at the 2012 G20 economic summit. I believe that dehumanization is an extremely important phenomenon to understand, because it fuels the worst atrocities that human beings inflict upon one another. If phrases like "never again" have any real meaning, we need to seriously investigate the processes, including dehumanization, that make such horrific actions possible.


I wrote...

Making Monsters: The Uncanny Power of Dehumanization

By David Livingstone Smith,

Book cover of Making Monsters: The Uncanny Power of Dehumanization

What is my book about?

Making Monsters offers a poignant meditation on the philosophical and psychological roots of dehumanization. Drawing on harrowing accounts of lynchings, the book establishes what dehumanization is and what it isn’t. When we dehumanize our enemy, we hold two incongruous beliefs at the same time: we believe our enemy is at once subhuman and fully human. To call someone a monster, then, is not merely a resort to metaphor—dehumanization really does happen in our minds.

Turning to an abundance of historical examples, Making Monsters explores the relationship between dehumanization and racism, the psychology of hierarchy, what it means to regard others as human beings, and why dehumanizing others transforms them into something so terrifying that they must be destroyed.

Ida

By Paula J. Giddings,

Book cover of Ida: A Sword Among Lions

To understand American race relations today, the history of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era is a vital starting point. In the wake of the Reconstruction, legalized segregation formalized institutional racism. With no federal lynch law, many states and municipalities refused to prosecute lynchings, striving instead to perpetuate myths of lynching as the only appropriate response to naturally lascivious Black men who desired inherently pure and virtuous white women. This exceptional biography traces the fascinating life of journalist and women’s suffrage advocate Ida Wells, who fearlessly fought against racism, segregation, and, especially, lynching. She was a leader in progressive era reform, despite the discrimination she endured even from many progressives due to her sex and her race.


Who am I?

I study the Gilded Age and Progressive Era because it has so many practical applications for the present.  As we face our own Gilded Age of enormous technological achievements paired with ongoing problems stemming from what Bob La Follette called “the encroachment of the powerful few upon the rights of the many,” why reinvent the wheel?  What worked for progressive reformers in their struggles to create a more equitable and just society?  What didn’t work, and why? To help answer those questions I wrote Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer and Belle La Follette: Progressive Era Reformer, and co-edited A Companion to the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.


I wrote...

Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer

By Nancy C. Unger,

Book cover of Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer

What is my book about?

The endlessly fascinating Robert La Follette (1855-1925) represented Wisconsin in the House of Representatives, as governor, and, for twenty-one years, in the U.S. Senate.  As the nation rapidly transformed into an urban-industrial giant, he tackled some of its biggest problems, including political corruption, environmental devastation, and worker exploitation.  “The supreme issue, involving all the others,” he declared, “is the encroachment of the powerful few upon the rights of the many.” La Follette was a leader in the fight to more equitably redistribute the nation’s wealth and power.

La Follette’s wife, Belle Case La Follette, was a leader in the fight for women’s suffrage and racial equality as well as world peace. Together they created a remarkably close family, generating a political dynasty.

Without Sanctuary

By James Allen,

Book cover of Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America

Not for the faint of heart, this collection of lynching images bears witness to the extreme violence used to enforce segregation. Leon Litwack’s introduction contextualizes these displays as violence aimed to reinforce white supremacy and leads the reader through the reality of these events and their lasting consequences on race relations. The photographs are irrefutable evidence of how such events must be recorded to ensure they never again occur. Despite the horror of the images within, this book will forever change your understanding of our past.

Who am I?

I remember when I saw the photograph of the lynching of Rubin Stacy, his corpse surrounded by white girls in their Sunday best dresses. For me the immediate question was, why would white parents take their children on an outing to this? What purpose is this memorial photograph serving? I have spent over twenty years exploring the answers, learning how cultures persist by teaching their dominant beliefs to the next generation, and considering the perpetuation of white supremacy from generation to generation.


I wrote...

Raising Racists: The Socialization of White Children in the Jim Crow South

By Kristina DuRocher,

Book cover of Raising Racists: The Socialization of White Children in the Jim Crow South

What is my book about?

White children rested at the core of the system of segregation between 1890 and 1939 because their participation was crucial to ensuring the future of white supremacy. Their socialization in the segregated South offers an examination of white supremacy from the inside, showcasing the culture's efforts to preserve itself by teaching its beliefs to the next generation.

