Trayvon Martin and the Deadly Legacy of Vigilantism

A historian's new look at the legacy of lynching, and its enduring relevance today.

By Jamilah King Mar 20, 2012

The unprovoked killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin has sparked widespread national outrage, particularly among black Americans. The particulars of the case are, at best, tragic, and at worst, horrifying: Martin was visiting a friend of his father’s in a small gated community outside of Orlando, sporting a gray hoodie and armed with a pack of Skittles and a can of iced tea. Along the way he became a target of nearby resident George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old member of the local Neighborhood Watch, who thought the teen looked "suspicious." Zimmerman then shot and killed Martin–and, so far, it’s been with legal impunity, protected in part by Florida’s expansive definition of self-defense.

For many observers, Zimmerman’s vigilantism exists in a long and deadly history for black Americans in the United States, one that dates at least as far back as the country’s lynching epidemic of the early 20th century. Over 4,700 lynchings occurred in the United States between 1887 and 1968, and the vast majority of them–an estimated 3,446–were black. Many of the victims were black men accused of raping white women and were often burned and maimed in front of large mobs of white onlookers.

Koritha Mitchell, an English professor at the Ohio State University, takes an unusual approach to tackling this history in her new book, "Living With Lynching: African American Lynching Plays, Performance, and Citizenship, 1890-1930." Her goal was to recount the ways in which black folks told their own stories of heartbreak and survival after the brutal lynchings. In it, she focuses on early 20th century black playwrights including Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Angelina Weld Grimke, Mary Burrill, and Georgia Douglas Johnson.

Mitchell spoke with about the significance of the plays, the dangers of black success, and the moments throughout history — like this one — where community dialogue becomes a crucial point for communities of color.

The history of lynching in the U.S is really horrific and painful for a lot of black Americans. Why was it important for you to tell this story, in particular?

As painful as it is, we have not necessarily shied away from it — which I think is a good thing. One of the ways we haven’t shied away from it is through our support of and our facing it through the "Without Sanctuary" exhibition — those gruesome lynching photographs which had a stint at the Martin Luther King, Jr. center in Atlanta. That was one of the bigger moments where people really remarked upon how much black families were coming to it and using it as a way to grieve losses through generations.

What I found is that by using those photographs only as our way of trying to grapple with what lynching meant in our nation’s history, we really did ourselves a disservice. We weren’t able to engage with what black people who survived this violence had left us in terms of understanding what the violence meant.

The "Without Sanctuary" photographs are a big reason of why it was important for me to tell the story through the lynching plays because the lynching plays tells us exactly what the photographs cannot tell us because the photographs are from a white perspective. You needed to be somewhat safe at the lynching to take those photographs. You’ve got this isolated black victim surrounded by a mob of righteous-looking whites and that is all that we knew about lynching. But the construction of those photographs is very specific: it’s to make sure that you think this was an isolated man who didn’t have any connection to community. The plays give us a sense of just how connected to community and family those victims were.

One thing that stood out to me was that many of the playwrights that you talk about were black women. It underscores the profound impact that lynching had on black women even though the majority of documented victims were men. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

I think that women take a front seat with these plays for a couple reasons. One is that they didn’t necessarily have access to formal political activism through organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League. They were more likely to not have actual leadership positions in those organizations. I feel like the lynching plays are part of how they used non-traditional political activism.

The other reason is that it’s a way of telling the truth about how this person’s death is really the beginning of a long struggle. It’s the beginning of a long engagement with pain. ‘How do we figure out how to continue live in this country that allows for our brother, our father, our husband to be lynched?’ I think that women taking the lead on the plays gives us a real sense of the lasting impact that lynching had on black communities.

The other thing that strikes me about a majority of the playwrights is that a lot of them were living in Washington, D.C. when they wrote these plays. It’s a real commentary on, number one, the fact that Washington, D.C. is below the Mason-Dixon line. As our nation’s Capitol, I think we need to remember that, and all of the things that has meant. But also, they had front row seats to the nation’s hypocrisy as the anti-lynching bills were rejected time and time again by the legislature right there in Washington, D.C.. I think that gave them a real perspective on the hypocrisy of the nation.

And to get a little bit more into the historical legacy of that hypocrisy, what immediate connections can you draw between the legacy of these plays and contemporary black media? I know that’s a huge question.

We need to know just how much black success has been a part of our history. We need to know that success has not been something that was separate from experiencing attacks and violence from the mainstream. In other words, you don’t just get to be the largest prison population just because you’re doing something wrong. That’s not what’s going on. It’s also in the midst of a culture that’s very much against your success. If we know more about how success — even in the face of the worst odds — has been made a part of our legacy, I think that gives us a certain kind of strength that we need right now.

It also seems to me that the plays, because they targeted black audiences in the midst of this violence against blacks, remind us of the importance of community conversation. The importance of speaking to each other about who we are and what we face. That seems really crucial to me because you always need people who are going to address the mainstream and try to get them to understand the nature of the injustice that’s circulating around us. The Trayvon Martin situation is an excellent example of that. We need people who are willing to articulate why this is a grave injustice, to articulate why ‘post-racial’ claims are not helping anything. We need people who will do that.

But just as much, we need people who are focused on black communities and affirming black communities and making sure that we don’t believe the hype because that is what can be so telling, it seems to me. When we don’t focus on affirming ourselves and each other because we’re so busy addressing whites.

In the process of your research for this book, did you come across anything that was surprising?

Absolutely. The most surprising thing that happened was when I realized that Ida B. Wells, who became the foremost anti-lynching crusader in our nation’s history, had, in 1892, written in her diary that until her close friends were lynched, she thought that lynching might be justified. She has this moment of realizing that she had accepted the mainstream discourse that lynching — maybe it’s horrible — but it is a response to rape against white women. And maybe these men who fell prey to the mob really did something to deserve it. But once her close friends were lynched, she realized that that was a lie that she had accepted. And, feeling that she had been duped, that is what made her so committed to exposing the truth about what actually causes lynchings. And very often, she found that it was success. So when her friends were lynched, it was because they had a successful grocery store that was competition for the white-owned grocery store.

So I would say that was the most surprising thing — to see her admit that. For me, it’s so important because what it means is that you don’t just get to be immune to mainstream messages just because you’re black. You’re just as likely to believe the hype as anybody else. Because you’re bombarded with messages constantly about how bad the race is and how they brought most of what they’re suffering on themselves and if they’d just make better decisions things would be better. Who is immune to that message? None of us are. The only way that we can become immune to it — or at least resist it — is through community conversation; telling the truth to ourselves and each other about what is really constituting what is making our realities and our situation.

I think that knowing the truth about these types of things is empowering. It doesn’t have to be depressing. What’s depressing is going through the society thinking that you’re being treated fairly and not really being able to figure out what exactly is wrong with this picture.

* This article has been updated since publication.