On December 6, 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt used one of his first national radio addresses to call lynch law “collective murder” and to condemn those “in high places or in low who condone lynch law.” Alluding to the growing number of federal anti-lynching legislation supporters, he stated that a new generation of Americans “seeks action . . . and is not content with preaching against that vile form of collective murder — lynch law — which has broken out in our midst anew.” Though Roosevelt spoke out against lynching, he still would not support the anti-lynching proposed laws.
On October 26, 1934, Claude Neal was lynched in Marianna, Florida. This lynching had a traumatic effect on the nation’s approval of lynching. The young black man was lynched after confessing to the murder of Lola Cannidy. The methods used to extract the confession cast doubt on its validity. Ms. Cannidy, a young white neighbor, was supposedly having an affair with Neal. To ensure Claude’s safety he was kept in an Alabama jail. The lynch mob took him from the authorities and subjected him to ten hours of excruciating torture and mutilation before he was murdered.
Neal’s body was then tied to a rope at the rear of an automobile and dragged over the highway to the Cannidy home. Here a mob estimated to number somewhere between 3000 and 7000 from eleven southern states were excitedly awaiting his arrival. It was then taken back to Marianna, where it was hung to a tree on the northeast corner of the courthouse square. Pictures were taken of the mutilated form and hundreds of photographs were sold for fifty cents each. Neal’s fingers were sold as souvenirs to the bloodthirsty crowd who arrived too late to witness the gory festivities.
What made this situation even more deplorable is the fact that the Florida press had advance notice of the lynching and reported it in their newspapers. However, not one official at the local, state, or federal level tried to prevent the lynching. Neal’s lynching was followed by a race riot in the town of Marianna in which white rioters attempted to drive all blacks out of the city.
While the Neal lynching may have been the last “spectacle” lynching in the nation, many other lynchings of a less publicized nature would follow. In fact, Marianna would be the site of another lynching less than 10 years later.
On July 19, 1935, a woman named Marion Jones in Fort Lauderdale, Florida made a complaint against a black man who had appeared at her door.
In no time, Rubin Stacy was picked up by authorities and while he was being escorted to the Dade County jail in Miami, Florida, he was forcibly taken by a white mob. The mob returned the 32-year-old man to Fort Lauderdale and hanged him outside Jones’ home. However, the investigation revealed that Stacy was nothing more than a homeless tenant farmer who had gone to the Jones home, asking for food. When Marion Jones saw him, she became frightened and screamed. The white mob had never even given Stacy the chance of discovering the facts before he died at the end of a rope.
Even the appearance in the newspapers of these lynchings failed to change Roosevelt’s mind on speaking out for another anti-lynching bill proposed after Stacey’s murder. Though the proposed bill received more support than it had in the past, it was defeated. However, the national debate taking place over the issue helped to bring attention to the crime of lynching to the American public.
Be it lynchings or legal hangings, the spectacle of death was most often a public event until 1936. The last legal execution made public occurred in the early morning of August 14, 1936, when a crowd of 20,000 gathered to watch the public hanging of Rainey Bethea in Owensboro, Kentucky. Bethea, a 22-year-old black man, had been convicted of the rape and murder of a seventy-year-old white woman. Hundreds of reporters and photographers, some from as far away as New York and Chicago, were sent to Owensboro to cover what was supposed to the country’s first hanging conducted by a woman.
The county sheriff was a woman named Florence Thompson, a widow and mother of four, deliberately had the scaffold erected so that thousands could witness the execution. The execution was widely publicized, as much for the execution itself, as the fact that the executioner was to be the first female to ever act as such. So many people invaded Owensboro for the spectacle that terrified local blacks fled the town, especially after receiving lynching threats from many of the drunken white revelers. As the crowd waited all night to witness the execution at dawn, parties developed among the anxious crowd, as snacks were hawked by the many children in the festive atmosphere.
The large crowd included over 200 sheriffs and deputies from various parts of the U.S., and other than just six black people, the throbbing mass was made up of completely whites. Except for those elbowing for a better position, the crowd remained fairly well behaved.
Before Bethea’s arrival, the hangman tested the knot and when it snapped open, a loud cheer went up from the onlookers. But, of Sheriff Florence Thompson, there was no sign.
