In 1940, anti-lynching activists met at the Tuskegee Institute to hammer out a definition of lynching. The different annual counts of the various organizations had become a source of criticism, especially by the white Southern press, which used inconsistencies to argue that all the reports were unreliable. The group struggled to come up with a workable definition, and finally agreed that a lynching was a killing committed outside of the law, by a group [generally taken to mean three or more persons], done under the pretext of service to justice, race, or tradition. (See Christopher Waldrep’s detailed history of this meeting.)

No one has ever claimed that this is a perfect definition, but activists at the time and academics more recently have used it in order to provide clarity and consistency. There is now a large body of research based on this definition and it is unusual for scholarly studies of lynching to use any other definition. One reason for this is that if we all use the same definition of lynching, our data will be comparable across different periods of time and different places, allowing for statistical analysis that looks at the causes of lynching, comparisons of high and low rate areas, and the lingering effects of lynching on modern racially tinged practices. None of this can be done without a commonly used working definition.

The issue of police killings as lynchings is one of the major problem areas with the standard definition, which requires that the killing be illegal (see p. 89 of Waldrep’s article). As we know from current events, these cases are more often than not classified as justifiable homicides, and thus fall outside of the definition of lynching.

One can certainly argue that the definition should be revised to include these cases, although I think a better approach is probably to study racially motivated police homicides as a separate category. The LSP of Memphis may at some point expand our work to include other categories of racial violence, but for now, our small research team is focused on trying to identify and collect all existing information on those cases that fall under the standard definition.

– Dr. Margaret Vandiver