Types of Social Violence

Howard Smead ©2007



As these events indicate, by far the most common manifestation of civil disorder is rioting, which can be repressive, insurrectionary or expressive. Repressive mobs have been most common and have generally sought to preserve the racial, ethnic and religious or moral order.

Throughout its tumultuous history, America has had well over a thousand riots. There have been several periods of intense rioting: The 1830s-1860s, the 1890s and the 1960s. No period has been entirely free of rioting. Historian David Grimsted generously describes Jacksonian mobs as "but a piece of the ongoing process of democratic accommodation compromise, and uncompromisable tension between groups with different interests. The were social exclamation point...." They were also acts of outright repression, usually surrounding slavery and abolitionism. Quite often the rioters were nativist and anti-Roman Catholic.

During this time, 70% of America's cities holding 20,000 or more people experienced major civil disorder. There were 147 riots in 1835 alone. As Grimsted outlines, they covered the gamut of mob activity. Thirty-five were against abolitionists, eleven in response to imagined slave insurrections, fifteen of them were race riots: eleven against blacks, three to help fugitive slaves and one by blacks. Hezekiah Niles, a Baltimore newspaper editor, bemoaned "the spreading spirit of riot ... in every quarter. King Mob was triumphant, as  Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story quipped upon witnessing the celebratory riots in DC at Andrew Jackson's inauguration. Thirty-five major riots occurred in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.

In the South rioters faced little challenge from local law enforcement, which expressed scant objection. Southern mobs generally killed, injured and burned with impunity. In the North the police often sought to impede the progress of a mob's activity, resulting in loss of life among the rioters.
Since the Civil War, rioting has become almost exclusively racial. White mobs in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898 successfully drove black elected officials from office and the city, and brought an end to black prosperity. The Wilmington Riot was effectively a racial coup d'etat. As the century progressed, race riots began to shift in character from the repressive to the insurrectionary. In Atlanta in1906, blacks armed themselves to return fire at bands of whites marauding through their neighborhoods. Blacks had long fought back, lending racial riots a communal nature. But the repressive elements dominated. As early as Houston in 1917 and clearly by the Red Summer, blacks were rioting in protest against segregation that insured poor education, inadequate job opportunities, sub-standard housing and police brutality.

In Chicago on July 27, 1919, a young black boy named Eugene Williams joined the throngs swimming in Lake Michigan to escape the 96 degree heat. Offshore, he strayed into the white area, was stoned for this breach of racial etiquette and drowned. His death touched off a flurry of rock throwing between outraged blacks and whites. Police refused to arrest the initial white rock thrower. Indeed, they went after a black man. This episode triggered a seven-day riot in which bands of whites ranged into black neighbors burning and pillaging. Twenty-three blacks died. Blacks fought back, killing 15 whites.
Dozens of similar acts of civil disorder took place in industrial cities across the country during those summer months. White GI's returned from Europe to encounter competition for jobs and housing from blacks, with whom they associated a southern and subordinate position.  They found the challenge unacceptable. The Chicago riot, as indeed The Red Summer, was, in the words of historian Herbert Shapiro, "the result of a collision between racism and an enhanced black consciousness that rejected deference to white supremacy."

However, a great deal more was a play here. The white mobs wreaking havoc in city after city that summer joined their companion rabble, rural lynch mobs, in an unplanned wave of violence whose ultimate goals was the maintenance of the pre-existing racial equilibrium. The actions were local; the results became institutionalized. Repression civil disorder attempted to prevent a re-definition of prevailing social, cultural, economic and political standards. Its ultimate target was change.

Other riots sought to bring it about, or at least to protest the lack of it. Blacks rioted in Harlem in 1943 in response to job discrimination in defense industry while blacks were fighting overseas in the name of freedom and democracy. In June of that same year, over a thousand white servicemen attacked black and Mexican youths in the streets, theaters and shops of Los Angeles supposedly in retaliation for an assault in white servicemen by Mexicans. For the most part, police allowed the mobs a free hand. The "Zoot-Suit Riot" was yet another example of the determination of white society to use any means necessary to maintain the primacy of their native culture. Commented the District Attorney, "zoot-suits are an open indication of subversive character." The City Council followed the riot by making the wearing of such garb a misdemeanor. "All that is needed to end lawlessness is more of the same action as is being exercised by the servicemen," proclaimed the LA County Supervisor.

