Lynchings of Labor Organizers


This historical marker, dedicated in March 2018 in Selma, Alabama, is part of EJI’s project to memorialize racial terror lynchings. (EJI)

On July 11, 1935, African American sharecropper Joe Spinner Johnson was working in a Dallas County, Alabama, cotton field when his white landlord summoned him. A mob of white men bound and beat Mr. Johnson, then took him to jail in Selma and beat him more. Witnesses in other cells heard Mr. Johnson’s screams. His mutilated body was found in a field days later.

After emancipation and well into the 20th century, sharecropping trapped Black families in poverty as white landlords used deception, debt, and violence to exploit and control Black labor. Mr. Johnson, a leader in the Alabama Sharecroppers Union, was lynched for organizing Black people to demand fair wages and better working conditions.

During the era of racial terror, Black activism was considered a threat to white supremacy and existing racial and economic hierarchies. White mobs, acting with impunity, lynched Black people who participated in strikes or organized unions to demand better treatment. Sometimes violence targeted individuals like Mr. Johnson. Ernest Glenwood was lynched in Lily, Georgia, in September 1919 after he was accused of encouraging Black workers to demand better pay.

In other cases, attacks devastated entire communities. In November 1887, when thousands of Black sugar cane workers went on strike in Lafourche Parish, Louisiana, armed white men descended on Black residents, killing as many as 60 people and leaving hundreds missing and wounded. In a pattern of violence directed at Black communities across the South, Black people in Lafourche Parish were forced from their homes and land, required to flee to nearby cities as refugees from violence and lawlessness.