History of LynchingOne of the historical atrocities that shapes the narrative of A Gathering of Old Men is the practice of lynching. Although this practice began as a form of "popular justice" enforced by vigilantes in the American West, the practice is most widely recognized for the way it developed in the American South during the post-bellum period (EJI). Here, lynching might be defined as extralegal, lethal violence exercised by white vigilante groups against African Americans for the purported purpose of “justice.” In actuality, lynching was used to institute and maintain racial hierarchies following Reconstruction (Pfeifer 155). In the absence of de jure slavery, white people in the South implemented this alternative form of violence—as well as convict leasing, Jim Crow laws, and other racist practices—to prop up white supremacy as an organizing doctrine for society and assert themselves as the superior members of the human race (EJI).
Following the end of the Civil War, Reconstruction ushered in a wave of civil rights activists and saw the enfranchisement of male African American citizens. Previously enslaved people became elected officials, and Louisiana was no exception. The state saw the first African American governor in 1872 with P.B.S. Pinchback. However, the ascension of African Americans to elected office and the overwhelming power of the Black vote threatened white people’s established white supremacist hierarchy (EJI). Thus, Reconstruction was followed by “Redemption,” a period during which Southern Democrats and others passed legislation to disenfranchise African American voters again, ensuring that the nation would not see another Black governor for a very long time (EJI; Pfeifer 190).
Lynching was part of this white retaliation against Reconstruction era policies. The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) has compiled reports of over 4,000 lynchings of Black people in the American South between 1877 and 1950. For understanding Gaines's novel, it is notable that 549 of those lynchings took place in Louisiana, which was among the top three states with the most reported lynchings after Mississippi and Georgia. Pointe Coupée Parish, where Gaines lived, had eleven reported lynchings, while the bordering parishes collectively had forty-nine.
Lynching in South Louisiana
In South Louisiana specifically, the racial hierarchy that white people used lynching and terror to uphold formed the backbone of the sugar economy (Pfeifer 155). While white members of the planter and merchant classes held dominant control, lower class white people such as Cajuns often felt like they were in competition with African Americans for land and money on the sugar plantations and, thus, perceived themselves as having a vested interest in the destruction of Black lives to maintain their place in the racialized social hierarchy (Pfeifer 165).
Many of the documented lynchings in South Louisiana occurred in response to what white people perceived as slights against the sugar economy such as alleged attempts to burn down parts of plantations or alleged affronts to sugar plantation owners (Pfeifer 161). In general, there were fewer lynchings in South Louisiana than in the northern parts of the state where the primary crop was cotton. However, lynchings did occur and the fear of them was ever-present. One reason lynchings were less common in South Louisiana is that the white planter and merchant classes there had more trust in the legal system to dispense lethal justice. In the North, where executions were rarely ordered, lynchings occurred often. In contrast, South Louisiana conducted many more public executions of Black people, often without sufficient evidence or fair trials (Pfeifer 166).
In A Gathering of Old Men there are two primary fears that have become entrenched for the Black residents of Marshall: fear of lynching and fear of legal violence. The men’s fear of lynching is most prominently present in their gathering for the express purpose of defending themselves against Fix, whose family has engaged in extralegal violence for decades. The Marshall residents’ fear is made clear in their stories about family members who have been victims of extralegal violence. The men take turns articulating their terror and its basis in history. Uncle Billy, for example, laments “what they did to my boy … the way they beat him. They beat him till they beat him crazy, and we had to send him to Jackson. He don’t even know me and his mama no more” (80). Ding claims he killed Beau because of “what they did to my sister’s little girl—Michelle Gigi” (88). Jacob Aguillard claims the same because of “what the crowd did to my sister” (87). Coot references the death of a young man returned from war: “Because they seen him with that German girl’s picture, they caught him—and all y’all remember what they did to him with that knife” (104). Tucker goes into much more detail about his brother Silas being beaten because of his success in harvesting sugarcane. Tucker directly references the fear that experience ingrained in him: “Done spoiled my intrance. Fear. Fear. Done spoiled my intrance” (96). These stories represent many others that the Black residents of Marshall witnessed and heard throughout their lives, all of which work together to form a deep-seated terror of lynching. A material reminder of the lives lost exists at the cemetery, where many of the victims mentioned lie “under them trees with all the rest” (91).
Fear of Lynching in the Novel
As Tucker points out, the law did not stop extralegal violence from occurring, which accurately represents the history of lynching. After telling the story about his brother Silas, he asks, “Where was the law?” (97). Not only was the law not present to hold white people participating in extralegal violence accountable to any form of justice, but the law in the novel operates, as it did historically, to perpetuate legal violence alongside extralegal terror. During Gable’s telling of his son’s execution for alleged rape, he claims the law “called us and told us we could have him at ‘leven, ‘cause they was go’n kill him at ten” (101). After a gruesome detailing of a faulty electric chair that resulted in his son’s torture and finally death, “them white folks walked out of that room like they was leaving a card game. They wasn’t even talking about it. It wasn’t worth talking about” (102). This underscores how common legal violence is in the world of the book; Mapes’s threats of the electric chair emphasize the same point.
He says to Uncle Billy, “When that juice hit you, I’ve seen that chair dance … we don’t waste time screwing it down—not just for one killing. And when that juice hit you, I’ve seen that chair rattle, I’ve seen it dance. Not a pretty sight, old man. Is that how you want to go?” (79). These threats of legal violence, alongside a culture of terror because of lynchings, reveal the historically accurate fear pervading Marshall in A Gathering of Old Men and help explain why the men’s gathering occurs in the first place.