The course of law: State intervention in southern lynch mob violence 1882-1930

Kinga Makovi, Ryan Hagen, Peter Bearman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Collective violence when framed by its perpetrators as "citizen" justice is inherently a challenge to state legitimacy. To properly account for such violence, it is necessary to consider an opportunity structure incorporating the actions of both vigilantes and agents of the state. The motivation and lethality of lynch mobs in the South cannot be understood without considering how the state reacted to the legitimacy challenges posed by lynching. We trace the shifting orientation of state agents to lynching attempts between the end of Reconstruction and the start of the Great Depression. Analyzing an inventory of more than 1,000 averted and completed lynching events in three Southern states, we model geographic and temporal patterns in the determinants of mob formation, state intervention, and intervention success. Opponents of lynching often pled with mobs to "let the law take its course." This article examines the course followed by the law itself, as state actors moved between encouraging, accommodating, and in many instances averting mob violence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)860-888
Number of pages29
JournalSociological Science
StatePublished - Sep 26 2016


  • Collective action
  • Lynching
  • Politics
  • Violence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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