EXCLUSIVE: Experts on history of lynching rebut Jeffrey Lord's Sherrod claim

Experts on the history of lynching are criticizing an American Spectator report which claimed that Shirley Sherrod's statement that her relative Bobby Hall was lynched was “factually, provably untrue.”

In his article, Jeffrey Lord, a former Reagan administration official, said that because Hall was beaten to death, rather than hanged, Sherrod's statement that Hall had been lynched was a “straight out fabrication.” Lord's article has come under fire, both from other American Spectator writers and from progressive bloggers and columnists, since its publication on July 26.

“I don't know how in the world you can say” Hall's death is “not a lynching,” said Christopher Waldrep, a professor of history at San Francisco State University. “People at the time had no question that it was a lynching. I mean, there was no particular debate.” Waldrep has authored several books on lynching, including The Many Faces of Judge Lynch: Extralegal Violence and Punishment in America, in which he discusses the Hall case.

Michael Pfeifer, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the author of Rough Justice: Lynching and American Society, 1874-1947, likewise concluded that “Jeffrey Lord's reasoning is fallacious” and “profoundly ahistorical.” Pfeifer added that while the word “lynching” “has always eluded simple, consensus definitions,” its use “was most often, but never exclusively, hanging (shootings, beatings, burnings, etc. were also called 'lynchings').”

“The term had no official definition,” agreed Illinois State University professor Amy Wood, author of Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940. Wood said that anti-lynching activists used varied definitions in the first half of the last century, but “No definitions of lynching limited it to hanging.”

While Lord continues to dispute Sherrod's statement that Hall was lynched because lynching supposedly requires “mob action” and “Three people are not a 'mob,'” Wood says that “the NAACP (which had the most influence in crafting anti-lynching legislation) defined lynching as an extralegal killing, committed by at least 3 person in the name of justice or tradition.” Pfeifer adds that “by the early to mid twentieth century racially motivated murders perpetrated by small groups -- as opposed to large mobs -- became most characteristic of such violence.”

Asked for comment, University of North Carolina professor Fitzhugh Brundage, author of Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1990-1930, said that “Sherrod's use of the term is well within the conventions that both blacks and whites have recognized for at least a century.” He also calls Lord “clearly insensitive to the ways in which African Americans used the term lynching,” given what he terms an “historical imprecision of the term lynching in general.”

Brundage also identified a flaw in Lord's argument that the Supreme Court agreed that Hall was not lynched because they did not identify his death as a lynching in the ruling in which the case ultimately resulted. Brundage commented, “The Supreme Court would have had no reason to label Sheriff Screws' actions a lynching; there was no federal statute against lynching so the Court would have no reason to invoke the language of lynching in its decision.”

Waldrep similarly identified Lord's Supreme Court argument as “kind of crazy” and “nuts,” saying that the Supreme Court did not address the issue of whether Hall was lynched in their decision because it was “not the question they were being asked.”

Waldrep went on to say that while they did not address whether Hall was lynched in their decision, the Court was well aware that his death was a lynching. He cited 16 pages of notes taken by Justice Frank Murphy during the Court's private discussions on the case, in which Murphy quoted Justice Robert Jackson stating that if they upheld the convictions of Hall's murderers, they would have effectively created the federal anti-lynching statute that had failed to make it through Congress. “They knew full well it was a lynching,” said Waldrep. “That was the problem.”

According to Waldrep, Murphy's notes are published in Del Dickson's The Supreme Court in Conference (1940-1985): The Private Discussions Behind Nearly 300 Supreme Court Decisions. The notes are “readily available,” said Waldrep. Finding them “doesn't take any great feat of detective work.”