cover image Lynching of Cleo Wright

Lynching of Cleo Wright

Dominic J. Capeci, JR.. University Press of Kentucky, $35 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-8131-2048-5

On January 25, 1942, a few weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a black oil-mill worker knifed Grace Sturgeon, a white soldier's wife, in her home. When apprehended, Cleo Wright also knifed a marshal, and was shot repeatedly. Hours later, while his victims were recuperating in a hospital and Wright lay dying in an unsecured jailhouse, a white Sikeston, Mo., mob kidnapped him, lynched him, then dragged him through the streets by car and set him on fire in the black community. The lynching set off a storm of protest that was led by the NAACP and the black press. Considered a national outrage on the heels of Pearl Harbor (the Japanese used the lynching for anti-American propaganda), the need for the appearance of a united front and the desire to develop a real anti-lynching law pressed the involvement of the Justice Department's civil rights section. Capeci, who teaches history at Southwest Missouri State University, offers a case study of the incident and examines the area's history, community mores, as well as the aftermath. 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. The book is most successful when examining the lives of Grace and Cleo and the events that drew them together and pushed their communities apart. It's less successful when it reduces to weak sociology, such as ""Wright beckoned his own destroyers."" And while the ironic revelation that mob members believed their actions supported the boys overseas is stunning, a chapter designed to show one white family's reaction to the lynching seems peripheral. (June)