January 25th, 1942

Cleo Wright Lynched in Sikeston, Missouri

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, many Americans depended upon New Deal programs designed to stimulate the economy and provide for the country’s growing poor following the stock market crash of 1929. When discriminatory local administration of these programs created racial inequality, resulting protests and unrest often increased racial tensions. During this era in Sikeston, Missouri, racial inequality in the implementation of New Deal agricultural programs led to protest and stimulated anti-black sentiment among white residents.

Against this backdrop, in the early hours of Sunday, January 25, 1942, a black man named Cleo Wright was arrested on charges of assaulting a white woman. Wright was shot several times by a city night marshal during his arrest, but the local hospital refused to admit him for treatment due to his race. Police initially brought the ailing Wright to his home to die, but later returned him to the city jail.

By morning, white residents of Sikeston had become aware of the incident, and a mob of 75 whites formed at the jail. City and state police officers attempted to control the situation, but the mob eventually overcame them and abducted the nearly unconscious Wright from his cell. Wright was then dragged through the streets of Sunset Addition, Sikeston’s predominantly black neighborhood, where the mob forced Wright's wife to examine his body. The mob then took Wright to a pair of black churches and burned him within sight of hundreds of churchgoers.

The lynching terrified Sikeston’s black community, and led an estimated one hundred black residents to flee. Condemned by a number of newspapers around the country, the lynching received national attention and led to the first ever Department of Justice investigation of a lynching. Nevertheless, a grand jury refused to indict the perpetrators, and no one was ever convicted.