Whitecapping was a violent lawless movement among farmers that occurred specifically in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was originally a ritualized form of enforcing community standards, appropriate behavior and traditional rights. However, as it spread throughout the poorest areas of the rural South after the Civil War, it took on distinct economically-driven and anti-black characteristics, eventually to be criminalized into state law. After its introduction to the formal law, its legal definition became more general than the specific movement itself: "Whitecapping is the crime of threatening a person with violence. Ordinarily, members of the minority groups are the victims of whitecapping." The movement or legal act of whitecapping is also associated with groups like The Night Riders, Bald Knobbers and the Ku Klux Klan who were known for committing "extralegal acts of violence targeting select groups, carried out by vigilantes under cover of night or disguise."
The Whitecapping movement started in Indiana around 1837, as white males began forming secret societies in order to attempt to deliver justice independent from the state. These groups became known as the "White Caps". The first White Cap operations generally aimed at those who went against a community's values. Men who neglected or abused their family, people who showed excessive laziness and women who had children out of wedlock are all prime examples of possible targets.
As whitecapping spread into the Southern states during the 1890s, the targets became drastically different. In the South, White Cap societies were generally made up of poor-white farmers, frequently sharecroppers and small landowners, who intended to control black laborers and to prevent merchants from acquiring more land. These societies in the South made it their task to attempt to force a person to abandon his home or property. This racial character of whitecapping in the South is thought to have been ignited by the postbellum agricultural depression that occurred immediately after slavery ended in the U.S., which involved issues with overproduction and falling crop prices. With attention centered on producing cotton, the South's economy became very unbalanced. Many farmers went into debt and lost their lands to merchants through mortgage foreclosures. The merchants and their black laborers and sometimes new white tenants became quick targets for the dispossessed, who seemed to be losing everything. Racism contributed to the problem as well, prosperous black men, or simply African Americans who acquired land in the South frequently faced resentment that could be expressed violently. Some cite the maintenance of white supremacy, particularly in the economy, after the freeing of slaves in the South as one of the main reasons White Cap groups formed. Mexican Americans have also been cited as victims of white capping, particularly in the state of Texas.
Many White Cap societies were disbanded by 1894 and members were punished with fines. Some state governments were determined to disband the White Cap societies in their region, including Mississippi Governor Vardaman who assembled an executive task force in 1904 to gather information about membership because he feared the violence would drive too much labor away from the state economy. However, there were still active members of the Whitecaps who were found and punished in the early 1900s. Though the negative economic effects of whitecapping violence were the main reason for state response to the lawlessness, it was often publicly expressed that the values of Christianity were why whitecapping should be ended.
Over many years, whitecapping not only affected individual people, but also the communities and counties as a whole. In the South, whitecapping discouraged many merchants and industrialists from doing business in the counties; it also threatened to drive away black laborers. In the late twentieth century, whitecapping continued to be an issue in the South, as evidenced by a 1972 Mississippi statute criminalizing its practice. The statute reads as follows: "Any person or persons who shall, by placards, or other writing, or verbally, attempt by threats, direct or implied, of injury to the person or property of another, to intimidate such other person into an abandonment or change of home or employment, shall, upon conviction, be fined not exceeding five hundred dollars, or imprisoned in the county jail not exceeding six months, or in the penitentiary not exceeding five years, as the court, in its discretion may determine." 
Despite the different whitecapping targets, the methods used by the White Caps remained somewhat constant. Generally, the members of this society were disguised in a way that somewhat resembled that of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), and always attacked at night. Physical attacks could include such things as whipping, drowning, firing shots into houses, arson and other brutalities, with whipping and threats constituting the majority of the tactics used against victims. The White Caps also used non-violent means of intimidation in order to get certain residents to abandon their homes.These include posting signs on doors of blacks' and merchants' homes, as well as cornering a target and verbally threatening them. If a resident or witness to a crime did not abandon their homes after being terrorized, punishment was sometimes death. The victims of these attacks had little support from the legal authorities until 1893, when the threat of whitecapping began to be taken more seriously. However, even when the courts got involved it took time to completely clear juries of any White Cap members or sympathizers, as part of the White Cap oath was to never help convict a fellow member. Some members of the White Caps had elite connections to defense attorneys in their state, preventing them from harsher sentences in court, such as with Hodges v. United States, where the defendants had lawyers that were the lieutenant governor and running for state prosecutor. resulting in a sentence of one year and one day in prison along with a $100 fine. The penalty for violating the blood oath of the White Caps was death. In some states, whitecapping societies were interconnected throughout the region and could call on members from another county to terrorize witnesses of crimes committed by other members as a scare tactic.
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- Holmes, William. "Whitecapping: Anti-Semitism in the Populist Era." American Jewish Historical Quarterly. 63 (1974): 244 – 261.
- Holmes, William. "Whitecapping: Agrarian Violence in Mississippi, 1902–1906." The Journal of Southern History. 35 (1969): 165 – 185. In JSTOR
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