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At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America
PHILIP DRAY

At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America by Philip Dray
26 reviews (2002) (544p)
Pulitzer Prize for History Finalist

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Book Description
It is easy to shrink from our country's brutal history of lynching. Lynching is called the last great skeleton in our nation's closet: It terrorized all of black America, claimed thousands upon thousands of victims in the decades between the 1880s and the Second World War, and leaves invisible but deep scars to this day. The cost of pushing lynching into the shadows, however—misremembering it as isolated acts perpetrated by bigots on society's fringes—is insupportably high: Until we understand how pervasive and socially accepted the practice was—and, more important, why this was so—it will haunt all efforts at racial reconciliation.

"I could not suppress the thought," James Baldwin once recalled of seeing the red clay hills of Georgia on his first trip to the South, "that this earth had acquired its color from the blood that had dripped down from these trees." Throughout America, not just in the South, blacks accused of a crime—or merely of violating social or racial customs—were hunted by mobs, abducted from jails, and given summary "justice" in blatant defiance of all guarantees of due process under law. Men and women were shot, hanged, tortured, and burned, often in sadistic, picnic-like "spectacle lynchings" involving thousands of witnesses. "At the hands of persons unknown" was the official verdict rendered on most of these atrocities.

The celebrated historian Philip Dray shines a clear, bright light on this dark history—its causes, perpetrators, apologists, and victims. He also tells the story of the men and women who led the long and difficult fight to expose and eradicate lynching, including Ida B. Wells, James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, and W.E.B. Du Bois. If lynching is emblematic of what is worst about America, their fight may stand for what is best: the love of justice and fairness and the conviction that one individual's sense of right can suffice to defy the gravest of wrongs. This landmark book follows the trajectory of both forces over American history—and makes the history of lynching belong to us all.


Amazon.com Review
Lynching, the extrajudicial punishment inflicted by vigilantes and mobs on often innocent victims, was far from an unusual occurrence, though some historians have depicted it as such. Instead, writes Philip Dray, lynching was part of a "systematized reign of terror that was used to maintain the power whites had over blacks." Drawing on records held at the Tuskegee Institute, Dray argues that from 1882 until 1952, not a single year passed without a recorded lynching somewhere in the United States, most often in the Deep South and Mississippi Delta regions. This violent "justice," meted out "at the hands of persons unknown" (with, therefore, no possibility of attaching guilt to the perpetrators, though, as Dray points out, such seemingly spontaneous events required organization and planning) held African American communities in terror and was one force behind the exodus of black southerners to the north in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Dray's extraordinary study reveals a pattern of crime against humanity, one that, he writes, diminished gradually for various reasons, not least of them the work of reformers and ordinary citizens "who knew we were too good to be a nation of lynchers." --Gregory McNamee


Philip Dray Award Stats
Major Prize* Nominations 1  
Unique Books Nominated for a Major Prize* 1  
Pulitzer Prize Wins 0  
Pulitzer Prize Nominations 1 At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America ·  
National Book Critics Circle Award Wins 0  
National Book Critics Circle Award Nominations 0  
National Book Award Wins 0  
National Book Award Nominations 0  
Man Booker Prize Wins 0  
Man Booker Prize Nominations 0  
PEN/Faulkner Award Wins 0  
PEN/Faulkner Award Nominations 0  

*Major Prize = Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award, National Book Award, Man Booker Prize, and PEN/Faulkner Award

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