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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.
Winner of the 1999 Missouri History Award given by the State Historical Society of Missouri.
"A painstaking and valuable study of these tragic events that confirms and extends the findings of other recent scholars of lynching."—American Historical Review
"A creatively conceptualized anatomy of a lynching. Capeci places the lynching of Cleo Wright within the context of the city of Sikeston, the state of Missouri, and the nation."—Arvarh E. Strickland
"Capeci touches on the social forces behind the attack and the reactions that followed."—Booklist
"Capeci's account of a lynching in the small city of Sikeston, Missouri, in 1942 adds to a growing list of investigations into the relationship between mob justice and race relations."—Choice
"Capeci skillfully dissects the thoughts and actions of supporters and white opponents of the mob."—Georgia Historical Quarterly
"A meticulous and dynamic examination of a pivotal incident during the age of lynching."—Journal of American History
"For the first time, the U.S. Justice Department intervened in a lynching, although it failed to secure any indictments."—Library Journal
"A cogent guide and a milepost for understanding the history of lynching in Missouri."—Missouri Historical Review
"His extensive research, including interviews with survivors, is evident in his intricate and engrossing perspective, especially when describing the lynching and the bloodshed that led to it."—Publishers Weekly
"A valuable complement to broader-gauged scholarship, because Capeci constructed it so patiently and assiduously."—Reviews in American History
"Concludes that the Sikeston event contributed more to the subsequent history of civil rights and race relations than any other in the state. . . . A fascinating book packed with surprises."—Richard S. Kirkendall
"Illustrates the national significance of Cleo Wright’s murder."—Southern Historian
The University Press of Kentucky
Place of Publication
Race relations, Missouri, Sikeston, African Americans, Civil rights
United States History
Capeci, Dominic J. Jr., "The Lynching of Cleo Wright" (1998). United States History. 95.