Shortly after sunrise, Bethea walked out of the jail, accompanied by a Catholic priest, Father Lemmons, and two deputies. When he arrived at the top of the gallows he was given the chance to give his last words, but instead, he stood silent as Father Lemmons raised his hand to hush the crowd. Phil Hanna, who’d supervised 70 Southern hangings, pulled a long black hood over Bethea’s head and the noose placed around his neck.
One wire service dispatch read: “Cheering, booing, eating and joking, 20,000 persons witnessed the public execution of Rainey Bethea, 22, frightened Negro boy, at Owensboro, Ky., yesterday. In callous, carnival spirit, the mob charged the gallows after the trap was sprung, tore the executioner’s hood from the corpse, chipping the gallows for souvenirs. Mothers attended with babes in arms, hot dog vendors hawked their wares and a woman across the street held a necktie breakfast for relatives. The woman sheriff, at the last minute, decided not to spring the trap.”
An embarrassed Kentucky General Assembly quickly abolished public executions and before long those states still sanctioning public executions followed suit. Rainey Bethea was the last man publicly executed in the United States.
Falling eight feet, the rope tightened and broke Bethea’s neck. The still-warm body was then attacked by souvenir hunters, tearing off pieces of clothing and some even attempting to cut pieces of flesh from the poor man’s body. The spectators were backed away so that two physicians could examine the body and when a pulse was found, a large groan went up from the crowd. From the time that the trapdoor fell to when Bethea was pronounced dead at 5:45 a.m., 14 minutes had passed. When the final determination was made that the man was officially a corpse, several people began fighting over the hood that covered his head. Only 37 days had elapsed between his arrest and his execution.
After Bethea’s body was hauled away in a pauper’s basket, Sheriff Florence Thompson told reporters that she had decided against flipping the lever herself because, “I did not want people pointing to my children and saying, their mother was the one who hanged a Negro at Owensboro.”
Afterward the reporters, who had paid dearly to get to the “boonies,” rushed off to write their stories. Many people contend that in their disappointment to see the first woman in U.S. history perform an execution, they took their anger out against the spectators and the town of Owensboro. Exaggerating an event which needed no further embellishment, the headlines cried: “The Center of Barbarism,” “Children Picnic as Killer Pays,” and “They Ate Hot Dogs While a Man Died on the Gallows.”
In 1937 and again in 1940, yet two more anti-lynching bills passed through the House of Representatives, but were defeated in the Senate. Although the NAACP had failed to get a federal law passed, lynchings had almost disappeared by 1950. The NAACP’s 30-year struggle to publicize the barbarity of lynch mobs had penetrated even the most backward and racist regions of the country.
It was not one single event alone that spurred the people to action when finally the Civil Rights Movement was born. Instead, the Movement developed out of the post-World War II society in the mid-1950s and early 1960s. Instead, each individual struggle and its subsequent achievement altered the tone of society and the expectations of present and future generations.
As a reaction to the Civil Rights Movement, southerners revived the ever-effective lynching, which had been in decline, to combat the achievements of the movement. The violent deaths inflicted both on locals who attempted to work within their own community as well as on “outside agitators” from such Civil Rights organizations as the Congress of Racial Equality attempted to maintain the status quo of Southern society through the implicit threat of the lynch mob. Lynching, however, had the opposite of its intended effect. Instead of silencing the black population and dissuading them from organizing, several well-publicized lynchings galvanized the Civil Rights movement, introduced a national audience to the violence inflicted by an archaic social order, and even forced the federal government to become involved in what had been a state government concern.
Even after the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, lynchings persisted in the Deep South, the most significant of which was the illegal execution of 19-year-old Michael Donald.
In 1981, a black man who was charged with the murder of a white policeman stood trial in Mobile, Alabama. When his trial took place, the jury was unable to reach a verdict. Upset Ku Klux Klan members believed that some black members of the jury had affected this outcome and at a meeting after the trial, Bennie Hays, the second-highest ranking official in the Alabama Klan said: “If a black man can get away with killing a white man, we ought to be able to get away with killing a black man.”
On Saturday, March 21, 1981, Bennie Hays’ son, Henry Hays, and James Knowles decided they would get revenge for the failure of the courts to convict the African American for killing a policeman.
Traveling around Mobile in their car, they soon found Michael Donald walking home. Donald had nothing to do with the murder of the police officer and was in no way involved in the trial. He was just an innocent man that the Ku Klux Klan chose randomly to exact revenge for the acquittal of the other man during the trial. When the pair spotted Michael Donald, they forced him into their car, drove to the next county and lynched him.