My book reveals how white adults in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries continually reinforced race and gender roles to maintain white supremacy by tracing out the methods and spaces in which white adults fashioned an identity for their children. This socialization included participating in lynchings, and children’s involvement played a central role in these rituals of racial violence, revealing the lessons such incidents taught to white youth about using brute force to uphold racial segregation.

The Trees

By Percival L. Everett,

Book cover of The Trees

I hesitate to describe The Trees — in fact, I recommend you avoid reading any reviews, or even the back cover, because the book is so full of surprises that it would be a sin to spoil any of them. I’ll only say that of all the recent books dealing with the intractable shame of racial struggles, this is my favorite, hands-down. Prepare yourself to be alternately sick with laughter or sick with horror — which is exactly the experience of the protagonists, and of their real-life compatriots. Afterward, like me, you’ll want to read everything else Percival Everett has written.


Who am I?

I’m a nonfiction author whose success owes enormously to fiction. It challenges me to portray real people as vividly as characters in novels, and to use narrative and dialogue to keep readers turning the pages. Reading great novelists has taught me to obsessively seek exactly the right words, to fine-tune the cadence of each sentence, and to heed overall structural rhythm; continually, I return to the fount of fiction for language and inspiration. The astonishing novels I’ve shared here are among the most important books I’ve recently read to help grasp the critical times we’re living in. I’m confident you’ll feel the same.


I wrote...

The World Without Us

By Alan Weisman,

Book cover of The World Without Us

What is my book about?

How would the rest of nature fare if suddenly – never mind why – human beings vanished from Earth’s ecosystem?  How quickly could nature invade our vacated spaces, dismantle our infrastructure and architecture, refill empty niches, and heal the scars we’ve inflicted on this lovely planet? Would endangered species, relieved of our constant daily pressures, suddenly rebound? What about everything we’d leave behind – could nature eventually eliminate all our traces, or are some things we've created so permanent they're indestructible? Which human artifacts would last the longest?

These captivating questions, designed to seduce readers into thinking about the environment while there’s still time to save it and ourselves, made this book’s original edition an international bestseller, now in 35 languages. See for yourself why, in this 15th-anniversary edition with a new afterword.

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

By James Weldon Johnson,

Book cover of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

Every time someone asks me whether I, a Black woman with albinism, would have ever considered passing for white, I think of the unnamed protagonist of this book and his conflicting desires to uplift his own race while also escaping the dangers of being a Black man at the height of America’s obsession with lynching. (And let’s be honest, he also enjoys the social privilege and upward mobility that come with being mistaken for white.) Of course, the title tells us which choice he’s going to make long before we read it for ourselves, but I was still unprepared for the gutting last lines of this book. It is a master class in telling the story of the backward glance, and in what one loses by trying to save himself. 


Who am I?

Nobody’s Magic began, not as the series of novellas it became, but as a collection of stories I couldn’t stop telling. And it wasn’t just my characters’ comings and goings that enthralled me. It was the way they demanded I let them tell their own stories. I enjoy reading and writing novellas because they allow space for action, voice, and reflection, and they can tackle manifold themes and conversations in a space that is both large and small. At the same time, they demand endings that are neither predictable nor neat, but rather force the reader to speculate on what becomes of these characters they’ve come to know and love. 


I wrote...

Nobody's Magic

By Destiny O. Birdsong,

Book cover of Nobody's Magic

What is my book about?

Nobody’s Magic is a triptych novel (a group of three novellas) about Black women with albinism who live in my hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana. Though they range in age from twenty to thirty-four, each of them is facing a coming-of-age crossroads, where they have to decide how they want to live, whom they want to love, and in one case, where they want to be. There’s comedy and tragedy, plenty of intrigue (not to mention a few unsolved crimes), and a few rounds of good sex. In the end, each woman comes a little closer to finding herself, and coming to terms with her complicated—but nevertheless Black—identity.

Lynching and Spectacle

By Amy Louise Wood,

Book cover of Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940

Most people’s idea of lynching is the sanitized version that they have picked up from movies and TV. However, the practice of lynching, as it was carried out in the United States from the late 19th to well into the 20th century, was far more hideous than a few people hanging a man from a tree. This classic contribution concentrates on spectacle lynchings. These were public lynchings attended by hundreds or even thousands of spectators. They involved hours of torture and bodily mutilation, often culminating in the victim being burned alive. Lynching and Spectacle is a vital read for anyone wishing to understand the full horror of American Racism.


