WASHINGTON (CN) – If you ask E. M. Beck, professor emeritus at the University of Georgia, whether any specific lynching cases stand out in his 30 years of researching the topic, he struggles to point to one single incident.
“There was so much injustice that it’s hard to find where to begin,” said Beck, co-creator of the Beck-Tolnay Inventory of Southern Lynchings, the most comprehensive study of the extrajudicial murders carried out throughout the South. Over the course of three decades, researchers have confirmed more than 2,800 acts, most often against black people after the Civil War but also against other minority groups and whites as well.
So when President Donald Trump tweeted out Tuesday morning that his ongoing impeachment hearings amounted to a lynching, Beck was appalled.
“You’re comparing a legal process that Trump doesn’t like to the idea of a mob taking someone out of a house, shooting them, or stringing them up and shooting them,” said Beck in a phone interview. “To compare his legal issues to a lynching is an insult to all the families who lost people to the idea of mob violence.”
So some day, if a Democrat becomes President and the Republicans win the House, even by a tiny margin, they can impeach the President, without due process or fairness or any legal rights. All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here – a lynching. But we will WIN!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 22, 2019
The history of lynchings in America is as horrible as it sounds. Beck’s database — which started with numbers from the NAACP, the Tuskegee Institute and Chicago Tribune reporting covering 1882-1918, as well as countless research hours poring through microfilm of newspaper stories — counts only those cases in which there was evidence a person was killed, the killing was illegal, more than two people were involved, and the killing was justified with “tradition, justice, or honor.”
Beck said the most well-known cases might involve large groups or particularly brutal acts of violence like burning or dismemberment, but they most often occurred in small groups, late at night, with little fanfare.
They all had the same result.
“You ended a life: a brother, sister, wife or father,” said Beck. “But when there was no follow-up, when the court systems didn’t do anything… you’re saying ‘we don’t care… see what we can do to you.’”
Gianluca De Fazio, an assistant professor in the Justice Studies Department at James Madison University, is familiar with the Beck-Tolnay list. He’s used it in his work researching lynching in Virginia for a project called “Racial Terror: Lynching in Virginia.”
De Fazio said the research he and Beck perform, while bleak, acts as an important reminder of the nation’s embrace of race-based mob violence.
“We have collective amnesia about racial terror throughout the South,” De Fazio said in a phone interview, noting that lynchings are often, at best, a footnote in history books but helped define decades of racial injustice.
De Fazio hopes his project, which includes reaching out to communities across the state where these events happened, will help engage those who have forgotten it.
But both researchers were quick to note Trump isn’t the first person in power to claim attacks against them were “lynchings.”
When Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was questioned about sexual harassment ahead of his confirmation in the late 90s, then-Senator Joe Biden asked whether Thomas had anything to say.
“From my standpoint as a black American, as far as I’m concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves,” Thomas famously responded about the allegations by his former attorney-adviser Anita Hill.
And while the president’s comment is only a few hours old, responses from Republican officials have started to roll in.
“This is a lynching in every sense. This is un-American,” Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters when asked about the tweet, noting Trump doesn’t know the identity of his accuser, the unnamed whistleblower whose identity is protected by federal law.
The Beck-Tolnay Inventory lists 200 lynchings in Graham’s home state of South Carolina.
But other Republicans have been less supportive of the tweet.
“We can all disagree on the process, and argue merits,” tweeted Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. “But never should we use terms like ‘lynching’ here.”
According to the Equal Justice Initiative, another lynching database, about 60 people were lynched in Kinzinger’s home state.
Still, the use of lynching as a comparison to accusations isn’t reserved to one side.
ABC News’ White House reporter John R. Parkinson said on Twitter this morning that a GOP aide had steered him to a 1998 Associated Press report on the Clinton impeachment hearings.
“In pushing the process, in pushing the arguments of fairness and due process the Republicans so far have been running a lynch mob,” Representative Jerry Nadler, a New Jersey Democrat, said at the time, according to the article. Nadler is among those leading the charge against Trump today as chair of the House Judiciary Committee.