On March 7, a very long struggle for justice came one step closer to success. The Senate passed legislation that designates lynching as a hate crime and sent the Emmett Till Antilynching Act to President Joe Biden’s desk.
For the Rev. Malcolm Foley, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on religious responses to lynching, news of the bill’s passage was a reminder of how far we’ve come. One hundred years ago, such a measure couldn’t even get a hearing. Soon, it’ll be the law of the land.
At the same time, the bill is a reminder of how far we still have to go, he said. It’s good that lawmakers took action on lynching, but other forms of racial violence persist.
“An actual reckoning with the depth of this problem has yet to take place,” said the Rev. Foley, who serves as special adviser to the president for equity and campus engagement at Baylor University, pastor of Mosaic Waco and director of Black church studies for Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas.
I spoke with the Rev. Foley this week about the history of lynching, including how white and Black churches responded to mob violence. He addressed what faith groups can do today to atone for inaction in the past.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Kelsey Dallas: How did you feel when you heard Congress passed an anti-lynching bill?
The Rev. Malcolm Foley: My first thought was of how long we’ve been trying to do this —104 years.
The passage is a good thing, but lynching isn’t happening nearly as often today as it did in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Because of that, the bill is more of a symbolic move.
But, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The law can’t make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also.” So we never settle for small measures, but the small measures are important.
KD: Can you share a brief history of lynching in the United States? What factors led to its rise in the late 19th century?
MF: One of the precursors was the tarring and feathering of outlaws in the West and other practices like that. After the Civil War, during the period of reconstruction, paramilitary groups like the (Ku Klux) Klan would lynch both white and Black people. They used lynching as a tool of suppression.
In the late 1880s, you can see this narrative start to circulate in Southern newspapers that there’s a scourge of Black men raping white women. Communities started to operate as if that was true. The numbers and proportion of Black people being killed by mobs rose significantly.
Then, as before, lynching was more than a response to alleged crimes. It was a way to suppress Black communities and to keep folks in fear.
KD: Why did you study lynching as part of a history of Christianity program?
MF: I got into this particular topic through a class on American Christianity after the Civil War. I knew that the church was one of the most significant institutions in the Black community and one of the only institutions where Black people felt safe enough to not only express themselves but also to exert authority. If there was going to be a place where there would be encouragement to resist lynching or encouragement to survive, it seemed obvious that the church was going to be the place.
But when I looked through the literature, I realized there was almost nothing out there on this topic. I had to do it myself.
I ended up writing my dissertation on Black Protestant responses to lynching. I sometimes joke with my friends that if I had focused on white Christian responses, I would have been pretty depressed.
KD: So I take it that white Christians in the past weren’t leading the charge against lynching?
MF: White Christians were basically saying, “If you just behave yourselves, this would all stop.” Those who spoke out against lynching often focused on the fact that it was outside the law. They worried more about encouraging anarchy than discouraging this crime against humanity.
Lynching should never be done to another human being. And yet that argument was made by very few white Christians.
KD: What messages did you find from Black Christians?
MF: In Black churches, there was a significant range of responses to lynching. Some called for prayer, saying things like, “We need to pray that the Lord will deliver us, however the Lord does it.” Others called for self-defense and, over time, more and more Black Christians became willing to defend themselves.
KD: You noted earlier that lynching became less common in the mid-20th century. What changed? Did the self-defense work?
MF: One of the things that curbed lynching was the great migration. People left the South seeking economic opportunity and fleeing racial terror.
Another factor was the efforts of folks like Ida B. Wells to raise awareness of American racism in other countries. Eventually, you saw people in France, Japan and other countries writing about how wrong it was that lynchings were taking place. That kind of pushback led to change.
Some historians also argue that the drop in lynchings was tied to the rise of capital punishment in the 1930s and 1940s. They say that communities no longer felt the need to gather in mobs and take matters into their own hands when the state started fulfilling the purpose they wanted it to.
KD: That helps explain current tension around the death penalty and why some people want Congress to do far more than classify lynching as a hate crime, right?
MF: The bill is important, but we can’t forget the modern forms of racial violence that it doesn’t address. The same beliefs that led to lynching can be expressed in ways that don’t involved a conspiracy to commit a hate crime leading to death or serious bodily harm, which is the language in the bill.
KD: In other words, there’s a lot of work still to do to address racism. How can churches help?
MF: Church communities need to be thinking about the cycle of exploitation, violence and self-justification that’s killing our brothers and sisters and neighbors. Lynching is just one piece of that cycle.
Churches have an opportunity to bear witness to a way of living with one another that undermines that exploitation, violence and self-justification. It ought to be the case that people can point to church communities and see an alternative way of life where love is central. We’re called to do something countercultural.