At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, Philip Dray, 8 January 2002

At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, Philip Dray, 2002

Philip Dray, At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black AmericaThis extraordinary account of lynching in America, by acclaimed civil rights historian Philip Dray, shines a clear, bright light on American history’s darkest stain—illuminating its causes, perpetrators, apologists, and victims. Philip Dray also tells the story of the men and women who led the long and difficult fight to expose and eradicate lynching, including Ida B. Wells, James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, and W.E.B. Du Bois. If lynching is emblematic of what is worst about America, their fight may stand for what is best: the commitment to justice and fairness and the conviction that one individual’s sense of right can suffice to defy the gravest of wrongs. This landmark book follows the trajectory of both forces over American history—and makes lynching’s legacy belong to us all.

A review by Ta-Nehisi Coates“Strange Fruit”:

“If you now find yourself obsessed, in the wake of September 11, with the possibilities of other heinous acts, if you feel like a target for zealotry and extremism, if you are now doubting your government’s ability to protect you, then you are getting an idea of what it has felt like to be African-American for a good part of this country’s history.

Those parallels, and the feeling of dread, and their lingering influence on black Americans’ attitudes towards police and other authorities, are dramatically evoked in a new book by Philip Dray, At the Hands of Persons Unknown. The book is a thorough history of mob violence directed against African-Americans over nearly a century after the end of slavery, starting in 1886 and not truly ending until 1964, when the last known mob-directed lynching occurred with explicit assistance and approval from local police officials.

Dray has created a complex portrait of an American—particularly Southern—tradition of publicly murdering African-Americans, drawing on documents collected at the Tuskegee Institute known as the Lynching Archives. The typical lynching started with a fabricated report of a white woman ravished by a black man. A mob usually gathered and some previously anonymous black male was put to death in some excruciating way, thus restoring the honor of the befouled dame.”