Who am I?

I’ve been studying dehumanization, and its relationship to racism, genocide, slavery, and other atrocities, for more than a decade. I am the author of three books on dehumanization, one of which was awarded the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf award for non-fiction, an award that is reserved for books that make an outstanding contribution to understanding racism and human diversity. My work on dehumanization is widely covered in the national and international media, and I often give presentations at academic and non-academic venues, including one at the 2012 G20 economic summit where I spoke on dehumanization and mass violence.


I wrote...

On Inhumanity: Dehumanization and How to Resist It

By David Livingstone Smith,

Book cover of On Inhumanity: Dehumanization and How to Resist It

What is my book about?

The Rwandan genocide, the Holocaust, the lynching of African Americans, the colonial slave trade: these are horrific episodes of mass violence spawned from racism and hatred. We like to think that we could never see such evils again--that we would stand up and fight. But something deep in the human psyche--deeper than prejudice itself--leads people to persecute the other: dehumanization, or the human propensity to think of others as less than human.

An award-winning author and philosopher, Smith takes an unflinching look at the mechanisms of the mind that encourage us to see someone as less than human. There is something peculiar and horrifying in human psychology that makes us vulnerable to thinking of whole groups of people as subhuman creatures. When governments or other groups stand to gain by exploiting this innate propensity, and know just how to manipulate words and images to trigger it, there is no limit to the violence and hatred that can result.

Southern Horrors

By Ida B. Wells,

Book cover of Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases

In this tract, Wells became the first person, Black or white, to distribute a systematically researched explanation for the rise in lynchings in the South during the late nineteenth century. Wells’s investigation into lynchings across the South countered the image perpetuated by the media that Black males possessed an uncontrolled sexual desire for white women. Instead, Wells noted that lynchings were a form of terrorism; acts of racial violence intended to maintain white economic, social, and political power. It was a gutsy move for a young, southern, Black woman, and it resulted in her being exiled from the South for fear of her life. The truths she exposed resonated with the Civil Rights Movement and reverberate in modern times as we consider race, Black masculinity, police authority, and legal equality.

Who am I?

I remember when I saw the photograph of the lynching of Rubin Stacy, his corpse surrounded by white girls in their Sunday best dresses. For me the immediate question was, why would white parents take their children on an outing to this? What purpose is this memorial photograph serving? I have spent over twenty years exploring the answers, learning how cultures persist by teaching their dominant beliefs to the next generation, and considering the perpetuation of white supremacy from generation to generation.


I wrote...

Raising Racists: The Socialization of White Children in the Jim Crow South

By Kristina DuRocher,

Book cover of Raising Racists: The Socialization of White Children in the Jim Crow South

What is my book about?

White children rested at the core of the system of segregation between 1890 and 1939 because their participation was crucial to ensuring the future of white supremacy. Their socialization in the segregated South offers an examination of white supremacy from the inside, showcasing the culture's efforts to preserve itself by teaching its beliefs to the next generation.

My book reveals how white adults in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries continually reinforced race and gender roles to maintain white supremacy by tracing out the methods and spaces in which white adults fashioned an identity for their children. This socialization included participating in lynchings, and children’s involvement played a central role in these rituals of racial violence, revealing the lessons such incidents taught to white youth about using brute force to uphold racial segregation.

A Wreath for Emmett Till

By Marilyn Nelson,

Book cover of A Wreath for Emmett Till

In A Wreath for Emmett Till, Marilyn Nelson reminds us of the unique beauty of a life, of the vibrancy of youth at 14 years old. Written as a “crown of sonnets,” where the last line of one sonnet becomes the first of the next, it is a book that bears witness and conveys huge themes of justice, loss, and remembrance while focussing on small moments, gestures, and images. I am in awe of Nelson’s ability to use a very formalized writing style to depict one of the most brutal murders of the twentieth century.


Who am I?

I’m a writer, theatre artist and calligrapher who has spent a lifetime dedicated to the look, sound, texture and meaning of words. Writing in verse and prose poetry gives me a powerful tool to explore hard themes. Poetry is economical. It makes difficult subjects personal. Through poetry, I can explore painful choices intimately and emerge on a different path at a new phase of the journey. While my semi-autobiographical novel These Are Not the Words “is about” mental health and drug addiction, I’ve shown this through layers of images, sounds, textures, tastes—through shards of memories long submerged, recovered through writing, then structured and fictionalized through poetry.


