Fear of a Black Planet

The impulse to view black men like Michael Brown as violent threats is no modern invention. Its origins predate the slave trade, and its evolution is entangled with the story of America itself.

Author’s note: I wrote this piece twenty years ago as a honors’ college thesis. It’s undergraduate work and occasionally cringeworthy, and the bibliography and endnotes were lost in file-format translation. In the aftermath of the Ferguson announcement, though, I found myself compelled to dust it off and share it.

A still image from videotape of LAPD officers beating unarmed black motorist Rodney King in 1991


On March 3, 1991, at about 12:30 A.M., a 25-year-old African American man fled from police officers trying to pull him over for erratic driving. He was stopped after a high-speed chase through central Los Angeles.

The driver, Rodney King, was drunk and clowning and initially refused to cooperate with the police. After he was forced into a prone position on the pavement, King was viciously beaten by several white officers. He writhed on the ground as the policemen kicked him repeatedly, jolted him with a stun gun, and dealt him 56 baton blows.

Rodney King was hospitalized with a broken leg, eleven skull fractures, obliterated cheekbones and jaw, a severe concussion, a collapsed kidney, and 56 bruises

A local resident, George Holliday, captured the brutal episode on videotape and sold copies to the media. The 81-second tape was repeatedly broadcast on national and international television, touching off nationwide protests over police brutality. Despite the tape’s home-video quality, there was no question about its contents. Time magazine called it “a danse macabre of casual, almost studied, violence.”

Further evidence suggested that the beating was racially motivated. Just twenty minutes before the King beating, one of the officers involved had sent a computer message describing a domestic dispute in an African American home as “right out of Gorillas in the Mist”; the same officer was later overheard referring to beating King as “playing baseball.”

With its stark, horrific visual documentation, the King beating was a high-profile example of what many saw as a widespread and longstanding pattern of police brutality against racial minorities. Pressure mounted for police reform and for the resignation of Police Chief Daryl Gates. The four officers directly involved in the beating were indicted, and their convictions were largely taken for granted.

Yet after less than a day of deliberations, a Superior Court jury acquitted the officers on essentially all charges of using excessive force in King’s arrest. Anger, disbelief, and frustration over the verdict exploded in an uprising in south-central Los Angeles. For several days, gunfire and random violence were widespread; buildings were burned, businesses looted, and 54 people left dead. Other cities across the country experienced demonstrations and rioting to protest the acquittals. President Bush, who said he was sickened by the videotape of the King beating, ordered the Justice Department to retry the four officers on federal charges of violating King’s civil rights.

“Nobody,” Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley insisted, “could have anticipated this verdict.” Indeed, with the Holliday tape as its star witness, the prosecution appeared to have an unbeatable case.

In retrospect, however, it is clear that two developments in the state trial
made the acquittals possible: the decision to move the trial
from the inner city to an affluent, predominantly white suburb,
and the prosecutors’ decision not to let Rodney King testify.

These two factors provided the officers’ attorneys with the right ingredients to concoct a defense — one based not on the evidence but on the stereotype of African Americans, particularly young men, as criminal, violent, and dangerous.

A state appeals court in July 1991 declared that a fair trial was impossible in Los Angeles County — the location of the King beating — because of the “massive local media coverage.” The resulting change of venue to Ventura County, home of Simi Valley, radically altered the makeup of the pool of prospective jurors. Los Angeles County was ten percent African American, ethnically diverse, and a mix of poor and middle class. Simi Valley, on the other hand, was a prosperous suburb of 100,000 that had its origins in the so-called white flight; as a Time magazine staff writer put it, “A large part of the local citizenry moved there to escape Los Angeles and all it represent[ed] to them: gangs, crime, high housing prices and minorities.”

Simi Valley was overwhelmingly white and home to over 4,000 law enforcement officers. During jury selection, only six of the 400 prospective jurors were African American. The final jury consisted of ten whites, one Filipino, one Hispanic — and no blacks. Three of the jurors had worked as security guards or patrol officers in the military. One was the brother of a retired L.A. police officer.

A low-down, dirty job

The lawyers for the officers crafted an aggressive defense intended to play on the jurors’ fears and assumptions about young African American men. As Laurie Levinson, law professor at Loyola Law School, described it, “The defense came out swinging from the first, painting King as a bad and dangerous man.”

They said that King had provoked the violence with his truculent and violent behavior.

They claimed that he could have stopped the attacks at any time by complying with the officers’ orders, but that he chose instead to try attacking the officers, even during the beating

They also suggested that he was not badly hurt and was only playing the victim in an attempt to win money in a civil suit against the city, despite widely shared images like this one of King’s appearance after the assault:

With the videotape running frame by frame, the defense attorneys depicted every reaction by King as fierce and threatening resistance. One of their favorite examples from the tape was a moment where King appears to be trying to stand up and is knocked to the ground by a flurry of nightstick blows. The defense alleged that he was attempting to attack one of the officers. King later testified at the federal trial that one of the officers had told him he was going to kill him, so he had better run.

The defense argued that King — a large man with a criminal record who the officers mistakenly thought was under the influence of the drug PCP — was a threat to the officers’ lives and that the force they used was both in self-defense and necessary to make the arrest. The officers’ attorneys barraged the jury with 49 witnesses, most of whom testified that the officers’ conduct fell within LAPD guidelines.

In effect, the defense lawyers told the Simi Valley jurors that officers like those on trial were fighting a gruesome urban war to protect law-abiding citizens like themselves from lawless brutes like Rodney King

Apparently content with the videotape as evidence, the prosecution gave the defense a boost by keeping King off the witness stand. Having King testify, the district attorney’s office later argued, would have needlessly opened them up to questions about his criminal record (he had served a year in prison for armed robbery) and his behavior on the night of the beating. However, by not letting the jury hear King’s testimony, the prosecutors’ made it possible for the jury to accept the defense’s depiction of him. After the trial, one of the jurors said, “Had King been able to talk to us, the video might have been looked at differently.” Once the jurors had accepted the defense’s mind-set, King ceased to be an individual, a victim who could be identified with, and became the embodiment of a stereotype: the violent, predatory, out-of-control black criminal.

Given a choice between overzealous members of the police force that defended them and an anonymous African American man who had committed a crime, the Simi Valley jury barely deliberated. “The jury wanted to acquit,” said Jerome Skolnick, a law professor at the University of California-Berkeley. “They could not see putting those nice, white policemen in jail.”

Comments from some of the jurors after the trial showed how completely they had bought into the defense’s fantasy:

“He just continued to fight,” one juror told the LA Times.
“The police department had no alternative.”

“He was obviously a dangerous person, massive size and threatening actions,” the same juror continued. “Mr. King was controlling the whole show with his actions.”

“They’re policemen, they’re not angels,” she added. “They’re out there to do a low-down, dirty job.”

The jury even accepted the most baffling defense claim: that King’s injuries from the beating were overblown and inconsequential. One juror insisted — despite extensive medical evidence to the contrary — that “not much damage was done” to King. Several other jurors publicly agreed.

Selling the idea of a violent black criminal

The success of the defense’s strategy demonstrated the prevalence and potency of the stereotype of African Americans as violent, dangerous, and criminal. A disgusted Henry Louis Gates Jr., chair of Afro-American studies at Harvard University, condemned the jury for being “more afraid of the potential of being mugged by some hypothetical black male than … of the abuse of the Constitution, of civil rights.”

“For most Americans,” Newsweek blared in its first issue after the verdict, “crime has a black face.” A study by the University of Chicago in 1991 found that most whites felt African Americans were “prone to violence.” Many saw the Los Angeles riots, especially the more opportunistic looting, as confirmation of the stereotype, ignoring the impetus for the unrest. One of the jurors from the King beating trial insisted, “Th[o]se people would have rioted anyway.” They were, she suggested, only waiting for an excuse.

