Men, Mobs, and Law

Anti-Lynching and Labor Defense in U.S. Radical History

Men, Mobs, and Law

Book Pages: 424 Illustrations: 7 illustrations Published: January 2009

Author: Rebecca Hill

Activism, American Studies, History > U.S. History

In Men, Mobs, and Law, Rebecca N. Hill compares two seemingly unrelated types of leftist protest campaigns: those intended to defend labor organizers from prosecution and those seeking to memorialize lynching victims and stop the practice of lynching. Arguing that these forms of protest are related and have substantially influenced one another, Hill points out that both worked to build alliances through appeals to public opinion in the media, by defining the American state as a force of terror, and by creating a heroic identity for their movements. Each has played a major role in the history of radical politics in the United States. Hill illuminates that history by considering the narratives produced during the abolitionist John Brown’s trials and execution, analyzing the defense of the Chicago anarchists of the Haymarket affair, and comparing Ida B. Wells’s and the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaigns to the Industrial Workers of the World’s early-twentieth-century defense campaigns. She also considers conflicts within the campaign to defend Sacco and Vanzetti, chronicles the history of the Communist Party’s International Labor Defense, and explores the Black Panther Party’s defense of George Jackson.

As Hill explains, labor defense activists first drew on populist logic, opposing the masses to the state in their campaigns, while anti-lynching activists went in the opposite direction, castigating “the mob” and appealing to the law. Showing that this difference stems from the different positions of whites and Blacks in the American legal system, Hill’s comparison of anti-lynching organizing and radical labor defenses reveals the conflicts and intersections between antiracist struggle and socialism in the United States.


Men, Mobs, and Law is an important book that cuts across traditional lines of inquiry and analysis. Hill is to be commended for her creative use of historical evidence as well as cultural sources, including poems, novels, autobiographies, plays, and songs. Also impressive are her abilities to relate her topics to international issues and movements as well as to engage in theoretical and historiographical debates. . . . The book makes a strong contribution to the study of American radicalism, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, and the law.” — Andrew E. Kersten, American Studies

Men, Mobs, and Law provides an interesting and unique look at two major social justice campaigns in U.S. history. . . . I would highly recommend this book. It gives a great deal of historical information and provokes the reader to think about the commonalities of the labor defense and anti-lynching movements.” — Jennifer O’Neal-Watts, Labor Studies Journal

“[A] provocative and innovative intellectual and cultural history of the labor defense campaign and the Left's most famous martyrs. . . . Hill offers an original thesis on the triumph of legal formalism that future historians of labor radicalism, antilynching, and prison reform must confront.” — David M. Anderson, Journal of American History

“[A] rich and detailed account of the multiplicity, coalitions and divergences among the left in the United States in its resistance to lynching and in its labour defence campaigns. . . . The book is compelling, analytically rich and detailed. . . . [N]o reader can walk away from the book without a sobering view of the power of the state in repressing, often violently, dissent which threatens its power along racial or class lines.” — Meghan A. Burke, Ethnic and Racial Studies

“Brilliantly conceived, this book has much to offer. Very few studies of lynching match Hill’s creative scope. Examining lynching and opposition in the context of direct action is challenging and imaginative, asking questions historians should consider. . . . [T]his book should usefully provoke scholars into moving lynching scholarship closer to the center of the American history narrative.” — Christopher Waldrep, American Historical Review

“Hill breaks new ground in her efforts to link labour defence and anti-lynching campaigns as part of a broader radical critique of American justice which lays bare the foundational hierarchies of the American state. . . . Men, Mobs and the Law offers a thoroughly original, insightful, and penetrating look into the ways in which bodies have functioned as sites of both resistance and oppression in American capitalism.” — Paul Lawrie, Labour/Le Travail

“Hill has produced a useful study that should appeal to a wide range of scholars, not just radical and labour historians, but legal historians and sociologists interested in movement building.”
— Bruce E. Baker, Left History

“Hill’s study is bound by a tight theoretical framework and makes a convincing argument about the role of narrative construction and reconstruction in defense campaigns for those charged by the state with criminal activity. . . . She masterfully demonstrates the importance of common cultural beliefs and practices in framing labor and antilynching defense strategies. Although her case studies span over a hundred years, Hill’s ability to reveal the approaches that marginalized groups used to protect their own, and the emphasis on left-labor collaborations historically, are important contributions to the scholarly literature.” — Ashley M. Howard, Journal of African American History

“It is not enough for U.S. radicals to read Men, Mobs, and Law; they should study it individually and in groups. They will find there the interplay of class, ethnicity, gender and race that explains over the course of American history, the outcome of movements that have sustained and advanced progressive agendas.” — Gerald Meyer, Solidarity

“Rebecca Hill’s ambitious book highlights a major theme of American radical history. It brings together the history of labor defense campaigns with the concurrent movement to prevent the lynching of African Americans. In six individual studies from John Brown to the Black Panther Party, Hill achieves two notable goals: a substantive reinterpretation of these cases and a heightened recognition of their commonalities. . . . It is not enough for U.S. radicals to read Men, Mobs, and Law; they should study it individually and in groups. They will find there the interplay of class, ethnicity, gender and race that explains over the course of American history, the outcome of movements that have sustained and advanced progressive agendas.” — Gerald Meyer, Against the Current

“This study will be required reading for all students of radical history, race relations, ethnicity, and the American legal system; it is certain to influence scholarly and popular understanding of social justice and the flaws of American popular democracy.” — James J. Lorence, Journal of Southern History

“‘Do you not understand your own language?’ David Walker famously asked white America. It is an enduring question for activists and scholars of the antiracist left, and one that Rebecca N. Hill engages in this imaginative and provocative study. Men, Mobs, and Law critically compares and connects a series of cases framed by state-sanctioned premature death to disentangle the rhetoric, strategy, and gendered racial politics of radical campaigns for justice that overlay deeper movements for social change.” — Ruth Wilson Gilmore, author of Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California

Men, Mobs, and Law is a brilliant work of scholarship. Rebecca N. Hill argues that anti-lynching and labor-defense movements represent two sides of the same coin, not simply because they share a concern for social justice, but because they embody a fundamental opposition between the mob and the state. Hill draws on the most sophisticated analyses of race, gender, class, history, politics, and literature to reorient our thinking about the meaning of ‘popular justice.’” — Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination

Men, Mobs, and Law is a terrific book, which will speak to wide readerships about the functioning of the state, the nature and complexity of movements that have challenged the state, and the problems that race and class pose for traditional conceptions of American democracy. The book is organized around dramatic cases. These are stories that many of us know well, but Rebecca N. Hill’s treatment of them is fresh, lively, richly detailed, and impassioned.” — Peter Rachleff, author of Hard-Pressed in the Heartland: The Hormel Strike and the Future of the Labor Movement


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Rebecca N. Hill is Director of the American Studies Master of Arts Program and Associate Professor of History at Kennesaw State University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1. John Brown: The Left's Great Man 27

2. Haymarket 69

3. Anti-Lynching and Labor Defense: Intersections and Contradictions 112

4. No Wives or Family Encumber Them: Sacco and Vanzetti 162

5. The Communist Party and the Defense Tradition from Scottsboro to the Rosenbergs 209

6. Born Guilty: George Jackson and the Return of the Lumpen Hero 265

Conclusion 315

Notes 323

Index 398
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4280-9 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4257-1
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