Historically, how did the legality of murdering black people in the south work

From what I know of it, even from the period of 1865 until about the 1950s if a white person wanted to murder a black person in the south it was generally not taken seriously as a crime. Is that a valid assumption? Reading about the murder of Emmett Till, his killers said the only time they even considered getting in trouble with the law was when they had stolen some industrial equipment to use to tie Till’s body to before dumping it in a river. The murder, torture, kidnapping, etc of Till didn’t worry them but stealing something to tie his body to did.

During slavery I ‘assume’ you could legally kill a black person, but if they were someone elses property I also assume you would have to pay that person back. Was murdering someone else’s slave taken seriously as a crime (was it viewed as theft, or as an assault by proxy on the slaveowner, or something else)?

What about the murder of freed black men during slavery times?

What of black people murdering other black people either during slavery as slaves, as freemen, or during the Jim Crow era?

It’s a narrower range than that. Race relations were generally better, if rocky and volatile, from 1865 to about 1890. Between 1890 and about 1920-25 they reached a level far below any other era in US history, and the law in many places simply didn’t bother with crimes against blacks. There were many, many murders and violent attacks; few prosecutions, even sham ones; convictions only in cases where some powerful person or institution was watching.

Most white men who killed blacks were not prosecuted. The prosecutors didn’t care to proceed, and witnesses were hard to find. No ever witnessed a lynching, for instance (if you asked them).

Of course, if it were the other way around and a black killed a white man, the prosecutor would be all over it, though might “forget” to secure the prisoner, who would unfortunately be pulled from his cell by a mob and strung up (or worse: one famous picture of a lynching showed a victim chained to a tree and tortured with a blowtorch).

One example of how people thought was the Leo Frank case. Frank was white (and Jewish) and almost certainly innocent, but one of the reasons the jury convicted him was that the prosecution had a black suspect (who quite likely was the killer), but didn’t prosecute. The fact that the prosecutor didn’t try to convict a black man indicated to the jury that he had to have overwhelming reasons to convict Frank.

During slavery, since blacks were property, it would be treated as though you wrecked someone’s car – judgment would only be payment for the loss.

Why? Why then? Is there a scholarly consensus on the issue? Any major theories?

Rayford Logan devised the concept of the “Nadir of Race Relations” in the 1950s. This is a fairly standard narrative of Civil Rights history, though when one looks at specific areas, the idea of a specific low point may not hold up so well. A short and accessible overview is in James Loewen’s “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” where he contrasts Thomas Nast’s pro-abolition cartoons of the 1860s with his increasingly anti-black cartoons of later decades, and shows how naval crews went from being rather integrated in the 1860s to segregated by the 1890s.

The nadir does not always hold up on the ground level, Neil Foley’s “White Scourge” is a good look at Civil Rights History in Texas cotton country - and finds that even in the depths of the nadir, some cross-racial alliances could form among tenant farmers and sharecroppers.

This is not necessarily correct; I don’t know that it was correct in any slave state in the United States, and explicit constitutional provisions to the contrary were common and longstanding in several of the antebellum slave states.

From the 1798 Constitution of Georgia, Article IV:

1845 Constitution of Texas, VIII:

1861 Constitution of Alabama, Article VI, “Slavery”:

Of course there are “loopholes”, “insurrection” being the common one (and “moderate correction” in the 1798 Georgia Constitution). The biggest loophole was that any white man accused of murdering a slave would of course by tried by a jury of other white men. And it was things like jury nullification, and I suppose prosecutorial discretion–rather than any explicit laws legalizing the murder of black people–that allowed lynching to flourish after the Reconstruction Era.

Plessy v Ferguson had a lot to do with it. 1896.