Contemporary commentators have advanced several possible explanations for the strength of the black criminality stereotype. Some argue that it is a product of high crime rates among young African Americans. Newsweek writers Marcus Mabry and Evan Thomas, for example, maintain that there is “a basis for the fear of black inner-city youth. They commit a vastly disproportionate amount of crime.” High crime rates are a product of poverty, though, and if the African American crime rate is adjusted for poverty, it is no higher than that of white Americans.

Other explanations of the stereotype’s power have targeted the images of African Americans presented by the media or the “fall from grace black people have suffered in recent years” with the backlash against civil rights gains, but these explanations do not adequately account for the prevalence of this image either.

Any attempt to explain this stereotype as a recent creation
is certain to fail, for it disregards the historical experiences
that have entrenched it in white American culture.

The stereotype of the wanton black criminal was not created by the media, although they have profited from it.

It was not created in response to the Black Power militants, although they certainly felt its wrath.

It was not created in response to contemporary African American crime, although it has likely affected conviction rates and sentencing.

It was not created by George Bush, although he used it, in the guise of Willie Horton, to gain the presidency.

No, the black criminality stereotype is the result of a long process of development. Its origins can be seen in the early interactions between the English and West African cultures in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, well before descendants of the two groups would form the core of the United States of America. It is a product of cultural assumptions that migrated with America’s first European “settlers,” were exploited to justify the slave trade, and have been adapted and used to excuse the continuing subjugation of African Americans in the centuries since.

Tracing the history of the black bogey-man

The goal of this thesis is to provide a historical explanation of the contemporary salience of the African American criminality stereotype.

The first section examines English impressions of West African cultures before England’s involvement in the slave trade. It argues that the English fascination with what they considered the Africans’ savagery, characterized by heathenism, hypersexuality, and a propensity for violence, provided the foundation for the development of the modern stereotype.

The second section looks at the stereotypes of the African and African-descended slaves in the antebellum American South. It discusses the apparent paradox between the popular image of slaves as happy-go-lucky, docile, inferior “Sambos” and the ubiquitous white fears of insurrection by violent, predatory slave rebels capable of overthrowing the entire system of white supremacy.

The third section considers the explosion during the Reconstruction era of the stereotype of African Americans as lawless brutes. It contends that the loss of control that accompanied emancipation led to the ascendancy of the “Negro as a beast” stereotype, just as English involvement in the African slave trade had earlier brought the arguments of African savagery to the forefront. White Southerners’ perceived vulnerability to insurrection and takeover by their former slaves fostered the stereotype of African Americans as violent and predatory rebels. The newly dominant image was heralded as justification for the reimposition of control through such means as the convict-lease system, lynchings, segregation, and disfranchisement. The Reconstruction era provided a nearly perfect setting for the black criminality stereotype to anchor itself in white American culture.

The final section discusses the rise of black militancy in the 1960s and its importance to the continuance of the criminality stereotype. It argues that the association of African American political aggressiveness, in the form of the Black Power movement, with the violence and lawlessness of the late-1960s riots encouraged another resurgence of the criminality stereotype. Furthermore, by tying in contemporary manifestations of the stereotype, it attempts to complete the link between the early English notion of savagery and the cultural assumptions that carried Rodney King’s assailants to acquittal.


The origins of contemporary white American attitudes toward African Americans are difficult to address. To speak of “White America” at all is to speak of a monolith of thought and behavior that does not exist. However, a shared history has long united European-descended Americans into a cultural group with a common identity and similar experiences within the American context. Over the course of centuries, white Americans have developed, adapted, and passed on a collective world view that has defined their culture. Individuals may choose to reject the practices, attitudes, and beliefs of their culture, but they cannot deny its existence.

Cultural assumptions constitute an important part of a society’s world view, helping to define its self-image and place it in relation to other cultures.

White Americans in particular have historically linked their own identity in a Manichaean contrast with their image of African Americans

Far from being invented from scratch by each new generation, these racial attitudes are the result of a long and continuous process of development. Contemporary white racial attitudes are modified versions of those that originally migrated to America with the first European migrants, reshaped over time in what the historian Joel Williamson calls the “crucible of race.” Thus, we can no more understand the tendency of whites to view African Americans as criminal and dangerous as a contemporary phenomenon than we can understand the decisions of an 80-year-old man without considering the experiences of his first 79 years of development.

Initial origins

The first step toward understanding the black criminality stereotype is to define the racial attitudes of the first European Americans, the English. The pioneering research on this front was done by the historian Winthrop Jordan. His landmark work White Over Black, a study of American attitudes toward blacks, includes an extensive section on the initial contacts between English and West African cultures. Jordan uses the writings of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English voyagers to reconstruct the Englanders’ initial impressions of black Africans and compare it with their views of Native American cultures. In so doing, he identifies the elements of English thought that would later be adapted to justify the American system of institutionalized white supremacism.

The following discussion of early Anglo-African interactions is largely a summary of Jordan’s research. For a more complete examination, see the section of White Over Black entitled “Genesis.”

The latter half of the fifteenth century inaugurated an era of intense European exploration overseas. Early successes by Spain and Portugal encouraged the expansionist mood. Portuguese explorers opened up opportunities for trade and exploitation in East Asia and along the eastern coast of Africa, while the Spanish established a powerful empire in Central America. As tales of early voyages circulated in Europe, the possibilities for glory, wealth, and power enticed many other nations to begin pushing overseas. England joined this second wave of European adventurers, initiating its first expeditions after 1550.

English explorations overseas had two initial goals: to colonize North America and to establish trade with West Africa. Thus, the West Africans and the Native Americans met very different groups of English people. The voyagers to Africa had little interest in conquest or conversion; they merely wanted access to Africa’s two well-developed, interregional trading markets: the east-west trade in foodstuffs and practical goods and the north-south trade in luxury items, including, almost incidentally, a few slaves. “Initially, therefore,” Jordan says, “English contact with Africans did not take place in a context which prejudged the Negro as a slave, at least not as a slave of Englishmen. Rather, Englishmen met Negroes merely as another sort of men.”

The English voyagers had no trouble spotting the differences between the newly discovered African cultures and their own. The Africans practiced “heathen” religions, had a most un-English lifestyle, and seemed remarkably libidinous. Yet for the English, the most remarkable characteristic of the Africans was their dark skin color.

“Englishmen actually described Negroes as ‘black,’” Jordan says, “an exaggerated term which in itself suggests that the Negro’s complexion had powerful impact upon their perceptions.” Unlike the Spanish and Portuguese, both of whom had for centuries interacted with North African cultures and even been invaded and subjugated by darker-skinned societies, the English had had little experience with dark-skinned people. Furthermore, their first substantial contacts were with societies along the West African coast and in the Congo, where skin colors tended to be among the darkest in all of Africa.

For many of the English, the contrast of “white” and “black” skin
suggested an embodiment of their culture’s symbols of goodness and evil

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the definitions of the word “black” before the sixteenth century included, “Deeply stained with dirt; soiled, dirty, foul … Having dark or deadly purposes, malignant; pertaining to or involving death, deadly; baneful, disastrous, sinister … iniquitous, atrocious, horrible, wicked … Indicating disgrace, censure, liability to punishment, etc.” In Jordan’s words: “White and black connoted purity and filthiness, virginity and sin, virtue and baseness, beauty and ugliness, beneficence and evil, God and the devil.”

black (adj.): iniquitous, atrocious, horrible, wicked

Despite the eerie symbolism, however, the Englanders searched for other explanations of the Africans’ “blackness.” Some argued that dark skin was a response to environmental conditions. Others suggested that the Africans were the descendants of the Biblical figure Ham and that their dark color was a manifestation of God’s curse on his offspring. The debate was not settled at the time, and the Africans’ skin color remained a confusing mystery.

