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“Judge Lynch” in the Court of Public Opinion: Publicity and the De-legitimation of Lynching


How does violence become publicly unacceptable? I address this question in the context of lynching in the United States. Between 1880 and the 1930s, public discourse about lynching moved from open or tacit endorsement to widespread condemnation. I argue this occurred because of increasing publicity for lynchings. While locals justified nearby lynchings, publicity exposed lynching to distant, un-supportive audiences and allowed African Americans to safely articulate counternarratives and condemnations. I test this argument using data on lynchings, rail networks, and newspaper coverage of lynchings in millions of issues across thousands of newspapers. I find that lynchings in counties with greater access to publicity (via rail networks) saw more and geographically dispersed coverage, that distant coverage was more critical, and that increased risk of media exposure may have reduced the incidence of lynching. I discuss how publicity could be a mechanism for strengthening or weakening justifications of violence in other contexts.

Corresponding author
*Michael Weaver, Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Political Science, University of British Columbia,
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I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers, Gareth Nellis, Elisabeth Wood, Vesla Weaver, Steven Wilkinson, Nikhar Gaikwad, as well as participants in the Yale Comparative Politics Workshop, the 2015 Politics and History conference, the 2015 American Political Science Association conference, and the 2015 Berkeley Electoral Violence conference for helpful comments and advice. I would also like to thank my research assistants—Nina Shirole, Bahja Alammari, Emily Beatty, Andi Jordan, Emil Lauritsen, Emma Lodge, and Arian Zand—for their invaluable work on this project. Finally, I would like to thank Anna Jurkevics for her unwavering support. Replication files are available at the American Political Science Review Dataverse:

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