Just over a year after the end of slavery in the United States, New Orleans hosted a convention of white men seeking to ensure Louisiana’s new constitution would guarantee voting rights for black residents.
Virulently racist opposition by the local press, which denounced both the convention’s attendees and its intent, preceded the July 1866 gathering. And when black men from the surrounding area staged a march in support of the convention, a mob of white men and police enacted a horrific scene of racial terror.
“For several hours, the police and mob, in mutual and bloody emulation, continued the butchery in the hall and on the street, until nearly two hundred people were killed and wounded,” wrote a Congressional committee tasked with investigating the massacre. “How many were killed will never be known. But we cannot doubt there were many more than set down in the official list in evidence.”
This incident is one of nearly 2,000 white supremacist massacres and killings recorded in a new report from the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), an Alabama-based nonprofit dedicated to combating racial inequality. The survey details nearly 2,000 racial terror lynchings of black men, women and children during the Reconstruction era of 1865 to 1876.
In 2015, EJI researchers released a report documenting more than 4,400 lynchings that took place between 1877 and 1950. The new study, titled Reconstruction in America: Racial Violence After the Civil War, brings the overall death toll between 1865 and 1950 to nearly 6,500.
“We cannot understand our present moment without recognizing the lasting damage caused by allowing white supremacy and racial hierarchy to prevail during Reconstruction,” says Bryan Stevenson, EJI’s founder and director, in a statement.
As Safiya Charles writes for the Montgomery Advertiser, Reconstruction-era lynchings, as well as thousands of largely unprosecuted acts of assault and terrorism during the period, “were used to intimidate, coerce and control Black communities with the impunity of local, state and federal officials—a legacy that has once again boiled over, as nationwide protests sparked by multiple police killings and extrajudicial violence against Black Americans call for an end to centuries of hostility and persecution.”
The names of more than 4,000 lynching victims are written in stone at EJI’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Since opening in Montgomery in 2018, the memorial and its accompanying museum have welcomed around 750,000 visitors, reports Campbell Robertson for the New York Times.
Stevenson tells the Times that building the museum and memorial made EJI’s team realize that the 12-year period following the Civil War saw a disproportionate number of killings of black Americans and therefore warranted special attention.
“If there was any period of time where white animus toward blacks was omnipresent, particularly in the South, it was certainly during the time of Reconstruction,” Derryn Moten, a historian at Alabama State University, tells the Montgomery Advertiser. “That was the dawning of African Americans’ new freedom. … [But it] was also the time period when the Klan and other terror groups came into fruition.”
The white supremacist terrorism perpetrated against black Americans during Reconstruction effectively nullified constitutional amendments designed to provide black people with equal legal protections and ensure their right to vote, according to the report. As Stevenson explains to the Guardian’s Ed Pilkington, American institutions ranging from local sheriffs to the Supreme Court—which passed decisions that blocked efforts to enact further legal protections for black U.S. citizens—failed to protect the rights outlined in these landmark amendments.
“It’s only because we gave in to this lawlessness and abandoned the rule of law and decided that these constitutional amendments would not be enforced that it was possible to have nearly a century of racial terror,” Stevenson tells the Times.
The thousands of racial terror lynchings documented in the report likely represent just a fraction of the carnage’s true scope: “[T]housands more were attacked, sexually assaulted, and terrorized by white mobs and individuals who were shielded from arrest and prosecution,” the study’s authors write.
Speaking with the Montgomery Advertiser, Stevenson adds, “Our continued silence about the history of racial injustice has fueled many of the current problems surrounding police violence, mass incarceration, racial inequality, and the disparate impact of COVID-19.”
In 2016, Jordan Steiker, a law professor at the University of Texas, told the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin that the legacy of lynching continues to influence the criminal justice system today—particularly in the case of capital punishment.
“In one sense, the death penalty is clearly a substitute for lynching. One of the main justifications for the use of the death penalty, especially in the South, was that it served to avoid lynching,” Steiker said. “The number of people executed rises tremendously at the end of the lynching era. And there’s still incredible overlap between places that had lynching and places that continue to use the death penalty.”
EJI’s new report, as well as its memorial and museum, seeks to expose Americans to their nation’s history of white supremacy and the acts of racial terrorism it inspired.
“It’s important that we quantify and document violence,” Stevenson tells the Times. “But what’s more important is that we acknowledge that we have not been honest about who we are, and about how we came to this moment.”