In america they used to burn people at the stake. But while Europe stopped the practice hundreds of years ago, in America human bonfires were being lit well into the 20th century.That is part of the horrifying history laid out masterfully by Philip Dray in his incredible book At The Hands Of Persons Unknown. Between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the 1930s, more than 3,000 blacks were lynched, the majority of these killings taking place in the South.
This is a long book, full of sweaty, cowardly lawmen and blood-crazed mobs. The writing is so clear that you can almost hear the crickets chirping and feel the humidity on those murderous Southern nights and dusty days.
But lynching wasn't just about hanging. These killings were by nature ritualistic. Often the victims were roasted or dissected alive. And after the brutal act was done, bits of flesh and bone would be harvested from the body and kept or sold to morbid collectors.
Lynchings were far from secret -- they was community events. Children were brought to these grisly scenes by giddy adults who felt cheated if the victim died too quickly.
In the midst of this horrible wave of murder, a defiant and confident black resistance was born. The fight against lynching was led -- and eventually won -- by tough black activists like Ida Wells, W.E.B. Dubois and the intellectuals of the NAACP and the Communist-led International Labor Defense.
Booker T. Washington, though, comes across as a confused man who didn't really understand the dynamics of white racism. Woodrow Wilson is portrayed as a Southern hypocrite who brought segregation to Washington, DC. Only Harry S. Truman is depicted as a champion of black aspirations.
This is a deeply depressing and unsettling book, a portrait of America that America would rather not see.
At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America by Philip Dray (Random House), 544 pages, $53 cloth. Rating: NNNNN