Studying cultural violence in the U.S.

Studying cultural violence in the U.S.

William Carrigan is a Distinguished Lecturer in American History.

A horrific photo of a crowd of 15,000 watching the lynching of a Black 17-year-old in broad daylight in 1916 led historian William D. Carrigan, Ph.D., to study cultural violence.

“It involved the burning of a young man in the middle of the day,” said Carrigan, who saw the photo during his undergraduate studies.

William D. Carrigan, Ph.D.


Areas of expertise: Lynching culture, the American West, Civil War and Reconstruction

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“It provoked a question: How did these ordinary people who viewed the lynching — if not the people who headed up the mob and carried out the sadistic torture — come to tolerate this culture of lynching?” Carrigan said.

“These were people who owned grocery stores, walked their kids to school and went to church. Yet, they did nothing to stop it,” said Carrigan, a professor in the College of Humanities & Social Sciences and the author or editor of four books and numerous articles.

Carrigan’s research demonstrates that historical memory and the culture in which people are raised greatly influence their views of cultural violence. 

Another key influence, he explained, is how local authorities, such as community and church leaders, respond to those actions and set the tone. 

“Sadly, I certainly think there are some elements of intolerance and racism and issues with violence in American culture that persist and are relevant to the present,” he said.

As divisions exist along racial and ethnic lines, “various groups don’t remember the past the same way,” Carrigan said.

Through his scholarly work, Carrigan works to change that.

“Having a clear understanding of the actual history can hopefully be a way in which there can be more genuine discussion and dialogue in the present day,” said Carrigan, who, in 2014, was named a Distinguished Lecturer in American History by the Organization of American Historians. 

Carrigan’s work has been supported by a host of grants and fellowships, including from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

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