The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Congress failed nearly 200 times to make lynching a federal crime

Hundreds of steel columns dangling from beams symbolize lynching victims at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. (Video: Jonathan Capehart / The Washington Post)

Lawmakers in the first half of the 20th Century tried nearly 200 times to address lynching on a federal level. Although seven presidents supported such efforts, none were successful, according to anti-lynching legislation introduced last week by three black senators.

If the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018 passes, lynching would finally become a federal crime.

The legislation describes the custom as the “ultimate expression of racism” in post-Reconstruction America. Between 1882 and 1968, 4,745 people were lynched. The first efforts to address this lawlessness on the federal level came in 1870, when President Ulysses S. Grant approved legislation to subdue the actions of white-supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.

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But these laws did not address the violence perpetrated by ordinary white citizens. Lynch mobs killed immigrants, women and teenagers for a variety of reasons, including defending a black womanknocking on the door of a white woman’s home and not calling an Alabama police officer “Mr.”

“Lynch law has spread its insidious influence till men in New York State, Pennsylvania and on the free Western plains feel they can take the law in their own hands with impunity, especially where an Afro-American is concerned,” wrote investigative journalist Ida B. Wells in 1892. “The South is brutalized to a degree not realized by its own inhabitants, and the very foundation of government, law and order, are imperiled.”

‘Our shame’: This newspaper undermined black lynching victims. Now it is confronting its sins.

Michael J. Pfeifer, history professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told The Washington Post in an email that legislative failure to federally penalize assailants was largely because of Southern lawmakers’ stonewalling.

“Asserting a doctrine of ‘states’ rights,’ Southern Democratic senators consistently thwarted federal anti-lynching legislation over the decades,” Pfeifer said. “So although federal anti-lynching legislation enjoyed majority support in the House in the 1920s and ’30s, through the filibuster and other means, Southern Democrats were able to block federal anti-lynching legislation.”

Some Southern jurisdictions “passed their own anti-lynching laws to demonstrate that federal legislation was unnecessary, but refused to enforce them,” according to an Equal Justice Initiative report.

Eighteen years after the first federal anti-lynching proposal, Rep. Leonidas Dyer (R-Mo.) in 1918 introduced a bill that would fine officials who were hesitant to prosecute lynch mob participants and provide financial relief for families affected, according to government archives. The obstructionist tactics of Southern Democrats kept the proposal from becoming law.

With the help of the NAACP, Dyer’s bill passed the House of Representatives and made it through a Senate committee. Its momentum was halted, however, when Southern Democratic senators filibustered the proposal.

On the floor of the Senate, Sen. Lee Slater Overman (D-N.C.) alleged that the bill was written by a “Negro” with the intent to solidify the African American voting bloc for northern Republicans, according to a 1922 New York Times article.

“The decent, hard-working Negroes of the South enjoy every safeguard of the law,” Overman said. “They own property, their children go to public schools, and for such as they (sic) this proposed legislation is absolutely uncalled for.”

According to the Tuskegee Institute, 3,168 black people were lynched before Overman’s statement, and at least 278 more would be lynched in the coming years.

A powerful memorial in Montgomery remembers the victims of lynching

In 2005, the Senate formally apologized for having failed to enact federal anti-lynching legislation decades earlier.

As The Post reported at the time:

In passing the measure, the senators in essence admitted that their predecessors’ failure to act had helped perpetuate a horror that took the lives of more than 4,700 people from 1882 to 1968, most of them black men. At the turn of the last century, more than 100 lynching incidents were reported each year, many of them publicly orchestrated to humiliate the victims and instill fear in others. Lynching occurred in all but four states in the contiguous United States, and less than 1 percent of the perpetrators were brought to justice, historians say.
The U.S. House of Representatives three times passed measures to make lynching a federal offense, but each time the bills were knocked down in the Senate. Powerful southern senators, such as Richard B. Russell Jr. (D-Ga.), whose name was given to the Senate office building where the resolution was drafted, used the filibuster to block votes.

“There may be no other injustice in American history for which the Senate so uniquely bears responsibility,” then-Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said at the time.

The new bill proposed by the three black senators — Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) — is largely symbolic, as lynchings are seemingly part of the nation’s past.

In a statement, Harris said that “lynching is a dark, despicable part of our history, and we must acknowledge that, lest we repeat it. From 1882 to 1986 there have been 200 attempts that have failed to get Congress to pass federal anti-lynching legislation, it’s time for that to change.”

The new bill, Booker said, would “right historical wrongs.”

A similar bill was introduced in the House last month by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) and co-sponsored by 35 members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

“It is never too late for our nation to express our sorrow for the decades of racial terror that traumatized millions in this country,” Equal Justice Initiative Director Bryan Stevenson said in a statement. “Passing an anti-lynching law is not just about who we were decades ago, it’s a statement about who we are now that is relevant, important and timely.”

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