Chapter 9: The Retreat from Reconstruction


Readings :

I watched an angry mob chain him to an iron stake.  I watched them pile wood around his helpless body.  I watched them pour gasoline on this wood.  And I watched three men set this wood on fire.  I stood in a crowd of 600 people as the flames gradually crept nearer and nearer to the helpless Negro.  I watched the blaze climb higher and higher, encircling him without mercy.  I heard his cry of agony as the flames reached him and set his clothing on fire….An odor of burning flesh reached my nostrils.  I felt suddenly sickened….”I’m hungry,” someone complained.  “Let’s get something to eat.” - Crisis, November 1925

Back of the writhing, yelling, cruel-eyed demons who break, destroy, maim and lynch and burn at the stake is a knot, large or small, of normal human beings and these human beings at heart are desperately afraid of something.  Of what?  Of many things but usually of losing their jobs, of being declassed, degraded or actually disgraced; of losing their hopes, their savings, their plans for their children; of the actual pangs of hunger; of dirt, of crime.  And all of this, most ubiquitous in modern industrial society is that fear of unemployment. - W.E. B. DuBois, “The Shape of Fear,” North American Review, June 1926


A scene similar to the one described in the NAACP publication Crisis has been repeated literally thousands of times in the United States since the late 19th century. 

  1. How could such things have happened with so little public outcry?
  2. How convincing is the explanation for lynching given by W.E.B. DuBois?
  3. If fear lies behind this sort of group behavior, what outlets are people finding for their fears today?
  4. Do you think that racism and fear are still related?  Give examples.   

Copyright 2006, ACLU of Massachusetts