Resisting Jim Crow: In-Depth Essay
By Ronald L. F. Davis, Ph. D.
Untold numbers of black men, women, and children valiantly
resisted white supremacy in the South during the Jim Crow era,
often risking their very lives. It is impossible to know how many of
the African Americans lynched by white mobs were men and
women who had challenged Jim Crow by some overt act of
defiance, such as walking proudly down the street or talking back
to whites rather than stepping aside. Most of the victims the lynch
mobs were murdered, however, for accidentally stepping out of
line or due to trumped up charges, as depicted in the novel
Sometimes, the victims were successful blacks who had aroused
the hatred of jealous whites in the community, as was the case
Ida B. Wells-Barnett
's Memphis friend and neighbor,
Thomas Moss. His only crime lay in owning a prosperous grocery
store that competed with a white-owned store in the same
neighborhood. His murder by lynching launched Wells-Barnett on
a lifelong crusade against the epidemic of mob murder that
targeted blacks, especially men, in the Jim Crow era. Most of the time, the victims of mob rage
were just men and women, boys and girls, who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time--
innocent victims of Jim Crow America.
Southern whites commonly but mistakenly believed that the lynched and murdered men had
violated southern white women. In fact, according to historian Robert Zangrando, only 25 percent
of the mob-murdered men were even accused of rape or attempted rape in the period from 1882
to 1968--and, almost all of these charges were trumped up. Anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-
Barnett put the figure even lower, based upon her studies of southern lynchings from 1882 to
1900. Because no systematic investigations ever occurred before the lynchings, this common
notion that all the lynched men had assaulted white women was seldom challenged after the fact.
Thus, the allegation stood as fact and became part of the racist political rhetoric white
supremacists used in campaigns almost everywhere in the South and in much of the Midwest.
Nor were innocent blacks victims of a lynch mob always picked at random--although many
certainly were. Instead, white rage frequently focused on individuals who had crossed the
boundaries (the invisible color lines) separating the races or had allegedly committed petty crimes
against whites in the community. Some of the victims were men and women who had reputations
for being trouble makers; some ran afoul of whites in their work or in business; others had
affronted the supremacy of the white social order just because they were strangers or not
properly submissive. For example, according to records, over 45 percent of the men and women
lynched by white mobs were accused of killing or assaulting a white person.