The English had comparatively little trouble addressing the Africans’ religious condition. The Africans’ practice of un-Christian religions placed them in the familiar category of heathens. However, the English Christian heritage had a schizophrenic effect on their view of the Africans. It made the Africans seem, Jordan states, “very much like themselves and very different.” While the universalist doctrine of the Old Testament insisted that humankind originated together in God’s creation, later strains of Christianity argued against unity by defining heathenism as a defect. To many of the English, African heathenism merely signified a reluctance to accept proper standards of conduct. As such, it was, Jordan explains, “a summons to eradicate an important distinction between the two peoples.” To others, however, this heathenism was another sign of savagery in a people whose skin color suggested an embodiment of the devil.

In contrast to their aggressive and much-ballyhooed efforts to Christianize the heathens of North America, the English had no real program for converting the Africans. This apparently contradictory distinction between the heathenisms of Native Americans and of Africans characterized English attitudes throughout the period. The differentiation between the two groups was partly because of the circumstances under which the English interacted with them. Encouraged by the favorable climate and lack of an entrenched European presence, the English hoped to settle in America. Thus, they took it as their duty to “civilize” their new neighbors. Africa, on the other hand, was not an option for settlement, because of its history of Portuguese involvement and its reputation, as Jordan puts it, as “a graveyard for Europeans.” Nevertheless, Jordan argues that these differences are insufficient to explain the English lack of interest in converting Africans. “Given these circumstances,” he asserts, “it is hard to escape the conclusion that the distinction which Englishmen made as to conversion was at least in some small measure modeled after the difference they saw in skin color.”

While the English were oddly indifferent to the Africans’ religious condition, they were predictably fascinated by the “savage” African way of life. The two cultures provided plenty of contrasts to fuel their fascination. The Englanders compared all facets of African life to their own. They used the evidence to decide where to place the Africans on their scale of civilization and savagery, applauding apparent — even imaginary — similarities and condemning deviations.

There was little argument over whether the Africans were savages. The more extreme Englanders argued that the entire black race was wicked and malevolent. One early observer wrote:

[I]t would be very surprizing if upon scrutiny into their Lives we should find any of them whose perverse Nature would not break out sometimes; for they indeed seem to be born and bred Villians: All sorts of Baseness having got such sure-footing in them, that ‘tis impossible to lye concealed.

Furthermore, he insisted, “Another (as it were) innate quality they have [is] to Steal any thing they lay hands of, especially from Foreigners … [T]his vicious humor [runs] through the whole race of Blacks.”

More generally, English accounts tended to place the Africans among the animals and to refer to them as “bestial” or “beastly.” Nevertheless, however, according to Jordan, “Most English commentators seem to have felt that Negroes would behave better under improved circumstances.”

The English seemed particularly concerned by the Africans’ sexuality — or, as they saw it, their hypersexuality. Sexuality was, of course, part of the animal-like behavior expected of savages. But the Africans’ comparatively skimpy clothing and the openness of their sexual relations convinced the English that they were dealing with “a particularly libidinous sort of men.”

Many English accounts emphasized the Africans’ sexuality by comparing them to Africa’s native apes, another recent discovery for the English. They saw a strong connection — perhaps even involving interbreeding — between these apparently manlike beasts and beastlike men. This association, drawn out in many early accounts, encouraged the view of Africans as animalistic, savage, and possessed of a particularly potent sexuality.

Moreover, Jordan points out, “[T]he sexual connotations embodied in the terms ‘beastial’ and ‘beastly’ [terms the English often used to describe the Africans] were considerably stronger in Elizabethan English than they are today.”
Nevertheless, savagery is only one element — albeit an important one — of the early English view of Africans. The perceived difference between the English and the Africans was based mostly on skin color, with only secondary concerns over cultural standards. The English were much less interested in the Africans’ savagery than they were in that of Native Americans. But regardless, as Jordan insists:

It would be a mistake … to slight the importance of the Negro’s savagery, since it fascinated Englishmen from the very first … They knew perfectly well that Negroes were men, yet they frequently described the Africans as “brutish” or “beastial” or “beastly.” The hideous tortures, the cannibalism, the rapacious warfare, the revolting diet … seemed somehow to place the Negro among the beasts.

However else the English chose to describe the Africans, the connection of blacks with savagery was already assumed.

England’s expansionist push into North America transplanted the early English view of blacks into the American context. When the Anglo-American colonists began their own interactions with Africans, they already carried the set of cultural assumptions that the English had developed about black people. Indeed, the colonists had few resources other than early English impressions to provide insight into unfamiliar African cultures. Unfortunately, English ethnocentrism led to a grossly distorted picture of Africans, but one that passed for truth within European society.

The view of blacks inherited by the first European Americans contained the essential elements of what became the African American criminality stereotype. The English observers contended that the Africans were savages and belonged among the beasts. They portrayed them as violent, bloodthirsty warriors whose decentralized culture reflected disrespect for law and order. Moreover, the English fascination with the Africans’ sexuality was the precursor for the sexual threat later assumed to be embodied in the black brute — an aspect of the stereotype most conspicuous during the lynching era of the late nineteenth century. The early English view of the savage African was remarkably similar to the contemporary stereotype of the predatory African American criminal.

However, the Africans’ character remained open for speculation and debate for several centuries. The cultural assumptions related to African savagery were not fully entrenched and homogenized into a singular, coherent image until that image began to serve a purpose. As Jordan states, “It was not until the slave trade came to need justification, in the eighteenth century, that some Englishmen found special reason to lay emphasis on the Negro’s savagery.” Indeed, throughout its development, the black criminality stereotype would continue to adhere to that same pattern: each time it became useful in justifying new forms of racial subjugation, the image would grow in popularity and strength.

The first step was slavery.


The decision of the English colonists to use Africans as slaves was not primarily motivated by antipathy or racism. The developing agricultural economy in English America was labor-intensive, and the colonists faced a tremendous shortage of workers. The exploitation of two available labor sources — indentured servitude and the enslavement of Native Americans — could not satisfy the demand. Indentured servitude provided a relatively small number of workers, and the enslavement of Native Americans proved unworkable because of their susceptibility to newly introduced European diseases and the proximity of their home communities for escape.

The English, having participated in Africa’s luxury trade, were already somewhat familiar with African slavery. Moreover, the Africans offered several advantages over other potential slaves: they had a higher immunity to European diseases, their homeland was too far from America for escape, and many of them had experience with similar agricultural situations in West Africa.

Statutes allowing the enslavement of Africans first appeared on the books of several colonies after 1660. By the turn of the eighteenth century the Anglo-African slave trade was in full force.

The decision to enslave Africans may have made economic sense, but it led into a moral quagmire. To justify the slave trade, colonists drew increasingly on longstanding assumptions of African savagery. They reasoned that because the Africans were savages, they were innately inferior to the civilized Europeans and therefore belonged in a subservient position. Despite the emerging anti-imperialist sentiments of the American revolutionaries committed to liberty, freedom, and equality, the colonists maintained that slavery was a positive force because it suppressed the Africans’ savage nature. The colonies’ growing dependence on slave labor provided an economic incentive for the invocation of such ethnocentric and White supremacist arguments, for without them the institution of slavery was indefensible.

The Anglo-American view of the character of black slaves was strangely schizophrenic. Once the institution of slavery was established, the emphasis on black savagery receded. The “softer” image of African Americans as docile, contented, and childlike — the so-called Sambo stereotype — became more popular. But the “harder” image of Africans as violent brutes remained, finding new life in the threat of slave rebellion. The Sambo image was nonthreatening and helped justify the blacks’ enslavement, but the slaveholders could not help thinking about the possibility of insurrection. These two images, despite their contradictions, vied for supremacy throughout the antebellum period.

The Sambo stereotype was the most practical image for the slavery era. It portrayed African Americans as kindhearted and happy-go-lucky but basically unintelligent, not only inferior but accepting of their inferiority. Too lazy and shiftless to fend for themselves, they were quite content with their role as slaves. They were properly deferential to whites, unambitious and incapable of rebellion, and possessed of endearing childlike qualities. In short, they were ill-suited for independence but made perfect slaves. Indeed, the Sambo image, with its implication that Blacks could not survive on their own, almost made slavery seem humane. It was a safe fiction, justifying social control without implying any threat to those who imposed it.