My relatives have told me about truly awful things – mostly incidents between about 1920 and the late 1960s in Mississippi, that either they witnessed or were told about by people older than them. It used to be that if someone got raped, or broken into, the police would go and pick up the first black man they saw, take him to the jailhouse, and torture the poor guy into a “confession”. White men could also rape black women without much fear of consequences from the law (and if her male relatives tried to avenge her, like as not they’d get lynched themselves). It’s worth noting that even some of my relatives who are openly racist to some degree or another considered such behavior to be horrible.

I think most States if you just randomly murdered a slave it was indeed considered murder. However in the “slaveocracy” the plantation owners were essentially all of the local and State elected officials, much of the lawyer class would be second sons and such of plantation owners, the judges would be kin to plantation owners, all the Federal elected officials would be plantation owners etc. The Southern “slaveocracy” was the closest we had in America to the situation in the UK where a lot of power was actually still held by hereditary nobility even after the UK had technically become a democracy, the South was like that.

So while killing a slave for no reason or in a manner consistent with “murder” was illegal in many or even all slave States prosecutions would be difficult. For one, why would a prosecutor prosecute? They were cronies of the slave owners. Who would even notify the authorities a slave had been murdered? If it happened on the plantation, obviously the white overseers wouldn’t rat on their boss. The slave owner’s family wouldn’t be turning him in. And slaves would not be permitted to leave the plantation in the first place so how would they get to the authorities? If they did, who would listen? If they found someone who would listen, how would they convict? Blacks, freedmen or slave, to my knowledge, were not allowed to testify in courts in the antebellum South (I know this was true in Virginia in the late 18th century at least.)

If I had to guess, knowing nothing about it, the only slaveowners if any who were prosecuted and convicted of murdering a slave were probably the “meager” owners who ran small farms with 1-2 slaves and who for whatever reason had enemies in the aristocratic planter class who had become aware said owner had killed a slave and decided to push for his prosecution primarily out of a personal animus.

In the post war South up until the Civil Rights movement I’d say the typical response to a murdered black man would be an investigation where the prosecutor looked into it and most of the time determined there weren’t witnesses/no evidence to prosecute. The rare prosecutions, all white juries would acquit. I use the term “prosecutor” loosely as well, because I know in some places we didn’t get government employed formal prosecutors to fairly late. I think in some instances a posse or ad hoc band of citizens might capture a criminal and a judge would set a case and basically some local attorney would step up to do the government’s work on that case.

Worse than that. It some witness said a black man (or even worse, a black boy) did it, the all the sheriff’s horses and all the sheriff’s men didn’t necessarily care if they even got the right black boy. Even for the pettiest crimes, like if a black teen whistled at a white female. (Wasn’t that was Emmett Till was accused of doing?)

They’d just grab the first black boy they came across, and ask: “Was it him?” If the answer was yes (and of course it was – these black boys all look alike, right?), they’d just haul him off to the good ol’ lynching party. Justice was that simple in them thar good ol’ days.

I would imagine the laws against murdering slaves weren’t for the benefit of the slaves themselves, but rather to have some kind of leverage if there was a raging sociopath next door that might become a danger to you.

I think it was more complex than that. If you look at slave narratives and slave-owner writings of the time period, I think it’s pretty clear that slave owners and southern whites in general really did consider the the murder of slaves to be wrong–as wrong as any other murder. Slaves were seen as human, albeit inherently retarded, violent, and immoral humans.

However, when you get down to cases, the white always got the benefit of the doubt, both legally and socially. So while pretty much everyone would agree that going up to a random slave and killing him where he stood was evil, wrong, terrible, it never once happened. Instead, it was a “moderate correction”, which slaves needed because they had to be taught, or it was self defense, or it was “complicated” in some other way. Even if everyone privately felt like a particular incidence was probably actually murder, the principal of giving white people the absolute benefit of the doubt had to be upheld because violent, immoral, ungrateful slaves might take that as excuse to revolt. The thinking went that everyone else’s safety depended on maintaining the perpetual grinding pressure on slaves through White Unity, and if that meant giving the occasional sadistic slave owner the benefit of the doubt beyond all reason, well, that was an unfortunate necessary evil.