At the Hands of Persons Unknown by Philip Dray
The Lynching of Black America

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Synopsis

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.


From the Hardcover edition.
 

About Philip Dray

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PHILIP DRAY is the author of At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, which won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award and made him a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and Stealing God's Thunder: Benjamin Franklin's Lightning Rod and the Invention of America, and the coauthor of the New York Times Notable Book We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney, and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi. He lives in Brooklyn.
 
Published December 18, 2007 by Modern Library. 544 pages
Genres: History, Political & Social Sciences. Non-fiction

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Kirkus Reviews

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“Is it possible for white America to really understand blacks’ distrust of the legal system, their fear of racial profiling and the police, without understanding how cheap a black life was for so long a time in our nation’s history?” asks Dray (African-American History/New School), who suggests t...

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Publishers Weekly

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Between 1882 and 1944 at least 3,417 African-Americans were lynched in the United States, an average of slightly more than one a week. It was not until 1952, as Dray notes, that a full year went by

Nov 26 2001 | Read Full Review of At the Hands of Persons Unkno...

The New York Times

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Correction: February 4, 2002, Monday The Books of The Times column on Jan. 21, reviewing two books on extreme racial violence, misspelled the surname of the gay student at the University of Wyoming who was killed in 1998.

Jan 21 2002 | Read Full Review of At the Hands of Persons Unkno...

The New York Times

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Correction: February 4, 2002, Monday The Books of The Times column on Jan. 21, reviewing two books on extreme racial violence, misspelled the surname of the gay student at the University of Wyoming who was killed in 1998.

Jan 21 2002 | Read Full Review of At the Hands of Persons Unkno...

Publishers Weekly

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Whether he is explicating why the feminist-run Women's Christian Temperance Union refused to speak out against lynching, or why FDR refused to endorse antilynching legislation in the 1930s, Dray balances moral indignation with a sound understanding of history and politics.

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Slate

As BuzzFeed’s Adam Serwer notes in an essay on Ferguson, the urban riots of the 1960s—and beyond—were fueled by police abuse, “The recipe for urban riots since 1935 is remarkably consistent and the ingredients are almost always the same: An impoverished and politically disempowered black populati...

Oct 13 2014 | Read Full Review of At the Hands of Persons Unkno...

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