The other major slave stereotype was the antithesis of the Sambo ideal. Drawing heavily on the English argument of African savagery, it portrayed African Americans as violent and deviously clever rebels who, outraged by their enslavement, were able and eager to topple the entire system of white supremacism. Although it was not comforting like the Sambo stereotype, the image of the rebel slave fulfilled the essential requirement — it justified the perpetuation of slavery.

During the antebellum period, this image gained popularity as the slaveholders grew more obsessed with internal security. The revolution in San Domingo at the turn of the nineteenth century, in which a successful African Caribbean slave revolt led to the expulsion of the French masters and the establishment of black sovereignty on the island, alarmed white Americans and exacerbated their fears of a similar uprising in the United States. The Nat Turner rebellion turned those insecurities into near hysteria.

If Sambo was the whites’ ideal slave, Nat Turner was their worst nightmare. Turner appeared to be a model slave. He was a personable young man, well liked by the local slaveowners; he was a talented Christian preacher; and, most importantly, he stayed out of trouble — until in 1831 he suddenly led the deadliest slave revolt in American history. Turner and his band of supporters killed their masters in a surprise attack, took control of the plantation, and then went on a rampage through the neighboring countryside, killing several dozen whites before they were eventually stopped by the state militia.

Nat Turner apparently showed no signs of rebelliousness before leading the deadliest slave uprising in U.S. history

The bloody reprisals that followed could not blunt the psychological impact of the rebellion. The eerie parallels with San Domingo, with Turner nearly reprising the role of Toussaint L’Ouverture, deeply shook the slaveholders’ sense of security. This uprising had been quashed, but what about the next one? As the historian Leon Litwack says:

Each report and rumor remind[ed] the white South of the potential that resided in its black population. The specter of servile insurrection hovered over the debate on enlisting blacks into the Confederate Army and intruded itself on the confidence with which whites periodically congratulated themselves over the docility of their slaves.

The two major slave stereotypes formed an odd paradox. The same slaves who had been characterized as unintelligent, dependent, and contented were simultaneously considered a real threat to overthrow the entire system of slavery. The historian George Rable states that given the popularity of the Sambo stereotype, “The belief that a black revolt was possible illustrates the schizophrenic aspect of the white evaluation of black character and personality.”

Neither stereotype was able to dominate during the antebellum era because they were both one-sided fictions. The Sambo image could not explain slave resistance any more than the Nat Turner image could account for the widespread tactics of accommodation. “Contrary to the legends of `docility’ and `militancy,’” Litwack explains, “the slaves did not sort themselves into Uncle Toms and Nat Turners any more than masters divided neatly into the `mean’ and the `good.’ Rebelliousness, resistance, and accommodation might manifest themselves at different times in the same slave.”

The stereotype of African American criminality and savagery began to come to the forefront immediately after emancipation. As it was earlier, the image was tied to the threat of black insurrection. To many Southern whites, the historian Forrest Wood states, “the Emancipation Proclamation was an official invitation to slave uprisings.”

The slaveholders had tightened their enforcement of slavery from the first outbreak of war, but with so many of the plantations’ men off to battle, they were feeling particularly vulnerable. Supporters of the Democratic Party among the press encouraged the fear of insurrection with exaggerated or fictitious accounts of African American violence and, Wood points out, even made up for the dearth of actual incidents “by citing examples of Negro barbarism in Africa and the crimes of slaves and free Negroes in Latin America.” Furthermore, Rable asserts, “rumors of land distribution, the presence of black soldiers, and numerous local disturbances” also contributed to the general anxiety over violence by the former slaves.

The White Southerners’ reaction to emancipation portended their movement away from the Sambo stereotype. In August 1865, for example, Mississippi governor William Sharkey ordered the organization of state militia units to protect not against the Union’s troops but against “increasing crime and disorder” by blacks — in other words, possible insurrection. Litwack states:

[T]he obsession with internal security and, perhaps most ominous, the deployment in some regions of Confederate troops to resist both Yankee invaders and rebellious blacks suggested a white South desperately clinging to the fiction of the docile slave without in any way believing it.

The proslavery argument had implied that African Americans could not live without the structure of slavery. It credited slavery’s constraints with transforming savage Africans into docile Sambos. Once freed, it predicted, blacks would either die off or revert to savagery. Following Lincoln’s emancipation of the slaves, many white Southerners began to fear that freedom would stimulate the African Americans’ worst passions, leading to murder, rape, and rebellion. The historian George Fredrickson explains:

The notion that bestial savagery constituted the basic Negro character and that the loyal “Sambo” figure was a social product of slavery served to channel genuine fears and anxieties by suggesting a program of preventive action, while at the same time legitimizing a conditional “affection” for the Negro. As a slave he was lovable, but as a freedman he would be a master.

This concern over retrogression outside of slavery was consistent with white attitudes toward free African Americans during the antebellum period. “The most common complaint” of whites, Rable states, “was that, reflecting the congenital defects of their race, [free blacks] were persistent thieves.” In 1817 Robert Goodloe Harper derided “the free people of color” as “a nuisance and burden” because they “contribute greatly to the corruption of the slaves, and to aggravate the evils of their condition, by rendering them idle, discontented, and disobedient”- even to the point of “direct resistance.”

Similarly, two decades later the writer Ebenezer Baldwin Jr. blamed the negative “practical effects” of a number of late-eighteenth-century slave manumissions on “the corrupted characters of the manumitted slaves.” Their emancipation, he suggested, “was fruitful in crime, but rarely productive in happiness.”

With the emancipation of the slaves, the White South lost the mechanisms of control on which their social structure relied. The historian Edward Ayers states:

When the Civil War destroyed slavery, it destroyed the basic structure that gave shape to the South. Slavery had sealed off vast numbers of people from the state and the market economy, and when the walls of slavery fell nothing stood ready to replace them. Neither slavery nor true free labor could prevail, neither the master nor the slave exercised the control they wished.

The challenge of the post–Civil War era was to develop new social, economic, and political structures for the South, and it led to a bitter struggle for control. The historians John Hope Franklin and Alfred Moss Jr. contend that “[a]s surely as the struggle between 1861 and 1865 was civil war, so was the conflict from 1865 to 1877.”

In the end, the Reconstruction era was dominated by the white South’s quest for mechanisms to reimpose the racial control that had been lost with emancipation. And it was in that environment that the African American criminality stereotype came into its own.


Reconstruction was an era of possibilities and uncertainties. The Old South had been destroyed, and its remains were to be “reconstructed” into a new Southern society. But there was no clear vision of how the New South would look. The Reconstruction effort faced three main problems: rebuilding the South as a free labor economy, reintegrating the former Confederate states, and defining the status and role of the former slaves. The struggle for control between reformists and reactionaries nearly led to another civil war in 1875.

The reign of white supremacy — the traditional source of stability in Southern society — was in doubt after the war and during radical Reconstruction. With the defeat of radical Reconstruction, however, its continuance was guaranteed. The former slaveholders returned to power and went about institutionalizing their white supremacism in an effort to reproduce the structure and control of the slavery era.

The white South’s first response to the uncertainties of the post–Civil War situation was the enactment in late 1865 of so-called black codes, local regulations limiting the freedom of African Americans. The purpose of the black codes was to give Whites some measure of control over the lives of their former slaves. But, Wood states, “White Southerners often added as an afterthought [that] the black codes also protected innocent whites from lawless Negroes.”

The first phase of Reconstruction, commonly referred to as presidential Reconstruction, wasn’t any more impressive than the black codes. At the time of his assassination, President Lincoln was unsure of what to do about the former slaves. During the war, he had expressed hope for black emigration, perhaps to Africa, as a solution to the racial hostilities in the South. In 1865 he rejected that plan as unworkable, but had little else to suggest.

