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At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America Hardcover – January 8, 2002

5.0 out of 5 stars 53 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Lynching, the extrajudicial punishment inflicted by vigilantes and mobs on often innocent victims, was far from an unusual occurrence, though some historians have depicted it as such. Instead, writes Philip Dray, lynching was part of a "systematized reign of terror that was used to maintain the power whites had over blacks." Drawing on records held at the Tuskegee Institute, Dray argues that from 1882 until 1952, not a single year passed without a recorded lynching somewhere in the United States, most often in the Deep South and Mississippi Delta regions. This violent "justice," meted out "at the hands of persons unknown" (with, therefore, no possibility of attaching guilt to the perpetrators, though, as Dray points out, such seemingly spontaneous events required organization and planning) held African American communities in terror and was one force behind the exodus of black southerners to the north in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Dray's extraordinary study reveals a pattern of crime against humanity, one that, he writes, diminished gradually for various reasons, not least of them the work of reformers and ordinary citizens "who knew we were too good to be a nation of lynchers." --Gregory McNamee

From Publishers Weekly

Between 1882 and 1944 at least 3,417 African-Americans were lynched in the United States, an average of slightly more than one a week. It was not until 1952, as Dray notes, that a full year went by without a reported racial lynching. Covering the South's resistance to racial equality from Reconstruction and the 1875 Civil Rights Act (which gave rise to the widespread acceptance of public murders) through the mid-20th century, this prodigiously researched, tightly written and compelling history of the lynching of African-Americans examines the social background behind the horrific acts. Yet Dray (We Are Not Afraid) also covers the myriad attempts of popular and judicial resistance to lynching, in particular the campaigns led by Ida B. Wells and by the NAACP. He has pulled together a wealth of cultural material, including D.W. Griffith's 1915 Birth of a Nation, Reginald Marsh's famous 1934 antilynching cartoon in the New Yorker, among much else, to supplement his impressive survey of the breadth of lynching in Southern society. While there is much shocking material here the 1918 lynching and disembowelment of eight-month-pregnant Mary Turner; California governor James Rolph Jr.'s 1933 statement that lynching was "a fine lesson for the whole nation" Dray never lets it dictate the complex social and political story he is telling. He faces the underlying sexual impulse of most lynchings head-on and shows how, in the 1913 lynching of Leo Frank, the fear of blacks was transferred to a Jewish victim. Whether he is explicating why the feminist-run Women's Christian Temperance Union refused to speak out against lynching, or why FDR refused to endorse antilynching legislation in the 1930s, Dray balances moral indignation with a sound understanding of history and politics. The result is vital, hard-hitting cultural history.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1 edition (January 8, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375503242
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375503245
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.4 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (53 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #505,213 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Ricky Hunter on July 10, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Philip Dray has written a lively and readable study of a very difficult subject in At the Hands of Persons Unknown (The Lynching of Black America). The case studies are horrific and do not lose any of their impact as the stores build up over the course of the book, in fact they become more horrible. In contrast to these important, but terrible, aspects the author provides the reader with excellent portrayals of such courageous figures such as W.E.B. DuBois and Ida Wells. This is a perfect one volume place to begin to study and learn about this chapter of American history as it covers the entire history of the nation and puts the events in their political, social and economic context. This is a large, readable account that is gripping and illuminating into the darkness of this time not so long ago or far away. Highly recommended.
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Format: Hardcover
Dray notes that he knew very little about lynchings when he began his research for this book; I knew very little about this subject until after I read his book. Perhaps I am not unique in that much of what I think I know and understand about U.S. history has depended to a significant extent on films and television programs. ... Many of the lynchings described in Dray's book would be deemed today as "unsuitable for viewing" by the general public and thus would never be fully portrayed in a film or television program. And yet, for reasons Dray explains, many of the lynchings attracted large and enthusiastic crowds (which included women and small children) and were scheduled to accommodate as many people as possible. Several hangings were preceded by dismemberment and burning.

