In December 1865, seven months after President Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified with these words:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction,” the amendment says.
For Black Americans, the moment represented liberty in its truest form: The country’s defining document now outlawed slavery. But the 13th Amendment infuriated many white Southerners, who refused to accept the outcome of the Civil War.
What happened over the next 12 years during the period known as Reconstruction was one of the most brutal stretches of organized racial terror in American history, with white mobs attacking and lynching Black people. The unprovoked assaults stretched into the early 1950s.
Historians have struggled for years to figure out just how many Black people were lynched. Now, a new report from the Equal Justice Initiative is updating the number. The Alabama-based organization said its researchers have documented 6,500 lynchings between 1865 and 1950, including 2,000 attacks during Reconstruction that weren’t tallied in its previous reports.
Thousands of other Black people were also assaulted and raped, the organization said. And the actual number of attacks may never be known.
“Emboldened Confederate veterans and former enslavers organized a reign of terror that effectively nullified constitutional amendments designed to provide Black people with equal protection and the right to vote,” the report said. “Violence, mass lynchings, and lawlessness enabled white Southerners to create a regime of white supremacy and Black disenfranchisement alongside a new economic order that continued to exploit Black labor.”
EJI’s report, issued amid sweeping protests around the country against police brutality against Black people, contains graphic depictions of the violence.
“On the night of March 6, 1871, a mob of armed white men hanged a Black man named James Williams in York County, South Carolina, and terrorized the local African American community, assaulting residents and burning homes. Mr. Williams, enslaved before the Civil War, had recently organized a coalition to protect the freedom of Black people in York County. White residents circulated rumors claiming that he posed a threat, and as his former enslaver later testified, his presence ’caused a great deal of uneasiness.’ Details of the lynching were sparsely documented but federal officials arrested and prosecuted several alleged members of the mob. One testified during trial that, after hanging Mr. Williams, the mob stopped to get ‘some crackers and whiskey.’ “
The EJI report said lynchings during Reconstruction came amid failures at the Supreme Court and in Congress to protect Black people.
“In decision after decision, the Court ceded control to the same white Southerners who used terror and violence to stop Black political participation, upheld laws and practices codifying racial hierarchy, and embraced a new constitutional order defined by ‘states’ rights,'” the report said.
The Reconstruction period, and the violence against Black people during it, have been overlooked by society and historians for far too long, the organization said.
“The new era of Reconstruction offered great promise and could have radically changed the history of this country,” the report said. “However, it quickly became clear that emancipation in the United States did not mean equality for Black people.”