His successor, Andrew Johnson, looked initially as if he might push for real reform. In his first Reconstruction proclamation in May 1865, Johnson outlined a plan for African American suffrage, the complete abolition of slavery, the repudiation of Confederate war debts, the nullification of the secession ordinances, and the disfranchisement of all the Confederates that Lincoln had targeted plus all Southerners worth more than $20,000. After settling into office and feeling the pressure of white public opinion, however, Johnson backed off of his aggressive plan, and the reform effort floundered.

“What presidential Reconstruction was all about,” the historian Herbert Shapiro charges, was:

the indifference of national authority to black lives and rights, the concentration of local power in the hands of those who only months before had fought the Union on the battlefields, the willingness of white supremacists to kill those who wanted something more that was offered in the Black Codes, all massed against proven loyalists, black and white, who wanted their legal rights.

In December 1865 a frustrated Congress took control of the rebuilding effort. The radical phase of Reconstruction originated in response to the black codes and presidential inaction. Radical Reconstruction envisioned a new South unshackled from the economic and political limitations of the slavery system. The Congressional reformers extended the franchise to the former slaves and eliminated race-based restrictions on public offices. The result was fairly substantial African American involvement in Southern government throughout the Reconstruction era.

Radical Reconstruction also created the Freedmen’s Bureau to address the needs of Southern Blacks; developed the public school system, providing free education to children of all races; and upheld the right of African Americans to hold property. However, the widespread rumors of land redistribution — the infamous “40 acres and a mule” — proved unfounded, and the reformers provided little economic assistance.

“In failing to provide adequate economic security for the freedmen,” Franklin and Moss state, “Reconstruction left them no alternative but to submit to their old masters, a submission that made easier the efforts of Southern whites to overthrow Reconstruction and restore a system based on white supremacy.”

Reconstruction ended definitively in 1877 when the Republicans agreed to a compromise over the deadlocked election of 1876. In return for the concession of the presidency to the Republican candidate, the reformers swore off the Reconstruction effort. But according to Franklin and Moss, the real control of the situation resided elsewhere:

Economic revolution, not Reconstruction, determined the pattern of public action after 1865 … When the Radical Reconstruction served [the Northern industrialists’] purposes, they cooperated … but when the program failed to bring peace and order, thereby postponing prosperity, they helped restore home rule to the South.

After the compromise of 1877, the “race issue” receded in national politics, and the South was in large part left to its own devices. Nationally, issues such as women’s suffrage, taxes, and free trade took center stage, and increasingly apathetic Northerners began to accept the South as “different.”

The white perception of African Americans during the Reconstruction era was dominated by concerns that without the structure of slavery, they were reverting to savagery. The proslavery argument had contended that free Blacks were incapable of fulfilling their own needs and would either lapse into barbarism or sicken and die. The historian George Wright points out that during the Reconstruction era:

[M]any white observers lamented the passing of the loyal Negroes that slavery had produced. In their place were “New Negroes,” who, without the civilizing influence of whites, were actually regarded by whites as retrogressing to their “barbaric” African condition.

The newly ascendant savagery stereotype provided racist Southerners with a welcome justification for terrorist violence. In a typical comment from the 1870s, a Georgia woman argued, “Since our old-time friends, the negro, who as a slave, was trustworthy and gentle, seems to have retrograded through freedom into a dangerous beast, it is surely necessary that he be removed from among us.”

Harvard professor Nathaniel Southgate Shaler predicted that “there will be a strong tendency, for many generations to come, for [blacks] to revert to their ancestral conditions … [of] savagery.” More bluntly, a delegate to the South Carolina constitutional convention of 1865 described African Americans as “[a] higher sort of animal, to be sure, than the dog or the horse, but, after all, an animal.”

The concerns over the alleged retrogression of the former slaves led to warnings of Africanization-that is, the fear that the South would become a black-dominated society. Fredrickson explains:

The proslavery theorists had argued that the “brute” propensities of the blacks were kept in check only as a result of the absolute white control made possible by slavery and that emancipation in the South would bring the same reversion to savagery that had allegedly taken place after the blacks had been freed in Haiti and the British West Indies. Many Southerners of the Reconstruction era professed to find confirmation for this theory in the behavior of the freedmen under Radical leadership.

The charge of Africanization had a wide range of implications, including social equality; African American control of business, churches, schools, and public offices; black supremacism and white subjugation; miscegenation; social anarchy; and even the expulsion of non-blacks. “From the white Southerners’ point of view,” Franklin and Moss assert, “all power was to be placed in the hands of those least qualified to control their own destiny … [They] thought the clock was now being turned back to the days of barbarism.”

Responding to reports of black violence in Mississippi in 1865, North Carolina aristocrat Josiah Turner declared it:

the direct, natural, logical consequence of negro supremacy. White men will not, they ought not, to submit to the control of an inferior race of people. We should despise the blood of our own people, if peaceably and tamely submitted to the dominance of the African.

Similarly, Mississippi Governor Benjamin G. Humphreys warned his white constituents in 1867, “You and I will have to take back seats or be elevated at the end of a rope. Such is the civilization of the age.” Democratic convention president Joseph McDonald concurred, telling the delegates in 1868 that America must either surrender to the “barbarism of Africa” or face a race war in the South.

The concerns of Black retrogression and Africanization were closely linked in the White mind with a perceived explosion of African American crime during the post–Civil War period. So-called scientific racists claimed to have empirical evidence that African Americans were inherently criminal, an outgrowth of their native savagery. Fredrickson explains:

Although rape was the central and most horrifying example of the Negro’s allegedly inherent criminality, some writers took a broader approach and emphasized the increase of Negro crimes of all sorts. In an address to the American Social Science Association in 1899, Walter F. Willcox demonstrated statistically “that the liability of an American Negro to commit crime is several times as great as the liability of the whites.” Such figures were cited again and again by propagandists of race hate who sought to prove that the Negro by nature was a criminal type. Some even attempted to use the new “science” of criminal anthropology to demonstrate that most blacks had the inborn physical features of the hereditary criminal. In 1908 the Negro sociologist Kelly Miller described the climate of opinions resulting from this literature. “The criminal propensity of the Negro,” he wrote, “is the charge that is being most widely exploited in current discussion. By fragments of fact and jugglery of argument he is made to appear a beast in human form whose vicious tendency constitutes a new plague.

The portrayal of African Americans as lawless brutes was common in Reconstruction-era white popular culture. Filmmaker Marlon Riggs, in his study Ethnic Notions: Black People in White Minds, argues that the brute image replaced Sambo as the prevalent depiction of African Americans during the late nineteenth century. In an interview included in Ethnic Notions, University of California-Berkeley professor Erskine Peters explains the switch in popular stereotypes:

Earlier we wouldn’t have gotten an image of a brute Negro because this wouldn’t have helped in the defense of slavery. To suggest earlier too much that there were people who were very, very rebellious would have suggested that the blacks wanted to be free. The image that they needed was that the blacks were docile in antebellum times. During Reconstruction, the black is a challenge to the political system, and then they have to justify not only a reason for going back to slavery, but they are also justifying their reasons for killing the blacks. They are saying that the blacks are an offense to civilization.

Sambo-like images lingered on in the white South’s popular music in so-called carry-me-backs, songs that portrayed African Americans as nostalgic about the Old South and longing for a return to slavery. But new song forms featuring African Americans as “desperados” or “bad niggers,” typified by the mythical black criminal Staggerlee (or sometimes “Stack-O-Lee”), became increasingly popular during and following Reconstruction.

Joel Williamson contends that the emphasis on African American criminality stemmed from a real and pronounced rise in black crime, which he attributes to poor economic conditions. “Many whites who were most sympathetic with blacks thought so,” he claims, “as did indeed many well-informed blacks. Economic hard times, after all, do generate higher crime rates.”

