The year was 1895. Thirty years had passed since the end of the Civil War and the so-called end to slavery. African Americans would no longer be seen as property and they supposedly had the same unalienable rights that the Constitution guaranteed to all American citizens. This was rarely the case, however. White Americans did not see African Americans this way and in many cases refused to treat them as equals. The courts were corrupt and clearly favored white people over black people in almost all cases. The white people also often took justice into their own hands as they lynched many black people for alleged crimes without any due process in court. African Americans did not get a chance to prove their innocence in many circumstances, resulting in them being lynched without a trial. No one in the white community actively opposed these revolting crimes.
The Richmond Planet explored many of these cases at the time and brought to light the injustice that the white community imposed on African Americans all over the country. Editor John Mitchell Jr. argued that to overcome being targeted in both the justice system and in everyday life for the color of their skin, black Americans needed to take action that would make the white community realize that they would not stand for these atrocities.
The Richmond Planet documented almost all the court cases that occurred during this year and took special note of the ones that happened between a black person and a white person. The judges and juries that presided over these cases consisted predominantly of white Americans and they rarely ruled against their own race no matter how brutal a crime they committed or if they had any evidence supporting their claims. In one case, a white man shot and killed a black man in his own home and “a white jury found the murderer ‘not guilty’ and he walked from the court-room a free man.” The evidence proved to be overwhelmingly obvious that the white man murdered the black man in cold blood, yet because the crime committed happened against a black man and the jury comprised of white citizens, the man did not receive any charges. The acts infuriated John Mitchell not only because a white man murdered a black man in cold blood, but because it was impossible to convict a white man with any consequence for a crime. Punishing the white people for their actions would make them stop committing crimes against the black community, but the justice system worked for the white people and against the black making it hard to convict a white person. It did not matter if a black person committed the crime or asked for justice because the court always seemed to rule in opposition.
In one instance, a white man deducted two dollars from his black employee’s weekly pay of a little over three dollars after being fined for not having the proper paperwork that should have been provided by the owner. The black man threatened the white man to give him his money, but ran away when the white man pulled out his gun and chased after him. Both men acted irrationally, but they did not receive equal punishment. The jury heard the case and found the black man “guilty and ascertain[ed] his punishment at Five Years in the penitentiary.” The white man walked away with no charges. Mitchell argued that “if Chas. H. Page [the white man] had a gun and chased Richard Brown [the black man], was he not guilty of even a more heinous offense than that with which the latter stood charged?” It did not seem to matter what the charges consisted of and whom they incriminated. The deciding factor in many of these rulings became if the person being accused of the crime was black or white.
Disputes between white people and black people sometimes never even made it into the court systems. People decided to take the law into their own hands by lynching someone without taking the offense to the police or courts. The majority of the stories in the Planet focused on white people committing these crimes against African Americans. If a mob of white people at this time found a black person guilty, even without hearing their side of the story, they would lynch the black person without thinking twice. Lynchings violated the basic rights of Americans to a trial. John Mitchell argued that every lynching was “done contrary to law and in violation of the guarantees of … the constitution of the United States.” The police never held investigations to look for the lynchers, which allowed it to become a common practice. If a black person lynched a white man, however, there would be a manhunt to find the offender and it would result in the offender being lynched on the spot for their actions. Mitchell described an event in which a black man awaited trial in jail after “attempting to criminally assault” a white woman. Before the man could even defend himself in the court, “an undisguised mob attacked the jail, the troops yielded him up and the writhing, struggling, protesting form of the innocent man was swung into the air and his body riddled with bullets.” The mob faced no resistance as they took the man from his cell.
John Mitchell Jr. realized that the black community would obtain much help from the local authorities or justice system. He believed that “there is but one way to remedy the evil. American citizens of African decent must make an individual defense.” Mitchell knew that if they fought back and did not go down without a fight then African Americans would stop getting lynched. Mitchell called upon all black people to be ready to resist with any weapon at hand when threatened with a lynching. He insisted that “every man should consider it his duty to see to it that at least one lyncher is left cold and stiff upon the ground before he yields up his life in accordance with the mobs.” Mitchell’s rationalized this motion by citing how lynchings frequently ended with the person being killed and very few escaped an angry mob. If the person going to be lynched took a stand with a weapon, then they would have a chance to kill or injure one of the lynchers, which would make them hesitant to commit a lynching again. Although it seemed irrational for Mitchell to suggest that people should fight a mob of people looking for blood, it proved to be nearly impossible to escape the situation and it would discourage people from attempting any lynchings knowing that African Americans fought back when provoked.
The Richmond Planet in 1895 had many negative stories placing black people and white people on opposing sides and making them seem like enemies, which in many cases they were. One man seemed to transcend these lines. Governor Charles T. O’Ferrall of Virginia became an ally for the black community. He did everything in his “power to enforce the law and legislature of Virginia.” In 1894, O’Ferrall came into office and Mitchell along with the black community of Richmond gained much respect for him. O’Ferrall’s actions demonstrated that he believed everyone should be treated equally in the face of the law. Mitchell would often contact the governor to advocate for or request a pardon for a member of the community wrongly convicted of a crime. Governor O’Ferrall pardoned a woman named Mary Norman charged with resisting arrest from an off duty officer. She sat in jail for six months before O’Ferrall pardoned her. The court dropped the charges “by the mercy of a Governor who is conscientiously striving to do his duty and comply with his sworn obligations by being the Chief Executive of all the people of this state.” The black community needed a governor like O’Ferrall because he stood up for them and fought for their rights. He gave Mitchell and the black community hope that not everyone was against them.
The black community had to deal with unjust court systems and white people taking the law into their own hands. They had a clear disadvantage because they did not have the police or the courts on their side and would be convicted of any crime the white people accused them of doing. Mitchell tried to rally the community and show them that if they fought back then they would see a decline in the number of lynchings. Combined with Governor O’Ferrall trying to uphold the laws of the state, the black community proved that they could improve their situation.