I wrote...

These Are Not the Words

By Amanda West Lewis,

Book cover of These Are Not the Words

What is my book about?

These Are Not the Words takes place in New York City in 1963. It is a semi-autobiographical novel, set in the rhythms of the jazz, beat poets, and the 60s visual arts world.

Twelve-year-old Missy lives the most exciting city in the world. She goes to a great school where she learns about poetry, music, and plays. Missy’s father starts taking her on secret midnight excursions to Harlem and the Village so she can share his love of jazz. But things start to spiral out of control. Missy and her father write poems for each other that become an exchange of apologies as his alcohol and drug addiction begin to take over their lives. It’s a raw journey from innocence to action, and finally acceptance.

And the Dead Shall Rise

By Steve Oney,

Book cover of And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank

This book is absolutely fascinating to me. When I write, I strive to include painstakingly detailed accounts of the crimes that were never known to the general public, and this book goes into every minute detail regarding the 1913 murder of thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan in Atlanta, Georgia. Mary’s body was discovered in the basement of Atlanta’s National Pencil Factory, and it culminated in the conviction and death sentence of Leo Frank. Frank’s death sentence was commuted, but he was ultimately kidnapped and lynched two months after the commutation.  I considered this a powerful example of investigative journalism with largely unknown details.  It’s a gripping account of a time period in this nation’s history that could best be forgotten.


Who am I?

The one thing you’ll find in common about the books I recommend and the books I write is the attention to detail. As a retired police officer, I know that it was often the smallest of details that helped solve a crime. In my books, you’ll find an inordinate amount of information that was never known to the public, and I think that’s what truly holds a reader’s interest. Killing Women is the true story of serial killer Don Miller, and you’ll be abhorred at what he did to his victims. Are you ready for his release in 2031?


I wrote...

Killing Women: The True Story of Serial Killer Don Miller's Reign of Terror

By Rod Sadler,

Book cover of Killing Women: The True Story of Serial Killer Don Miller's Reign of Terror

What is my book about?

Killing Women is the true story of East Lansing serial killer Don Miller.  The criminal justice major from Michigan State University terrorized the mid-Michigan area in the late ‘70s and was only caught after raping a fourteen-year-old girl and trying to kill her and her thirteen-year-old brother.

Miller was given a plea deal in exchange for the locations of his victims’ bodies, and to this day, he only remains in prison for possessing a garrote in his prison dorm. In 2031, Miller will have served his time and be released into an unsuspecting population. In the words of Dr. Frank Ochberg, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at MSU, “Read it to brace for the day when Don Miller will return.”

Good Neighbors

By Sarah Langan,

Book cover of Good Neighbors

Quite honestly one of my favorite books that I’ve read this year. There’s a literal sinkhole at the center of the story, but the novel itself serves as its own metaphorical quicksand. Once I ambled into its narrative, I could not crawl back out. I just had to keep reading and reading… A perfect example of modern-day witch hunts, and how we are only one rumor away from a full-on suburban lynch mob. 


Who am I?

Neighbors. We’ve all got ‘em, right? We believe we’re the good ones, and we pray we don’t live next door to the bad ones… but sometimes it’s inevitable that we share our property lines with those ill-suited for neighborly behavior. Horror books about bad neighbors are the perfect window into our own communities. We can peer into the lives of others without worry of getting caught. We can tiptoe through their rooms and rummage through their drawers… Who knows what we might find. Are they witches? Serial killers? Devil worshippers? Only their dirty laundry will tell. 


I wrote...

Whisper Down the Lane

By Clay McLeod Chapman,

Book cover of Whisper Down the Lane

What is my book about?

Richard doesn’t have a past. For him, there is only the present: a new marriage, a first chance at fatherhood, and a quiet life as an art teacher in Virginia. Then the body of a ritualistically murdered rabbit appears on his school’s playground, along with a birthday card for him. But Richard hasn’t celebrated his birthday since he was known as Sean . . .In the 1980s, Sean was five years old when his mother unwittingly led him to tell a lie about his teacher. When school administrators, cops, and therapists questioned him, he told another. And another. And another. Each was more outlandish than the last—and fueled a moral panic that engulfed the nation and destroyed the lives of everyone around him.

Now, thirty years later, someone is here to tell Richard that they know what Sean did. Whisper Down the Lane is a tense and compulsively readable exploration of a world primed by paranoia to believe the unbelievable.

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