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At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America    by Phillip Dray order for
At the Hands of Persons Unknown
by Phillip Dray
Order:  USA  Can
Random House, 2003 (2002)
Hardcover, Paperback

Read an Excerpt

* * *   Reviewed by David Pitt

Now here's a tricky subject: lynching. It's something nobody particularly wants to acknowledge these days, but a portion of the American population once spent a great deal of time treating another portion with appalling cruelty. There is no clear definition of the word 'lynch,' although generally speaking we're talking about (in Dray's words) 'nonlethal summary punishment such as flogging or tar-and-feathering.' That was what it meant in the eighteenth century, anyway.

A century or so later the word took on another shade of meaning: 'summary execution by a mob of an individual who had committed an alleged crime or a perceived transgression of social codes.' By the early 1900s the word described 'five or more persons acting in concert' to deprive another of his life 'without authority of law.'

The definition kept changing - now it's used mostly as a metaphor, since lynchings are (thankfully) pretty much a thing of the past - but the essence of the word's meaning has never really changed: people acting alone, without legal authority, to punish or kill other people. This is a vast, vast subject, and Dray wisely confines himself to one part of it, the most distressing and disgusting part of it: the systematic lynching of black Americans.

Who were the lynchers, and why did they do it? Was it out of fear, or hatred, or some bizarre notion that it was their duty to persecute others? Who were the men and women who fought against lynching, who dedicated their lives to making sure everyone in the world knew what was going on? Who were the lawmakers, and how did they respond to increased public intolerance of this barbaric practice?

It is impossible to describe the impact of this well-reasoned, precisely argued book in a few sentences, so I'm not even going to try. I'll just say this: there are answers to those questions, and to many more you never ever thought of, and you won't like all the answers. Read the book. You won't soon forget it.

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