How To Be Bold and Teach About Lynching

Warning, this isn’t like my usual upbeat and positive posts. I’m gettin’ real.

A note: when I’m mentioning white people, I am talking about the racist white people of the time I am discussing.

Now that that’s out of the way…

Back in late Spring of 2020, (you know, when people said they cared about social justice issues), I saw a quote from Will Smith going around.

Racism is not getting worse, it’s getting filmed.”

It’s an older quote, but it resurfaced in response to the murder of George Floyd.

While I’m glad it was going around, it’s completely bogus.

Ok, not entirely false.

That was my initial reaction to it. I took a step back. As a social studies teacher who’s been interested in this topic for as long as she can remember, I need to more gracious.

Yes, it is much easier to make a video or photo go viral today. But I argue that these images went viral in their own way in their own time.

Documentation of violence against black people has happened since the dawn of photography.

White people used to dress up in their Sunday best to go watch a lynching.


Just search Google for photos. There are photos of white people pointing and smiling at mutilated black bodies “hanging from the poplar trees.”

Also, there were instances where people turned these photos into postcards. They then sent them to their friends and families. Even more disturbing, shop owners displayed jarred body parts of murdered black people in their windows. An intimidation tactic. Plus, there were newspapers. 

Well, those are photos, you say? All you have to do is look at the Civil Rights Era for video footage of violence against black people.

Ok, Noelle, this is a nice rant, but what does this have to do with teaching?

The history of lynching doesn’t always get taught in school. It’s a topic that many people don’t know about or don’t feel comfortable teaching about. So, I thought I’d talk about how I teach about lynching.

Some of you might be wondering: what is lynching?

The definition I use with my students is:

“To punish (a person) without legal process or authority, especially by hanging, for a perceived offense or as an act of bigotry.”

Lynching was a frequent act of violence and terrorism used in 19th and 20th Century America.

Yup, TERRORISM. We have a tough time calling white violence against minority groups terrorism. But it is.

For the most part, lynching was used as a way to control black people.  To keep us in our place.

(Note: Whites and non-Black minority groups were also lynched, not for the same reasons, or at the same rate as Black people).

Lynchings happened for all sorts of reasons. Both petty and serious. All that was need was an accusation.

Also, possibly the scariest reason a black man could be lynched was to “protect white womanhood.”

Again, all you needed was an accusation.

Most lynchings occurred after the Civil War between 1882-1968. This makes sense because blacks were no longer property. You wouldn’t purposely break your tractor, so you most likely wouldn’t kill your slave. Though it did happen. (Here’s a refresher on Reconstruction, if you need it).

About 5,000 lynchings are documented. Who knows how many weren’t?

Before I teach about the Civil Rights Movement, I teach about lynching.

So, let’s talk about how I teach about lynching in my classes. The answer is: very carefully. This is an emotional and sensitive topic, and the kids often leave the room feeling sad. But hey, that means I’ve done my job.

Here is how I teach about lynching. You can also grab my entire lesson on lynching.

1. Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday

There are many versions of Strange Fruit, but the Billie Holiday version is the original and the best. She is the original singer. Her sullen voice has the perfect tone to create a somber atmosphere in your classroom.

Here’s how I use it in class: The day before the lesson, I tell the kids 1. Tomorrow is going to be sad. 2. You can’t come into the classroom until I let you in. On the day of the lesson:

  • Lock the kids out of the room
  • Set up the song
  • Pass out worksheet and lyrics
  • Start the song
  • Let the kids in. Remind them to get to their seats quietly.
  • Play the song a second time and have the students answer the questions on their worksheets.
  • Discuss as a class

2. Image Analysis

Next, I show the students the photo that inspired the poem.

Yes, “Strange Fruit,” was originally a poem.

I warn the students that the photo is graphic and upsetting, but I encourage them to look at it. In the photo, you see white people dressed in their Sunday best. They are looking into the camera and pointing at the two black men hanging in the tree. Again, the image is upsetting. Then, I ask the students what they notice and how it makes them feel.

3. Clip from the Great Debaters

Honestly, I’m not sure how accurate this clip is. I’ve done some research on it and I’ve found various accounts. But I love Denzel Washington’s delivery . In it, Washington’s character explains where the word “lynching” comes from. It’s a powerful scene. Also, if you haven’t seen the Great Debaters, watch it. It’s great to use in class. It’s even appropriate for middle schoolers.

(Warning: Washington’s character uses the n-word in this clip. I don’t edit it out because he’s is making a point. I inform the kids of this before showing the clip).

4. 1st 10 minutes of 13th on Netflix

Ok. It’s 2021. If you haven’t seen 13th, do yourself a favor, stop what you’re doing and watch it NOW. I use this documentary in many of my classes for several purposes. In my civics classes, I use it more to talk about mass incarceration. In U.S. History, I use it to talk about race relations. For this lesson, I show the first 10 minutes. This segment focuses on the connection between lynching and the Great Migration.

5. Lynching Statistics

Finally, I end the lesson with stats on lynching from the Tuskegee Institute. These stats are eye-opening to the kids. I ask them, What do you notice?  What is your immediate reaction to the statistics? What questions do you still have? A lot of their first reactions have to do with the fact that white people were lynched.  Also, I love to ask them what questions they have left because I try to answer them by the end of the unit.

Final thoughts

Now, you might be thinking to yourself, “I could never teach this in my school.” Unfortunately, I know this is true for many people. All I can say is, think about why you became a history teacher. Also, I always tell my students that history isn’t nice and a lot of times we have to talk about the hard stuff. Also, if you don’t teach it to your students, who will? I encourage you to think about how you can teach about lynching and stay in line with the values of your school.

If you’re still afraid. Change schools. There are plenty of progressive schools that believe in teaching social justice. As educators, it is our responsibility to teach a well-rounded version of history.

Want some info on current issues pertaining to lynching? Here’s an article about the recent Anti-Lynching bill.

There you have it. Please leave a comment below if you have any questions or would like to add to the discussion!

Also, be sure to check out my blog at the Teach Hungry Movement for upcoming posts about civil rights issues.

Don’t forget to grab my free lesson plan.

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