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Repairing Senate's Record on Lynching
'Long Overdue' Apology Would Be Congress's First for Treatment of Blacks

By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 11, 2005

Anna Holmes remembers hearing about the bridge when she was a little girl.

It stood somewhere near the spot where the Collington and Western branches of the Patuxent River met in Upper Marlboro, less than a quarter-mile from the Marlboro jail.

"I used to hear them talking about the lynchings," said Holmes, 79, who grew up in central Prince George's County.

It was on the bridge that a black man named Stephen Williams, accused of manhandling a white woman, was beaten and hanged about 3 in the morning on Oct. 20, 1894. A masked mob snatched him from his jail cell and dragged him as he pleaded for his life.

"When the Marlboro bridge was reached the rope was quickly tied to the railing and amid piteous groans Williams was hurled into eternity," The Washington Post reported.

At the time, there was no federal law against lynching, and most states refused to prosecute white men for killing black people. The U.S. House of Representatives, responding to pleas from presidents and civil rights groups, three times agreed to make the crime a federal offense. Each time, though, the measure died in the Senate at the hands of powerful southern lawmakers using the filibuster.

The Senate is set to correct that wrong Monday, when its members will vote on a resolution to apologize for the failure to enact an anti-lynching law first proposed 105 years ago.

"The apology is long overdue," said Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), who is sponsoring the resolution with Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.). "Our history does include times when we failed to protect individual freedom and rights."

The Senate's action comes amid a series of conciliatory efforts nationwide that include reopening investigations and prosecutions in Mississippi. Advocates say the vote would mark the first time Congress has apologized for the nation's treatment of African Americans.

Allen's involvement could help mend his rift with black Virginians who criticized him for hanging a noose outside his law office, displaying a Confederate flag in his home and proclaiming a Confederate History Month while governor.

Landrieu said she was motivated to propose the bill after seeing the book "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America," a collection of postcards taken at lynching scenes.

"The intensity and impact of the pictures tell a story . . . that written words failed to convey," Landrieu said. "It has been an extremely emotional, educational experience for me. And the more I learned, the more sure I became [about] the effort to pass this resolution."

Haunting History

Towns across America bear reminders of the shameful tradition that claimed 4,743 lives between 1882 and 1968, research shows. In Alexandria, a lamppost at Cameron and Lee streets served to lynch Joseph McCoy on April 23, 1897. In Annapolis, a bluff near College Creek was the site of Henry Davis's lynching four days before Christmas in 1906.

Lynching also remains imbedded in the consciousness of African American families, some of whom can name an ancestor or a friend who fell prey to mob justice, often meted out with spectators watching and memorialized with postcards of the victims hanging or pieces of the ropes that had snapped their necks.

Billie Holiday's best-selling record, "Strange Fruit," was about lynching. Dozens of black writers, including poets Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou, have written about it.

Locally, Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.), 53, remembers his mother warning him about the lynching tree in their small town in North Carolina. Fred Tutman of Upper Marlboro can point to a tree on his family's land that a previous owner used for lynching.

"The memories are less vivid for me because of my generation," said Tutman, 47. "They are more vivid for my mother and grandmother, who grew up in Prince George's and had all kinds of violence perpetrated on them."

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said he was most affected by the death of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was brutally tortured and shot in Mississippi in 1955. Lewis was 15 at the time.

"I remembered thinking that it could happen to anyone, me or my brothers or my cousins," said Lewis, a civil rights activist. "It created a sense of fear that it could happen to anyone who got out of line."

Lynching touched all races and religions and occurred in all states in the contiguous United States except for four in New England. Immigrants were frequent targets, so much so that at the beginning of the 20th century, the State Department paid nearly $500,000 to China, Italy and Mexico on behalf of lynching victims.

But the practice was predominant in the South, and four out of five victims were black, according to statistics compiled by Tuskegee University in Alabama.

While some were crime suspects, many had not been accused of anything more than talking back to a white man or looking at a white woman. Black landowners were frequent targets, historians say.

Typically associated with hangings, lynching is more broadly defined as mob terrorism to avenge a crime or wrong and a method of intimidation. The goal, historians say, was not just to maim and kill, but to humiliate and dehumanize. Before they were shot or hanged, some victims had their eyes gouged out or their teeth pulled with pliers, and some were beaten, burned at the stake, dismembered or castrated.

"It was truly the American holocaust," said Mark D. Planning, counsel for the Committee for a Formal Apology, which lobbied the Senate. "There are these perceptions that lynchings were carried out on some poor souls who were dragged into the woods. But these were public spectacles. The civic fathers and leaders of the community often participated in these things, directly or indirectly."