Black dissatisfaction erupted during the insurrectionary Long Hot Summers of the mid-60s. The first riot occurred in Harlem in 1964. The following year a 4-day riot in the Watts section of LA touched off a wave of insurrectionary rioting in black ghettos that didn't really end until the Spring of 1968 when mobbing at the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. swept the country. All told nearly 300 riots and disturbances involving half a million blacks broke out during these years, marking it one of the worst period of peacetime turmoil in history, eclipsing even the lynch-filled 1890's, and rivaling Jackson Era rioting.

Labor strikes

America possesses the most violent labor history of any western nation. Labor actions often developed into riots, if not localized, armed insurrection, and just as frequently spawned officially sanctioned counter-violence. The incidents of disorder resulting from strikes, lockouts and attempts at union organizing lasted until quite recently. The most violent era, however, came during labor's infancy from Reconstruction until the 1920s.

Strikes or lockouts frequently deteriorated into violence. Often management hired armed thugs to break up strikes or prevent unionization. Workers just as often picked up weapons as part of their protest. During the riotous summer of 1877, state and federal troops violently suppressed a nationwide railroad strike over wage cuts. In cases such as the 1894 Pullman Strike or the 1892 Homestead Strike, management attempts to enforce its labor practices led to violent conflagrations with multiple deaths. One of the most telling strikes took place in 1897 at the Lattimer mines in eastern Pennsylvania. Sheriff's deputies, acting as strike breakers, were infuriated at the sight of foreigner mine workers carrying the American flag as part of their protest massacred nineteen unarmed Slavic miners. After the bloody shooting, the deputies left the scene laughing and joking about how many "Hunks" they had killed.


Even more gruesome than rioting was a distinctly American form of repressive mob action, the lynch mob. Lynching, or lynch-law, took its name from Colonel Charles Lynch of Lynchburg, Virginia, who during the American Revolution formed a vigilante band to arrest and try Loyalists and highwaymen. He tried them in his home. If found guilty they received thirty-nine lashes "well laid on." As time passed those tried in "Judge Lynch's Court" were invariably put to death.
According to the 1940 Tuskegee Guidelines for lynching, these criteria must be met in order for a lynching to have occurred.
 "(1) There must be legal evidence that a person was killed.
  (2) The person must have met death illegally.
  (3) A group must have participated in the killing.
       (4) The group must have acted under pretext of service to justice, race,
           or tradition."

Mode of death is unimportant in a lynching. Why the victim is murdered separates a lynching from murder. The Wild West "necktie party" was largely a product of Hollywood. Of the nearly 4,800 lynchings that have taken place since the 1882, when records were first kept, four fifths of the victims have been black and ninety percent of the lynchings have taken place in the South. Like riots, lynchings have occurred most often in the hot summer months, with August being the most typical. Unlike rioting, lynchings have been predominantly a rural phenomena.

Sociologists Stewart Tolnay and E. M. Beck have demonstrated the three main reasons the white South lynched blacks. All are interconnected and help explain why any type of lynching occurred, regardless of the race or ethnicity of the victim. "First, to maintain social control over the black population through terrorism; second, to suppress or eliminate black competitors for economic, political, or social rewards; and third, to stabilize the white class structure and preserve the privileged status of the white aristocracy." This latter was often unarticulated by the rioters and may have been largely subliminal. More than anything, however, lynching was a matter of upholding the honor of the lynchers as expressed in their control of local society, and most times, the continued domination of their race or religion.

Historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage has identified four types of lynch mobs. They are mass mobs, posses, private and terrorist mobs. He places the size of mass mobs from over fifty into the thousands. Posses, according to Brundage, often swelled into the hundreds. They often crossed the line from the quasi-legal to the extra-legal by summarily executing the apprehended suspect. At that point they became a mob and a contributor to the over-all pattern of civil disorder. By far the most spectacular, mass mobs usually involved ritualized death employing torture, dismemberment, and self-cannibalism. Often times a festive atmosphere prevailed with participants dressing as though for a picnic, vying for good viewing positions, hoisting their small children onto their shoulders to give them a better view.

Ten thousand people attended the 1893 lynching of Henry Smith in Paris, Texas. Smith was supposed to have raped and killed a three and a half-year-old white baby. After an extensive search, Smith was brought back to Paris by train whereupon the mob transported through the town on a chair atop a cotton wagon. Lynchers built a platform ten feet high lashed Smith to a pole atop the platform to create a better view of Smith's demise. Special trains brought in hundreds of onlookers. The little girl's father victim burned the flesh from Smith's feet with a hot iron, His tongue was cut out to silence his wailing and profanity. Eventually Smith was immolated. An eyewitness remarked,  "Fathers, men of social and business standing, took their children to teach them how to dispose of negro[sic] criminals. Mothers were there too, even women whose culture entitles them to be among the social and intellectual leaders of the town." The mob that lynched Claude Neal sold body parts for souvenirs, not at all an unusual practice. Newspapers and radios spread the word of the lynching, and a special train was set up to transport people to the lynching.

Private mobs were small and, for whatever reason, tended to operate in secret. The lynchers of Mack Charles Parker in Poplarville, Mississippi, broke into the county jail under cover of darkness and, aided by local law enforcement, spirited Parker out of town to his death. By 1959, when this occurred, the probability of public, indeed national, identification was high. Prosecution remained rare, for any type of lynching until the 1960s. The 1955 lynchers of young Emmett Till were local heroes until tried. Although acquitted by an all-white jury in less than an hour, they were disgraced more for having been caught than their misdeeds. In 1912 a private mob actually "broke into" the federal prison at Marietta, Georgia, to kidnap and lynch Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman wrongfully sentenced to life for the murder of an employee in his pencil factory. The mob felt he should have been sentenced to death and proceeded to overrule the presiding judge.

The fourth category of lynch mob identified by Brundage is the terrorist mob, such as the Ku Klux Klan or other white-cappers and vigilante organizations. Both terrorist mobs and private mobs took it upon themselves to enforce local social order or extract vengeance for some real or imagined crime or offense against the people. In the summer of 1964, a terrorist mob comprised of local law enforcement and members of the KKK kidnapped and murdered, James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, in the well-known Civil Rights Murders. The purpose was retaliation for their civil rights activism but also to discourage other activists from entering that section of rural Mississippi. All lynch mobs contain conscious elements of terrorism. Cries of 'that'll teach 'em" or "that'll show 'em we mean business" or that'll keep 'em in their place" echoed throughout every area where a lynching occurred. As recently as 1991 in Crown Heights, New York, a group of black men lynched a rabbinical student named Yankel Rosenbaum in retaliation for the traffic death of a local black boy. The retaliatory action was  part of a larger race riot. These latter two acts of civil disorder bear a striking resemblance to vigilantism.


Localism and the absence of effective government along the 18th century frontier, bred a distinct form of American civil disorder known as vigilantism. Historian Richard Maxwell Brown described vigilante groups as an "organized, extralegal movement, the members of which take the law into their own hands." Brown adds that they are distinguishable from lynch mobs in that vigilance committees have an organized structure and are semi-permanent, though few lasted more than a short period of days or weeks. They were also illegal. Regardless of their intended purpose, they had no legal authority to enforce the law, or morals or tradition.

The first vigilante movement appeared in 1767 along the South Carolina frontier. The Regulators, as they called themselves, formed to carry out Indian removal and to protect against highwaymen when the colonial government refused to do either. They got so out of hand in administering their own interpretation of law and order that a counter-vigilance group developed called the Moderators. From that point forward there have been at least 326 vigilante movements. This does not include the dozens of militia movements that formed in the 1990s.

