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Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography Essay

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Updated: Dec 5th, 2021

Introduction

The photographs in Without Sanctuary provide a record of the intolerance and racism that was standard in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. Though the majority of the photographs are of African-American victims, there are a few scattered photos of white men and white immigrants who also fell victim to lynching.

Discussion

Does the compilation of these photographs help to stir our collective conscience? The thoughtful reader would have to be sickened by the pictures and the details that go with most of them. If the purpose of studying the book is scholarship – the reader is gathering evidence or hoping to understand the mindset of white Americans at this time, then the book is a historical treasure. However, if the book is made available to readers who are simply to be shocked by it, like a high school or introductory college course, then it will probably get mixed reactions. Some students will hate what they see and feel shame for the crimes; others might be deadened to any effect because in some ways the pictures have an old time movie quality. They seem more like the work of a special effects technician than reality.

It’s interesting that most of the lynchings take place in southern states like the Carolinas and Georgia, but there are also several that take place in Oklahoma and Texas. These are more traditionally considered western states, but the crimes take place there too. The audience in most of the lynchings were white middle class men. Their clothes are often standard business attire, white shirts and ties. Most are wearing hats. In most of the photos, individuals can be clearly seen. They do not seem to worry about identification. Considering that many of the photos had stories that indicated the police authorities had either no guards or “modest” guards for these victims, then they were probably correct in assuming there would be no prosecution for their roles as hangmen.

African-American victims were usually accused of murdering white men, white families, or assaulting white women. Lynchings were special treatment for their crimes against whites. Immigrants were generally targeted if they led union efforts or were seen as anarchists of some kind. White men who were lynched generally were suspected of terrible crimes against families or women, and the perception was that they were going to get away with what they did, making the men who lynched them seem like avengers.

It’s terrible, but typical, that some of the African-American victims were also castrated before their deaths. Some of them were burned to death, the most horrible death of all. Maybe the saddest commentary is how many of these photographs and postcards were considered souvenirs and often found in estate sales. How ingrained racism and acceptance of cruelty towards African-Americans and other “undesirables” must have been for people to view these as keepsakes.

Conclusion

Without Sanctuary is a necessary book. It may be hard to stomach, but the record of history in this area has to be kept open. Like the Holocaust, it is best to remember the past, regardless of how horrible it was, so that it will never happen again.

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IvyPanda. "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography." December 5, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/without-sanctuary-lynching-photography/.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography." December 5, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/without-sanctuary-lynching-photography/.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography'. 5 December.

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