In 1918, Mary Turner's Brutal Murder Changed the Politics of Lynching in America

tags: lynching, Mary Turner

Julie Buckner Armstrong is Professor of Literature and Cultural Studies at the University of South Florida. She has published multiple books on the literature of civil rights and racial justice.

In Lowndes County, Georgia, by the side of State Road 122, stands a historical marker for “Mary Turner and the Lynching Rampage of 1918.” The metal marker describes in plain language a May 1918 spree of mob violence. After a white farmer was murdered, the mob killed at least 11 African Americans. 

Mary Turner, the marker’s named victim, was eight months pregnant. The mob targeted her because she spoke out against the lynching of her husband Hayes. A crowd of several hundred watched the men hang, burn, and shoot Turner, then cut out her fetus and stomp it into the ground.

From 1998 to 2011, I researched and wrote a book about Mary Turner’s lynching. I examined the responses of activists, artists, writers, and local residents to this appalling act. Turner’s story has had a long, complex afterlife: a tangled mixture of shock, outrage, grief, shame, and, too often, silence. The ways we remember, forget, and erase the history of this lynching is an inescapable part of its story: Even the monument to Mary Turner’s death contains bullet holes from a Winchester .270, normally used for killing deer.

The horror of Turner’s lynching did not stay secret. During the late 1910s and early 1920s, the incident galvanized anti-lynching protest around the country. Writers and artists including Angelina Weld Grimké, Meta Warrick Fuller, Anne Spencer, and Jean Toomer saw the lynching as an example of how racial violence traumatizes individuals, families, and communities. Organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Commission on Interracial Cooperation (CIC) used Turner’s death in magazine exposés and informational pamphlets as evidence that lynching was less about punishment for black male criminality and more about the public performance of white supremacy. 

The Anti-Lynching Crusaders, arguing that lynching was an attack on women as well as men, featured Turner as the centerpiece of a campaign to support federal legislation against mob violence. The Crusaders raised money and awareness for the 1922 Dyer Bill, sponsored by Leonidas C. Dyer, a Republican Representative from Missouri, which proposed to make lynching a felony. The bill passed the House but stalled in the Senate when Southern Democrats threatened a filibuster. Although Turner’s lynching was barbaric, more conventional excuses for mob violence—what Ida B. Wells called the “rape myth”—remained intractable. ...

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