State logo for Louisiana with White Pelican, "Union, Justice, Confidence"

Homononsapiens, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://​cre​ativecom​mons​.org/​l​i​c​e​n​s​e​s​/​b​y​-​s​a/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

In a recently published academic article, Emory University History Professor Daniel LaChance writes about an important and underrecognized distinction in the way newspaper editors and journalists covered the executions of Black and white men in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Professor LaChance argues that the portrayals of the defendants made legal executions “a high-status punishment that respected the whiteness of those who suffered it.” While the length and detail of articles about the executions of Black men shrank dramatically over time, he notes that journalists consistently highlighted the humanity of white men who were executed, making it “easier for those who wanted to project a modern image of the South to distance capital punishment from lynching, a form of violence that was becoming a source of embarrassment for respectable white Southerners.”

Professor LaChance analyzed 667 newspaper articles that covered the legal executions of white and Black men from 1877 to 1936 in the Atlanta Constitution and the New Orleans (Times­-Picayune). He found that in the first three decades of the post-Reconstruction era, from 1877 to 1906, journalists often reported extensively on executions, regardless of the race of the defendant. These accounts often portrayed the men being executed as “sympathetic souls” and “responsible persons whose humanity was recognized, even honored, during the very act of putting them to death.” 

As early as the mid-1890s, journalists began removing the humanizing elements of stories about Black men who were executed, reducing capital punishment to “a dry, technical procedure.” Professor LaChance’s analysis revealed that the average length of articles about Black male executions decreased 75% from 16 paragraphs to 4 paragraphs. While 74% of journal articles in the late 1880s and early 1890s quoted Black defendants in their execution stories, “the rate at which those men’s voices appeared in execution coverage had fallen nearly 60% to 13%” by the first decade of the twentieth century. Many articles began omitting pictures of these men as well, resulting in “condemned Black men increasingly appear[ing] as faceless, interchangeable public safety hazards the state was neutralizing with little fanfare.”

By contrast, Professor LaChance found that journalists consistently portrayed “the legal executions of white men as events that honored their humanity.” During the same period (1892–1896) when Black male execution coverage averaged four paragraphs in length, the length of articles about white male executions peaked at 77 paragraphs long; these lengthy “sentimental execution narratives” continued well into the 1930s. Professor LaChance notes that “journalists turned condemned white men into tragic heroes and newspaper readers into surrogate witnesses to dramas of life and death.” Further, “[b]y treating condemned white men as fallen humans rather than vicious beasts, journalists protected white social solidarity.”

Professor LaChance argues that these trends must be considered in the context of lynching trends in the South. By the 1890s, public spectacle lynchings were becoming a fixture of white violence against African Americans. The public nature of these lynchings “made whiteness by publicly negating Black people’s status as fellow human beings endowed with legal rights and eternal souls,” allowing the practice to serve as a uniting factor among white people. 

The focus on white people in articles about capital punishment—despite the data showing that they were the minority of those executed during this time—helped to legitimize the death penalty in the early- and mid-20thcentury, even though “[e]xecutions in the South were so often legal lynchings” during this era.