Mob killings were often carnival-like events, attended by men, women and children who were not afraid of facing legal consequences, said Lawrence Guyot, 66, a Washington educator and civil rights activist.

Refreshments were sold. Trains made special trips to lynching sites. Schools and businesses closed to give people a chance to attend. Newspapers ran ads announcing locations and times. Corpses were displayed for days. Victims' ears, fingers and toes were taken as souvenirs, as well as parts of the ropes that hanged them.

"Lynching was the socially acceptable way to demonstrate control," Guyot said. "It sent a message that not only did this happen to this person, but if you as a black person thought about stepping outside of our racial code, it can happen to you. We want it to be public. We want everybody to see it. We want the body to stay up there as long as possible and all the gory details to be known."

Much of America, though, was revolted by the practice.

Some white writers, notably Mark Twain, railed against it. Two leading civil rights groups, the NAACP and B'nai B'rith's Anti-Defamation League, sprang up in part to counter lynching. Black journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett devoted her career to ending lynching. Seven presidents, starting with Benjamin Harrison in 1891, argued for making it a federal offense.

None of this swayed the Senate, where southern lawmakers insisted that a federal law would intrude on states' rights. One debate tied up the Senate for a total of six weeks in 1937 and 1938, and supporters were never able to break the filibuster.

If the Senate had acted years ago, Allen said, "it would have sent a signal" that the government did not condone lynching. "If leaders are quiet, there is a sense in the general population that this sort of violent, vile behavior or conduct is acceptable," he said.

A First for Congress

The current effort to secure an apology was born out of a broader movement to ask Congress to acknowledge wrongs toward African Americans, including slavery, Planning said.

"This would be the first time in history that Congress has apologized for past historical crimes against African Americans," said Planning, adding that the Senate has apologized to Native Americans, Japanese Americans and other groups.

Under the auspices of the Committee for a Formal Apology, activist Dick Gregory and others mailed copies of the book "Without Sanctuary" to senators. The crude images helped bring home the horror to some legislators who had given little thought to lynching, Planning said.

One postcard, depicting a corpse in 1910, read: "This is a token of a great day we had in Dallas March 3." Another, showing the burnt corpse of William Stanley in Temple, Tex., in 1915, read: "This is the barbecue we had last night . . . your son Joe." Allen and Landrieu agreed to lead the effort and have gained more than 50 co-sponsors.

Landrieu said she wants the measure discussed on the Senate floor so that remarks will go into the Congressional Record and counter the hateful comments from the past. Before the vote Monday evening, descendants of lynching victims have been invited to a special day of events on Capitol Hill.

Guyot, who worked to overturn Jim Crow laws in the 1960s, said the legislation fits a pattern of efforts across the country. They include the FBI's reopening of the investigation into Till's lynching and the prosecution of suspected Ku Klux Klansman Edgar Ray Killen in the 1964 slaying of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. That trial is set to start Monday.

"There is no statute of limitations on murder and no statute of limitations on doing what is right," Guyot said. "This is a time in American history when not only is it possible to have coalitions across racial lines, but also necessary. Reconciliation is needed to make that happen."

Janet Langhart Cohen, wife of former senator and defense secretary William S. Cohen and a member of the apology committee, said the Senate should have acted unsolicited.

"It's all I can do to repress my rage that we have to ask them, in the name of decency, to say you are sorry," said Langhart Cohen, who lives in Chevy Chase.

She grew up hearing stories about the lynching of her third cousin, Jimmy Gillenwaters, near Bowling Green, Ky., in 1912. In her book "From Rage to Reason: My Life in Two Americas" and in a recent interview, she recalled how her grandmother and uncles repeated the story for years, recounting every detail.

Gillenwaters, 17, was the oldest of three children raised on a farm owned by Langhart Cohen's grandfather. As landowners, her grandparents said they were always keenly aware of the danger their success posed because of jealous neighbors.

"One night the nightriders came to scare them -- that's what they did in those days. They would ride by, set fire to a house or shoot," Langhart Cohen said. "After the shots stopped, they thought everyone was accounted for.

"The next morning, they noticed that Jimmy was gone, and my Aunt Bertha went to look for him. Finally, they heard a blood-curdling scream. When they found her, Aunt Bertha was holding on to his ankles, screaming, 'They killed Jimmy! They killed Jimmy! Help me get my son down!' "

A Senate apology, Langhart Cohen said, couldn't erase her family's bitter memories, but it could help improve the nation's image abroad as it pushes for human rights improvements.

"How can we promote democracy," she said, "then say that we are over there to liberate people from dictatorships when we don't even acknowledge what happened here?"

Staff researchers Karl Evanzz and Don Pohlman contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company