Vigilante movements sprung up all over the frontier and tended to focus on law breakers. The San Francisco Vigilance Committees of  1851 and 1856 were urban and focused on political corruption and the unruly ethnic poor. They marked a shift from old, frontier, law and order vigilantism to "New Vigilantism," which sought to maintain community, racial, ethnic and moral standards whether or not the law was being broken. Vigilante movements were usually formed and led by members of the local elite, generally businessmen seeking to ensure a hospitable business and commercial environment. Brown argues in favor of "good" or socially constructive vigilante movements that brought stability to an area and were supported by the populace. On the other hand, he asserts "bad" vigilante movements became socially destructive and anarchic. They generally operated without community approval and weakened the social order. These movements often sparked counter- or anti-vigilante movements.

Regardless, all vigilante movements were extralegal and therefore operated outside the law despite local support and the widespread popularity of vigilantism throughout history. It remains an important and distinctly American form of civil disorder.


Backcountry violence often included a peculiar form of disorder known as rough and tumble fighting or eye-gouging matches. These were no holds barred battles in which men fought all out, using any tactic possible to damage their opponents. Men often grew and sharpened  their fingernails to use as weapons. They bit and scratched, pulled each others' hair, bit off fingers, ears and lips, pulled at their opponent's "cods." Most especially, combatants inserted their nails into the eye socket of an opponent and popped out the eye, a technique much bragged about. Travelers were stunned to see one-eyed men, men missing an ear or fingers severed at the joint, or with their lips bitten off. Occasionally, men died. All of these barbaric activities were part of savage attempts to defend one's honor. A typical rough and tumble match might attract drinkers and betters and often spawned additional fights or spread into general melee. Rough and tumble provided entertainment in areas desolate of diversion from the rigors of survival. They also provided a crude social hierarchy in areas dominated by wild game, outlaws and hostile Indians. Champion gougers sat at the top of a barbaric local "society.

Backcountry people often used to torture animals for entertainment. Gander-pulls, in which a goose was greased and suspended from a line so that  riders might at full gallop compete to yank off its head. The winner got the goose. Many frontier areas delighted in chaining a bear or a bull by one leg, setting loose a pack of hungry dogs and betting on the outcome. All of these events had a festive quality and were a time of much drinking.




 Ayers, Edward L. Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the Nineteenth Century South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

 Brown, Richard Maxwell. Strain of Violence: Historical Studies of American Violence and Vigilantism. New York: Oxford University Press,  1975.

 Brown, Roger. Social Psychology. New York: The Free Press, 1965. 

Brundage, W. Fitzhugh. Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993. 

Dinnerstein, Leonard. The Leo Frank Case. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968.

 Feldberg, Michael. The Turbulent Era: Riot and Disorder in Jacksonian America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

 Graham, High Davis and Gurr, Robert Ted, editors. The History of  Violence in America: A Report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. New York: Bantam Books,1969. 

Grimsted, David A. American Mobbing, 1828-1861: Toward Civil War.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

 Hofstadter, Richard and Wallace, Michael, editors.  American Violence: A Documentary History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970.

Litwack. Lron F. Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

 McGovern, James. Anatomy of a Lynching. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press: 1985.

Olson, James S. The Ethnic Dimension in American History, 2nd edition. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.

 Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. New York: Bantam Books,1968.

 Shapiro, Herbert. White Violence and Black Response: From Reconstruction to Montgomery. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.

Smead, Howard. Blood Justice: The Lynching of Mack Charles Parker. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

 Tolnay, Stewart E. and Beck, E.M. Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930. Urbana: University of Illinois Press:  1995.

 Williamson, Joel. The Crucible of Race. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. 

Wright, George C. Racial Violence in Kentucky, 1856-1940, Lynchings, Mob Rule, and “Legal Lynchings.” Baton Rouge. Louisiana State University Press, 1990.

 Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. Southern Honor: Ethics & Behavior in the Old South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.