The late nineteenth century was clearly not a prosperous time for the South; the region experienced two periods of major economic slump — the recession of the mid-1870s and the depression of the late 1880s and early 1890s. An article in the North Georgia Citizen for November 26, 1874, describes the widespread poverty of the time:

[L]ittle beggars and big beggars, white and black, literally swarm on Monday … On this day importunities for work or money are frequent, and at one’s home there is a perfect raid upon the flour and meal barrels, the lard can, the coffee, tea, sugar, meat, everything … Oh, for a round million dollars just to erect industrial schools and alms houses in our county.

Such dire economic conditions likely did translate into some increase in crime. Ayers points out, “Just when the lamentations over the hard times in the local papers reached their peak in Greene and Whitfield, between 1875 and 1879, so did the number of people indicted for theft and burglary in the counties’ Superior Courts.”

However, some nineteenth-century observers denied that there was any increase in criminal activity and attributed the higher crime rates to more vigorous law enforcement. In 1872 Georgia Governor James M. Smith assured his constituents that “this marked increase in the number of convicts is not due to any augmentation of crime in the South, but is believed to be the result of a more rigid and proper enforcement of the laws.” Tennessee governor John C. Brown agreed: “The large increase in the number of inmates is to be attributed in no sense to an increase in crime. It is solely the result of a more efficient administration of the criminal law, aided by an improved and more healthy state of public sentiment.”

Southern law enforcement probably did contribute to the apparent rise in black crime, but more because of its double standard of justice than any rise in its efficiency. Ayers explains, “The preoccupation of white courts with black wrongdoing led them to ignore white transgressions that would have drawn their attention before the war.” In his history of Reconstruction, W.E.B. DuBois derided the Southern system of justice that “erred on the white side by undue leniency and the practical immunity of red-handed criminals, and erred on the black side by undue severity, injustice, and lack of discrimination.”

Perhaps a Reconstruction-era Southern police officer best explained the double standard:

“If a nigger kills a white man, that’s murder. If a white man kills a nigger, that’s justifiable homicide. If a nigger kills another nigger, that’s just one less nigger.”

Regardless of other considerations, we cannot attribute the white Southerners’ preoccupation with African American criminality to the actual occurrences of crime. The majority of crime during the Reconstruction era was intraracial — whites committing crimes against whites, and blacks against blacks. A smaller but significant amount involved whites victimizing blacks. But “black violence against whites,” Ayers attests, “was not a common occurrence.” In fact, it is questionable, given the era’s crime patterns and their own apathy toward the victimization of blacks, whether whites would have even noticed a rise in African American crime.

At the conclusion of the Civil War (and again with the depression of 1892–93), Southern whites had an opportunity to take bold steps to reshape their society. Williamson asserts:

[They] might have responded economically with great cooperative combinations, or politically by radical new organizations. Instead they seemed to respond radically only in race, moderately in politics, and hardly at all in the sphere of direct economic actions.

The Southern whites’ reaction to the challenges of the post–Civil War period was to re-create as much as possible the traditional Southern way of life. The primary difference between the Old and New South was the emancipation of the slaves; therefore, the first priority (other than the obvious imperative to regain power) was to reestablish white supremacy.

Over the quarter-century following the Union’s victory, the white South searched for new methods to do just that. Through such means as sharecropping, the convict-lease system, mob rule and race riots, lynchings, disfranchisement, and segregation, the ex-Confederates established a level of racial dominance as great or greater than that of slavery. And in their web of justifications, they exploited the historical perception of African American criminality to entangle their objectives of oppressive control with the perceived need to protect law-abiding whites from wanton and lawless black brutes.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the continuance of the South’s traditional economy was in jeopardy. Because Southern agriculture was so labor-intensive, it could not afford to pay market value for workers. Its profitability had relied on the exploitation of slave labor. Therefore, the postwar white South needed to make African American labor exploitable again. This was accomplished through the introduction of sharecropping arrangements and the development of the convict-lease system. The so-called Bourbons — the traditional, powerful elite of Southern white society — fought to ensure that Reconstruction did not include land distribution, and thus economic independence, for the former slaves.

“Because the federal government failed to give the Negroes much land,” Franklin explains, “they slowly returned to the farms and resumed work under circumstances scarcely more favorable than those prevailing before the war. . . . They had no other choice but to cast their lot with their former masters.”

Under sharecropping arrangements, white landowners allowed African Americans to farm plots of their land, but took most of the yield as rent. The laws and customs of sharecropping gave the landlords opportunities to exploit the contracts to keep their tenants perpetually indebted and at their mercy. The convict-lease system also provided cheap black labor. It allowed white capitalists and planters to “buy” the freedom of African American convicts, who were then forced to work for them under an arrangement Fredrickson characterizes as “more brutal than slavery.”

Throughout the post–Civil War period, the white South relied heavily on terrorist violence to maintain “race control.” Through Klan activity, mob rule, one-sided race riots, and lynchings, whites tried to force the African American community into submission. The attackers often rationalized their violence by claiming to be responding to criminal acts by blacks. For example, Myrta Lockett Avary, a popular white writer from the post-Reconstruction period, blamed white violence on “Negro criminal tendencies” and claimed that “Klans took administration of justice into their own hands because the courts were ineffective.”

Franklin argues on the contrary that white terrorism was a reaction to Reconstruction and that its the real purpose was “to exercise complete control over Negroes, drive them and their fellows from power, and establish ‘white supremacy.’” Wright concurs, adding that “whites terrorized blacks because they resented Afro-Americans as successful independent farmers, skilled workers, and businessmen, all of whom by their very presence challenged the doctrine of white supremacy.”

Franklin’s assertion that the terrorism was aimed at “keeping the Negro in his place” echoes a poem by a racist candidate from the White Man’s Union, a local Klan-like group, around 1900:

Twas nature’s laws that drew the line
Between the Anglo-Saxon and the African races
And we, the Anglo-Saxons of Grand Old Grimes,
Must force the African to keep his place

One of the cruel ironies of racism in the 1860s,” Wood laments, “was the display of violence by the enlightened, civilized white man against the barbaric, uncivilized Negro; but the demagogue, after doing his part to excite the mob, blamed the `savage African.’”

The litany of rationalization surrounding white terrorism grew more complex around the practice of lynchings. Some explanations used the same justifications as for other forms of White violence. Lexington’s Kentucky Gazette for January 19, 1878, for example, argued that lynchings were necessary because since emancipation:

the negroes have been turned over to the officers of the law, and these are not numerous enough to control them as their masters die. The result is they harry over the county … and render the lives of our farmers and their families one of perpetual anxiety and apprehension.

More often, however, the lynchers relied on the cry of rape, claiming to be avenging the victim’s rape of a white woman. The rape charge’s connection of criminality and sex struck a nerve in the white community, drawing, at least in part, on fears of the myth of African hypersexuality. Virginia aristocrat Phillip Alexander Bruce argued in his 1889 book The Plantation Negro as Freedman:

There is something strangely alluring and seductive to [African American men] in the appearance of a white woman; they are aroused and stimulated by its foreignness to their experience of sexual pleasure, and it moves them to gratify lust at any cost and in spite of every obstacle.

Similarly, a Maryland lynching party declared their actions justified in responding to a time “when the chastity of our women is tarnished by the foul breath of an imp from hell and the sanctity of our homes invaded by a demon.”

Most whites believed that the primary cause of lynchings was the rape of white women by African American brutes. Myrta Lockett Avary characterized rape as “the most frightful crime which negroes commit against the white people” and claimed that “[t]he rapist is a product of the Reconstruction.” White men, she argued, “see as the one thing imperative: the prompt and informal removal from existence of the offender, whom they look upon, not as a man, but beast or fiend.”

Similarly, in 1866, Delaware Congressman John A. Nicholson argued on the floor of the House that “the negro is not actuated by the same motives as the white man, nor is he deterred from crime except by punishments adapted to the brutal, sensual nature which characterizes him.” Indeed, even President Theodore Roosevelt endorsed the lynchers’ claims. “The greatest existing cause of lynching,” he insisted, “is the perpetration, especially by black men, of the heinous crime of rape — the most abominable in all the categories of crime, even worse than murder.”