Dray's book is not primarily about such situations, although he traces lynching back to the American Revolution when Charles Lynch literally took the law into his own hands and hanged Tories who had stolen from him. A local court then exonerated his behavior. Dray explains that before the Civil War, more whites than blacks were lynched; that is, hanged without due process. It was only during the decades after the war ended that lynching became inextricably bound with racial strife as blacks were hanged in a progressively greater number and higher percentage than whites. Dray's extensive research of this period (roughly 1865-1900) provides some of the most interesting material in the book and his analysis of it is both rigorous and revealing. In many instances, the identities of those who conducted lynchings were concealed by white sheets or masks. Later, it was common to place a hood over the heads of those executed (after due process) by military, federal, or state officials.
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Format: Hardcover
The words above these comments are from a 1920 essay written entitled, "The Sahara Of The Bozart", by H.L. Mencken. These words and those that followed come as close as any I have read to quantifying what was absent from vast areas of The United States where, "Lynch Law", was not only practiced, but defended and enthusiastically endorsed until the 1960's.
I cannot comment with specificity on the events this book documents. The details are that vile. This book describes ritualistic murder that was routinely carried out from the latter part of the 19th century to the second half of the 20th. This in no way limits the genocide inflicted on blacks for centuries in this country, rather this focuses on particularly barbaric events that on many occasions took place with thousands or even 20,000 or 30,000 spectators. The spectators to these planned, public atrocities would learn of the events from newspapers, and would travel to the scene via free passage provided by railroads. Governors publicly endorsed these murders routinely together with other elected officials, and were largely ignored by the federal government. The 1965 murder of 3 persons working for Civil Rights finally got the attention of Washington, and actually lead to a real trial and convictions. It may sound cynical, but the fact remains that two of the victims were white, and Civil Rights Legislation was popular for the first time following the death of President Kennedy. The early laws that were passed followed on the heals of his assassination when a vote against what the murdered president had started was too risky for even the most committed racists in congress that had repeatedly blocked any form of federal law, including any law outlawing the lynching of citizens.
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Format: Hardcover
Philip Dray has beautifully written a book about a horrifying not-so-long-ago American past-time: the hanging, mutilating and burning of blacks in the US. At the Hands of Persons Unknown, the Lynching of Black America tells the story of this cruel activity in all of its lurid and gory detail. The pages drip with sweat and blood. The unremitting recounting leaves the reader frustrated at the injustice and deeply saddened that it could have happened. This is a smart and important book. Not to be read at night.
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Format: Paperback
This book is easily the best book I have read so far this year. Dray explains how otherwise model citizens could murder, in the most brutal manners imaginable, Black (usually) Americans for imagined to minor transgressions (True, doubtless some of the lynched were guilty of the crimes they were accused of....Readers will be tempted to justify mob justice this way. Dray won't let you do this...the retribution is always excessive and driven by hate and fear, and completely devoid of anything resembling civilized justice). Coming from the South, I have taken classes on lynching before, so the pages Dray dedicated to explaining the origins of lynching were not nearly as compelling as his historical and legal analyses. Often one reads history books and still has trouble putting the events into context. Not so with this book. Dray captures the mood and hysteria of the times perfectly.
Dray also does a wonderful job of showing that lynching was not merely an aberration of Southern justice inflicted on Black men. Instead, lynching is described as a national sickness, with Black men, women, and children, White civil rights sympathizers, and Jewish people being the victims of the mob violence, both in the North and the South. Dray shows how the international image of the United States was tarnished during a time when it was supposed to be the vangaurd of democracy, opposed to a German facism that was cruelly mimicked on its own soil. He also pays tribute to the men and women of the NAACP and other like-minded organizations who had the gall to oppose mob murder. The ultimate failure of any federal anti-lynching law is a startling example of how ingrained lynching was in the national (especially the Southern) psyche.
This narration forced me to reexamine my own education about lynching.
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