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The Lynching of Cleo Wright

The Lynching of Cleo Wright

Copyright Date: 1998
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    The Lynching of Cleo Wright
    Book Description:

    On January 20, 1942, black oil mill worker Cleo Wright assaulted a white woman in her home and nearly killed the first police officer who tried to arrest him. An angry mob then hauled Wright out of jail and dragged him through the streets of Sikeston, Missouri, before burning him alive.

    Wright's death was, unfortunately, not unique in American history, but what his death meant in the larger context of life in the United States in the twentieth-century is an important and compelling story. After the lynching, the U.S. Justice Department was forced to become involved in civil rights concerns for the first time, provoking a national reaction to violence on the home front at a time when the country was battling for democracy in Europe.

    Dominic Capeci unravels the tragic story of Wright's life on several stages, showing how these acts of violence were indicative not only of racial tension but the clash of the traditional and the modern brought about by the war. Capeci draws from a wide range of archival sources and personal interviews with the participants and spectators to draw vivid portraits of Wright, his victims, law-enforcement officials, and members of the lynch mob. He places Wright in the larger context of southern racial violence and shows the significance of his death in local, state, and national history during the most important crisis of the twentieth-century.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5646-0
    Subjects: History, Political Science, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Maps and Illustrations
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  6. 1 Sikeston
    (pp. 1-12)

    Within twelve hours on Sunday, January 25, 1942, racial violence erupted three times in Sikeston, Missouri.¹ It began in the dark, wintry morning on the southeast edge of town and ended in the daylight of early afternoon on the west side—in an area appropriately called Sunset Addition—where most black citizens lived. According to Grace Sturgeon, an unknown black man entered her home at 1:30 a.m., attacked her with a knife, and retreated into the night.

    Thirty minutes later and within a short distance of the Addition, Cleo Wright stood before the headlights of a scout car. Covered in...

  7. 2 Bloodshed
    (pp. 13-37)

    Despite the economic boom and the festive preparations for Christmas that characterized early December 1941, Sikeston residents experienced anxious moments amid glad tidings. They knew of draft calls over the past year and of area youths already stationed in “danger zones”: the Hawaiian and Philippine Islands.¹ Little did they realize, however, how soon blood would be shed there—and elsewhere.

    Indeed, townspeople reeled with the reports of Japan’s “unprovoked and dastardly” attack of Pearl Harbor on December 7. “Congress Declares War on Japan” screamed local headlines, which soon included Germany and Italy as enemies; “severe damage to American naval and...

  8. 3 Law and Order
    (pp. 38-66)

    News of the lynching quickly spread beyond the immediate area via radio broadcasts and newspaper copy. State and national reporters, including representatives of the Associated Press, Associated Negro Press, and Southern News Service, soon followed the story into Sikeston to pepper local officials, newsmen, and residents for information. Several gravitated toward Paul Bumbarger, staff writer for theStandardand author of its major lynching story, which became the basis for accounts published near and far. But since journalists of both races found him “very polite” yet cautious about becoming “mixed up in a racial situation,” they also sought their own...

  9. 4 Autopsy
    (pp. 67-108)

    Among numerous questions posed by the lynching, the most significant involved those touched by violence. Beyond names that suddenly blazed across wire services and headlines, who exactly were Cleo Wright and Grace Sturgeon? Was he a black beast and she a white innocent, or were they lovers whose passion turned to bloodshed? And, their personal relationship aside, what drove him to such a savage act and her to such an indomitable desire for life? Indeed, the responses to these queries pushed beyond sexual innuendo to reveal much about a racial and cultural heritage that fostered Wright’s aggression and demanded Sturgeon’s...

  10. 5 Burial
    (pp. 109-138)

    Cleo Wright’s lynching prompted questions that focused on the citizens and officials of Sikeston. Which townsfolk took his life and why did they do so, knowing that he already lay on his deathbed? And what resistance did would-be lynchers encounter from lawmen who held Wright in their custody? Those who sought answers, most notably the county prosecutor and federal attorneys, faced major obstacles as members of the mob and local policemen scrambled to escape prosecution. They, and most town residents, wanted the entire tragedy buried as quickly as possible.

    Certainly, Sikestonians knew who executed Wright, having witnessed the lynching directly...

  11. 6 The Blantons
    (pp. 139-165)

    Father and son of one of the locale’s most famous families, Charles L. and David E. Blanton found themselves on opposite sides in the matter of Wright’s lynching, symbolizing much larger issues of race relations and community development. Their differences revealed the impact of global war on a traditional society whose national government’s fight for survival and democracy abroad necessitated social order and racial justice at home. As lynchers, policemen, and the elder Blanton acted in a world that was being lost, the younger Blanton—representative of civic and commercial elites—operated in its modern sequel.¹

    C.L. Blanton publicized the...

  12. 7 From Missouri
    (pp. 166-186)

    Cleo Wright’s “spirit in smoke ascended to high heaven” and, in some ways, replicated the previous 3,842 deaths by lynching that had occurred nationwide between 1889 and 1941.¹ His killing followed well-established patterns of racial violence that reached back to southern and mountain heritages. Yet like those bloodlettings his murder, though not “mysterious,” was “unique,” wrought by social factors and “distinctive conditions” particular to Sikeston. Rather than exemplifying an unchanging “holistic cultural and historical perspective” peculiar to the South or the border states, his slaying verified the evolutionary nature of lynch law.² It also revealed the impact of outsiders, modernization...

  13. 8 Postmortem
    (pp. 187-193)

    Unforeseen by the tradition-bound killers of Cleo Wright was the long-range significance of their act for constitutional law, one of the most far-reaching sources of modernization. Their ancient blood rite amid global war provoked an unprecedented contemporary, legal response that advanced intermittently into the postwar era toward federal intervention in racially motivated violence. More than reviving earlier concepts of honor and bloodshed, they dragged forward a judicial activism that had begun in the wake of an earlier world war to challenge abuse of black citizens and by the late 1960s reached far beyond Sikeston to envelop the deep South and...

  14. Appendix
    (pp. 194-201)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 202-252)
  16. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 253-263)
  17. Index
    (pp. 264-276)