The rape charge was a powerful tool in the white South’s effort to subjugate the African Americans, for it seemed to excuse any level of retribution for the alleged crime. “What more efficient way to reestablish the dominance of white men?” asks the historian Suzanne Lebsock. “The belief that black men were bent on raping white women justified the suppression of any form of black male assertiveness.” The rape charge may have drawn added power from the South’s weak economy and the nature of its male-female relationships. Williamson explains:

Southern whites had been very much taken by sex and family roles prescribed in the Victorian era. Men saw themselves as the providers and protectors of their families. As the economic world constricted, men found themselves less and less able to provide for their women in the accustomed style, and there seemed to be no promise of an end to the decline. . . . It seems fully possible that the rage against the black beast rapist was a kind of psychic compensation. If white men could not provide for their women materially as they had done before, they could certainly protect them from a much more awful threat-the outrage of their purity, and hence their piety, by black men. What white men might have lost on one side in affirming their sense of self, they might more than compensate for on the other. . . . Of what earthly good was the body if the soul be lost?

Despite the widespread acceptance of the claim that most lynchings involved allegations of rape, however, the records disagree. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s research into lynching data for 1889 to 1918 found that only 19 percent of the African American victims were alleged rapists. Likewise, Franklin and Moss’s consideration of the data for 1890 to 1914 concluded that out of over 1,100 lynchings, only 315 were motivated by allegations of rape. Conversely, more than 500 were accused of “homicide, robbery, insulting whites, or just ‘acting uppity.’” Wright’s research led to similar findings. He found that out of 258 black Kentuckians who had been lynched in the state’s history, only 85 (33 percent) had been accused of rape or attempted rape.

The real aim of lynching was to use violence and fear to maintain white dominance over African Americans and to render them powerless. Blacks were lynched for demanding equitable treatment, for being involved in politics, for trying to rise too high in Southern society, for not showing proper respect for Whites, and for a multitude of other “offenses” against White supremacy. As Wright puts it, “Afro-Americans were lynched for getting out of the place assigned them by white society.” Certainly, some lynchings also centered on alleged crimes, on the assumption that the justice system was incapable of determining their guilty or proper punishment; however, these were a smaller minority than the White Southerners had suggested. Furthermore, as Wright points out, these allegations, too, were often excuses that hid the true motives for the lynchings. He says:

Members of the mob usually wore disguises when lynching a black for murder. Why? Perhaps there were questions about the innocence of the victim. These lynchings usually occurred in the middle of the night, thereby avoiding the large public displays that seemed to characterize lynchings for rape.

Wright’s research on Kentucky’s lynchings brings up another interesting point. Historians have generally assumed lynchings to be a largely post-Reconstruction phenomenon, reaching their peak of activity in the late 1880s and the 1890s. Ayers identifies a half-dozen factors that he claims explain the prominence of lynching in this period, and Williamson contends that “[t]he sudden and dramatic rise in the lynching of black men in and after 1889 stands out like some giant volcanic eruption on the landscape of Southern race relations.”

But Wright disagrees. His data for Kentucky show high numbers of lynchings beginning immediately after the end of the Civil War. Furthermore, he found “no sudden or dramatic increase in Kentucky’s lynchings in the 1880s or 1890s. Indeed, the number of lynchings remained steady in the last two decades of the 19th century when compared with the decade immediately after slavery.” Wright concludes:

My figures show that more lynchings occurred in the fifteen-year period from 1865 to 1880 than during any other fifteen-year period, even the years from 1885 to 1900, which most scholars and contemporary observers called the heyday of lynchings.

If Wright’s observations hold true for the rest of the South, they suggest a much different picture of the post–Civil War period than has generally been portrayed. If Reconstruction was indeed the “heyday” of lynchings, it indicates that the white South immediately adopted terrorist violence as a tactic to take back the social and political control they had lost through emancipation. Rather than seeing the nadir in the history of African Americans, the 1880s and 1890s, as the sudden reassertion of white power in the South, perhaps we should view it as the culmination of the ex-Confederates’ long fight to regain total control of the South.

After the Southern Democrats defeated Reconstruction, they turned their attention to the problem of the African American vote. The suffrage of Southern blacks was a major obstacle to carrying out their racist agenda. They realized, say Franklin and Moss, that “[o]nce the Negro was disfranchised, everything else necessary for white supremacy could be done.” “Afro-Americans were viewed as aliens whose ignorance, poverty, and racial inferiority were incompatible with logical and orderly processes of government.”

White Southerners adopted harassment tactics that eliminated or negated virtually all African American voters. Those tactics included intimidation, violence, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, subjective literacy tests, criminal miscounting of ballots, setting suffrage requirements, blocking the roads to polls, using complex ballots that were only explained to white voters, introducing black candidates to split the vote, using centralized election codes, changing polling places, and stuffing ballot boxes.

After effectively disfranchising Southern blacks, the white South began legislating racial segregation. Fredrickson maintains:

So long as blacks were readily exploitable and cut off from sources of real power, the “Bourbons” could see little danger to white domination from occasional and peripheral irregularities in the color line. By 1890, however, they were made aware of the political risks resulting from their failure to push white supremacy to its logical extreme.

The push toward racial segregation had been building since the beginning of Reconstruction. Wood documents instances of local Jim Crow laws as early as 1865. The historian C. Vann Woodward argues in his study The Strange Career of Jim Crow that the late 1870s and 1880s were a transitional period characterized by incomplete segregationism. In 1883, however, the Supreme Court struck down much of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and cleared the way for the South to construct a segregationist system without federal interference.

With the segregationist wall in place, the white South had completed its quest for a new system of institutionalized white supremacy. During the last decade of the nineteenth century, black Southerners suffered through a period more oppressive than even slavery had been. Not only were they dominated in every aspect of life, but there was no economic incentive to shield them from white violence. Furthermore, the greater distance between the races led the White community to see them in even more stereotypical terms. “[A] lack of knowledge about how blacks were living and what they were thinking,” Fredrickson states, “bred suspicion and fed fears that chaos, violence, and disease would overflow the black sector and `contaminate’ or debase the white community.”

Frederick Douglass, the esteemed African American activist, once issued a refutation of the charges of black criminality that neatly summarizes the use of the criminality stereotype during the post-Civil War era. He began by pointing out that the main witness against African American character was the lynch mob. Those who refused to obey the Constitution, violated oaths to enforce the laws, and justified denying blacks their right to vote were not, he argued, competent witnesses.

He then delineated the nature of the white supremacists’ justification for oppressing African Americans. First, he said, they justified violence against Blacks because they claimed the emancipated slaves planned armed insurrection. When it became obvious that there were no such conspiracies, they excused their violence on the grounds that it was necessary to keep Blacks from “Africanizing” the South. During the 1880s and 1890s, Douglass argued, neither of these arguments were serviceable — neither insurrection nor African American supremacy seemed the least bit imminent. Therefore, he said, the white supremacists turned to the charge of rape. This justification not only served to excuse the lynchers’ savage behavior, but also supported the campaign to deny African Americans their Constitutional rights.

The image of African Americans as lawless brutes had been strong since the initiation of the slave trade. Seldom the most functional depiction, it had lingered because of the oppressors’ fears of rebellion and overthrow. Nevertheless, Fredrickson points out, “it required a historical context which would make such an ideology seem necessary for the effective defense of Negro slavery or other forms of white supremacy.”

The aftermath of the Civil War provided such a context. The world of the white South was in tatters, its future uncertain. To avoid the heavy hand of reform, the ex-Confederates needed to present a coherent argument for returning to “home rule.” By effectively convincing the nation, and itself, that African Americans were by their very nature criminal, violent, and dangerous, the white South defended and excused the re-creation of institutionalized white supremacy. In the process, it firmly established the black criminality stereotype in American thought and culture.


