J.R. Johnson

The Economics of Lynching

(February 1940)

Originally published in Socialist Appeal, 10 February 1940.
Republished in Scott McLemee (ed.), C.L.R. James on the “Negro Question”, Jackson (Miss.) 1996, pp. 34–36.
Transcribed by Daniel Gaido.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Marxists have always insisted that lynching has nothing to do with the protection of “the purity of womanhood.” The most cursory reading of the evidence collected about lynching shows that the savagery with the Negro is usually charged applies, not to the lynched Negroes, but to the lynchers. Marxists insist further that lynching is rooted in the social and economic conditions of the South. It is not enough to say these things. They must be proved, directly and indirectly.

Some years ago Arthur F. Raper made a careful study of lynching. The results were published in The Tragedy of Lynching (University of North Carolina Press, 1933). They are worth study.

The Negroes in the South are most heavily concentrated in the old Black Belt. In this area frequently one half of the population is colored. There the Negro is safer from lynching than anywhere else. Why? Says Raper,

“In the Black Belt race relations revolve about the plantation system, under which the Negro tenants and wage hands are practically indispensable. Here the variant economic and cultural levels of the mass of whites and the mass of Negroes are well defined and far removed.”

The December 1939 number of The New International contains a long and well-documented article by Robert Birchman that analyzes these conditions, and shows the Negro’s status to be little removed from the slavery of pre-Civil War days. Tied hand and foot by the economic system, kept in his place by the laws of capitalist production, the Negro is lynched least in these areas.

The lynchings that do occur, however, are of a special type, corresponding to the economic setup and the political and social conditions created by it.

“The Black Belt lynching is something of a business transaction,” writes Arthur Raper. “The whites there, chiefly of the planter class and consciously dependent upon the Negro for labor, lynch him to conserve traditional landlord-tenant relations rather than to wreak vengeance upon his race. Black Belt white men demand that the Negroes stay out of their politics and dining room, the better to keep them in their fields and kitchens.”

There is not “widespread hysteria.” The mob is usually small. In cases examined by Raper, the “mob proceeded in routine fashion ... with almost clock-like precision.” In these areas politics is the white employer’s business. The Negro must not interfere. The county officials are direct agents of the plantation owners and are well paid. The sheriff of Bolivar County, for instance, received in 1931 $40,000 a year, ten times the salary of the governor of Mississippi.

“In these Black Belt plantation areas, where modified slave patterns still persist, any crime which occurs among the propertyless Negroes is considered a labor matter to be handled by the white landlord or his overseer.”

We see now why these fellows are so fiercely opposed to the anti-lynching bill. It will be a powerful means of awakening the Negroes to the fact that they have rights which are recognized, in theory at any rate, by the Federal Government. The bill will not stop lynching but it will strike a blow at the whole system.

Frank Shay, in his book Judge Lynch (Ives Washburn, 1938), gives a picture of the other type of lynching, where the mob grows wild and tears the living flesh from the burning Negro. This mob, he says, is made up of young men between their teens and their middle twenties with a sprinkling of morons of all ages.

“Its members are native whites, mostly of the underprivileged, the unemployed, the dispossessed, and the unattached ...They are grocery-clerks, soda-jerks, low-paid employees in jobs that require neither training nor intelligence; jobs that might often be filled more competently by Negroes and at lower wages. In rural communities this mob is made up of day workers and wage-hands, the more shiftless type of tenants, those who through birth and former position are bound to the locality.”

There we have it. Their own misery, defeat, and the fear for the scraps by which they live drive them periodically to terrorize and wreak their wrath against the social system on the Negroes, whom they see as their greatest enemy, and whom they are traditionally taught to despise.

Here again lynching is rooted in the economic system and even the very forms it takes are conditioned by the specific class relations of the two races.

Raper illustrates this principle in many ways. Take the situation in North Texas and Central Oklahoma. This is not a Black Belt area, and in the urban communities of these counties many business and professional Negroes own comfortable homes and other property. A considerable proportion of the colored people regularly participate in local and national elections. The propertied whites, not dependent upon Negro labor as are the whites in the Black belt area, do not circumscribe the Negro’s activity to the same degree. But the poorer whites in the rural areas are hostile. By violence and threats they drive the Negroes from the rural neighborhoods. The lynch-mobs number over one thousand.

Raper makes one truly astonishing observation. While the propertied whites here allow the Negroes a certain freedom, they do not need them for labor and are therefore indifferent to Negro persecution by the poor whites. In the Black Belt, however, the plantation owners protect their Negro serfs from the hostility of the poor whites. They are not going to have their labor force interfered with by a rival labor force. When there is any lynching to be done, they themselves will do it, in a systematic and organized manner.

One last point. Going on data compiled by Woofter, Raper shows that between 1900 and 1930, whenever the price of cotton is above the usual trend, the number of lynchings is below the average. Whenever the price of cotton is depressed, the number of lynchings increases.

The Fourth International struggles wherever a battle in the class war is being waged. We utilize the capitalist parliament for our own purposes, and that is why we do all we can do to defeat the attempt of the Senators to block the anti-lynching bill. But we never lose sight of the fact that the greatest enemy of all is the capitalist system. It cannot exist in the South without mob law. The workers, black and white, must steadily prepare to destroy capitalism, the root source of lynching.

Last updated on 17.7.2011