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John A. Broadus
A Letter to the Courier-Journal, 1886


     On Sept. 27, 1886, Doctor Broadus published an article in the Courier-Journal which greatly helped to prevent a riot and lynching in Louisville. We quote from it.
Everybody can see that lynching grows worse and worse. Such practices are contagious. Public description of one case suggests another, where it might not have been thought of. What in the world will all this lead to? As a permanent and growing practice, lynching must be destructive of civilization. Is this statement too strong? Think a moment and see if it would not be so.

Now the apology for lynching must be in one of two things: Some say that our laws and our courts cannot be relied on to punish as outrageous criminals ought to be punished. Others tell us that lynching will be more likely to strike terror into brutish criminals than the slow and dull processes of law.

[p 353]
As to this last point, I gravely doubt whether the view is correct. Even the lowest of mankind are not brutes. They have some notions of right and wrong - something of what we call conscience. If you try to restrain such a man from great crimes only by fear of lynching, you excite the brutish elements in him, and do not appeal to the human elements. He thinks to himself, that if he gets caught he will be lynched, and he rages at the thought, and really considers himself as in such a case the innocent party. Besides, he hopes to escape. He feels cunning. He thinks some other fellow will be caught and lynched. . . . Altogether it is a form of punishment that does not strike terror, certainly not so much as many seem to imagine. On the other hand, if law is properly administered, there is something about it that appeals to the human in a tempted wretch. 1 was glad to see the Courier-Journal the other day expressing a similar persuasion. The idea of having all the facts searched out and proved against him, having his guilt fully established, and then having to wait for weeks, with a knowledge that at last he will be hung, there is really something more terrible about this than attaches to the prospect of lynching.

But the greatest trouble is, people say, that the laws are sometimes inadequate, that punishment provided is not severe enough, and especially, the lawyers can manage to have guilty men escape if there is any money in the case. Now there is some ground for this view. There has been a tendency, in recent generations, to tone down the punishment for the highest offenses, and to sympathize with, or pity, a vile criminal as rather unfortunate than guilty. There is a sort of sentimentality abroad in regard to criminals, by no means universal, but pretty widely diffused. And it cannot be denied that some lawyers manage to delay a case until public indignation has subsided, and then, perhaps, the guilty man may go free, or may encounter only a modified punishment. . . .

Besides the general evil of lynching, upon which I will not enlarge, there are two special evils appertaining to the practice in our Southern States. I write as a Southern man, having spent my life successively in Virginia, South Carolina, and Kentucky. We Southern white people are trying to deal with the most formidable problem that civilized mankind ever had to face. Besides a great many ignorant and often degraded white people, we have this mighty mass of colored people. We must not forget that the Negroes differ widely among themselves, having come from different races in Africa, and having had very different relations to the white people while held in slavery. Many of them are greatly superior to others

[p. 354]
in character. . . . We have to deal with them as best we can, while a large number of other white people stand off at a distance and scold us. Not a few of our fellow-citizens at the North feel and act very nobly about the matter; but the number is sadly great who do nothing and seem to care nothing but to find fault. . . . There is a goodly number of intelligent Negroes who really take sound and wholesome views of the situation. If we continue to tolerate lynching we lead these better Negroes to think that we are the enemies of all their race. We alienate the better class from the support of justice and government and civilization.

Now, then, I appeal to thoughtful men wherever the Courier-Journal is read, will you not come out and condemn this business of lynching? Will you not openly discourage and oppose and stop it? We can stop it. Is not this our duty? Is it not high time? . . . . I ask intelligent people all over the South to reflect upon the subject, to tone up public opinion by their conversation. Men and women, the thing is wrong, and getting worse and tending to be ruinous; I pray you, think, speak out, act in such way as you deem wisest.

I will not apologize for publishing this respectful appeal. As a minister of religion, I take no part in the manipulations of party politics, though careful to vote at every election, since voting is surely one of the highest duties of an American citizen. But this is in no sense a question of party politics. It is a question of justice, of fundamental right, of essential civilization, of human welfare.


[From A. T. Robertson, Life and Letters of John A. Broadus, 1901; reprint, 1987, pp. 352-354. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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