The stranglehold of white supremacy that emerged after the defeat of Reconstruction discouraged open resistance by African Americans. Predictably, the prominence of the criminality stereotype decreased during this period of secure control. Nevertheless, the image was firmly rooted and experienced a resurgence with the next major challenge to white supremacy, the rise of black militancy in the 1960s.

In the early twentieth century, much of the African American community adhered to the accommodationist philosophy of Booker T. Washington. The most prominent representative of black America — thanks in large part to support from the white community — Washington preached a doctrine of bootstraps economics, self-help, and conflict avoidance and encouraged African Americans to accept the limitations that racism forced on them.

Opposition to Washington’s message solidified behind the leadership of the black scholar W.E.B. DuBois, who advocated the use of political protest to force the recognition of African Americans’ rights. DuBois co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, an activist organization focused on ending the practice of lynching, mounting legal challenges to segregationism, and fighting racial injustice in the courts. The advocates of political protest wrested the mantle of black leadership from Washington during the interwar period. However, they did not have the resources or the agenda to constitute a significant threat to the system of white supremacy.

The same cannot be said of the black militancy of the 1960s and early 1970s. The beginning of the civil rights movement signified the emergence of a new style of African American protest. Civil rights activists engaged in direct confrontation with the institutions of white supremacy to demand equal rights for all Americans. They mobilized bewildering numbers of people, were willing to take great personal risks, and used assertive tactics such as marches, nonviolent demonstrations, sit-ins, and the freedom rides.

The early civil rights movement presumed the existence of a pool of good will in the white community, calling on white Americans to recognize and eliminate the injustices and oppression in their society. Although this aspect of the movement sometimes seems moderate and mainstream in retrospect, it was a radical departure from the black activism of the first half of the twentieth century.

Nevertheless, more radical voices from the African American community constantly criticized the leaders of the civil rights movement, exhorting them to go further, push harder, and move faster. The dominant figure among the black radicals of the early 1960s was Malcolm X, who rose to prominence as the spokesperson for the Nation of Islam but later rejected their doctrine in favor of a more open and global platform. Malcolm derided the civil rights activists for relying on the good will of whites to give African Americans what was rightfully theirs. Blacks should not ask for equity, he said, but demand and take it.

Furthermore, Malcolm X criticized the civil rights movement’s goal of racial integration. Given White America’s brutal treatment of African Americans from slavery onward, he asked, why should blacks fight to be assimilated into white society? Instead, he advocated the creation of a separate nation for African Americans on American soil. Malcolm also opposed the civil rights leaders’ commitment to nonviolence. He argued that African Americans should use any means at their disposal to fight against their subjugation, including, if necessary, violence. He maintained:

You don’t have a peaceful revolution. You don’t have a turn-the-other-cheek revolution. There’s no such thing as a nonviolent revolution. The only kind of revolution that is nonviolent is the Negro revolution. The only revolution in which the goal is loving your enemy is the Negro revolution. It’s the only revolution in which the goal is a desegregated lunch counter, a desegregated theater, a desegregated park, and a desegregated public toilet; you can sit down next to white folks-on the toilet. That’s no revolution. Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.

Malcolm X was assassinated, apparently by fellow black radicals, in 1965, but his legacy includes the ideological underpinnings of the Black Power movement. In 1966 more militant and radical activists came to the forefront of the civil rights movement. Led by Stokely Carmichael, the charismatic head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Black Power militants called for exclusive African American control of the previously integrated civil rights organizations, made more aggressive and forceful demands, and abandoned the philosophy of nonviolence.

As important as what the Black Power militants said, however, was how they said it. Their rhetoric and image were angrier, more confrontational, and more impatient that those of their predecessors. Where the mainstream civil rights leaders had tried to be understanding toward whites, the new militants were aggressive to the point of being threatening. Michele Wallace explains in her book Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman:

To most of us Black Power meant wooly heads, big black fists and stern black faces, gargantuan omnipotent black male organs, big black rifles and foot-long combat boots, tight pants over young muscular asses, dashikis, and broad brown chests; black men looting and rioting in the streets, taking over the country by brute force, arrogant lawlessness and an unquestionable sexual authority granted them as the victims of four hundred years of racism and abuse. The media emphasized this definition.

To many white Americans, the Black Power militants appeared the embodiments of the criminality stereotype: angry, violent, lawless brutes bent on revenge for past mistreatment.

The most extreme example of Black Power militancy came from the Black Panthers. Organized on the streets of Oakland, California, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was the brainchild of Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. Heavily influenced by the revolutionary theory of Algerian nationalist Frantz Fanon, they argued that African Americans were trapped in system of internal colonialism and that the only way for the black American “colony” to escape white exploitation and control was through violent revolution.

What set the Panthers apart was their willingness to back up their rhetoric with action — often recklessly so. They identified the police as the military agents of the oppressing state and initiated a campaign to defend the African American community from their violence. Armed Black Panthers took to the streets in Oakland to monitor the local police, who were notorious for brutal treatment of non-whites. Following heavy media coverage of the Oakland Panther patrols, chapters for the Black Panther Party began to spring up across the nation in the late 1960s. However, the nucleus of the party was destroyed when the Oakland police enticed the patrols into several gunfights and the party leaders were jailed.

The debate continues on whether the Panthers were truly trying to be the revolutionary vanguard or were just opportunistic street thugs who adopted the language of black protest as justification. However, the popular conception in the white community seized on the latter version. By reducing the Panthers’ radical militancy and assertiveness to mere street crime, they justified the suppression of a dangerous rebel group.

More than the isolated violence of the Panthers, however, the widespread rioting in African American communities during the summers of 1964 to 1968 brought together the notions of black political aggressiveness and criminality. Just as the Black Power rhetoric was threatening a violent revolution against white supremacy, America’s black ghettos were exploding in violence. For the worst year of the rioting, 1967, the Senate Permanent Committee on Investigation determined that there had been 75 “major” riots, in which 83 people died, 16,389 people were arrested, and $664.5 million in property damage was done. The timely juxtaposition of aggressive politics and criminal violence led to a spectacular resurgence of the image of African Americans as lawless brutes.

The stark collision in the late 1960s between black militancy and criminality encouraged an enduring tendency for whites to perceive virtually any assertive behavior on the part of African Americans as dangerous, threatening, and criminal. This legacy is evident in the beating case of Rodney King. The outrage over police brutality in African American communities is as strong now as when the Black Panthers organized their first patrols. Police brutality cases aggravate longstanding resentment in Black communities over the presence of agents of an oppressive government. King, too, was more than an uncooperative drunken driver. He was a meeting point of black assertiveness and criminality, and to the Simi Valley jury, that was enough to justify his brutal suppression. After more than four centuries of development, the criminality stereotype has itself become an instrument for social control.


Last night the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, turned fiery with outrage after the grand jury refused to indict a white police officer for killing an unarmed black teenager.

Did the longstanding tendency of white Americans to associate black men with violence and crime have anything to the death of Michael Brown?Consider these details from the grand jury testimony:

  • Officer Wilson said of his physical altercation with the comparably sized Brown — both men were 6'4" and 200+ pounds—that it “felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.” Keep in mind that Wilson was in uniform and armed with a gun.
  • Wilson said Brown “had the most aggressive face. That’s the only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.”
  • At another point, he described Brown as making “a grunting, like aggravated sound.”
  • Wilson said he was full-out punched in the face by Brown twice and feared that a third punch would be fatal. A fatal punch through a car window. Afterward, though, his injuries looked like this:

Keep in mind that Rodney King, whose assailants were found not guilty of criminal battery, looked like this:

Jamelle Bouie, writing for Slate, just published a piece on this same topic, detailing the ways that Officer Wilson, and the misfiring prosecution, echoed the longstanding fears of marauding black men in their vilification of a dead black teenager. Take a look: