The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why it took a century to pass an anti-lynching law

A century of political organizing could not overcome a powerful tool of white supremacy — until now

A group of African Americans marched near the Capitol in Washington to protest the 1946 lynching of four African Americans in Georgia. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

On Dec. 19, the Senate unanimously passed legislation that made lynching a federal crime. Proposed by Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala D. Harris and Tim Scott, the Justice for Lynching Act classifies lynching, “the ultimate expression of racism in the United States,” as a hate crime. In its findings, the bill states that at least 4,742 people, mostly African Americans, were lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1968, and that Congress had considered nearly 200 anti-lynching bills in the first half of the 20th century without passing any of them.

For more than a century, Southern resistance and Northern indifference has undermined such legislative efforts. Why? Because lynching had remained a powerful terrorist tool to maintain white supremacy.

The passage of the Justice for Lynching Act is a reminder that change in America is painfully slow. This legislation took more than 100 years to pass, despite a long-standing recognition of lynching’s immorality, ultimately reminding us of the pervasive way in which racial violence has been ingrained in all aspects of law, politics and culture.

The campaign against lynching began in earnest in 1892 when Ida B. Wells, a journalist and social critic who had been born a slave in 1862, published “Southern Horrors: The Lynch Law in All Its Phases.” She lectured publicly and exposed the rape myth — falsely accusing the black men who were murdered of raping white women — that was used to justify lynching as a rationale for racial subordination. As a journalist, Wells-Barnett (she married in 1895) challenged professed ignorance about lynching with facts, a strategy adopted by the civil rights organizations that would follow her lead.

Building on these efforts, the newly founded National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) published a report, “Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889-1919,” denouncing the United States as “the only advanced nation whose government has tolerated lynching.” The report quoted President Woodrow Wilson, who in July 1918 condemned lynching. But Wilson’s condemnation meant little next to his earlier enthusiasm for “Birth of a Nation,” a film that further legitimized vigilantism. Despite Wilson’s appeal, the report notes, “lynchings continued . . . with unabated fury.”

These efforts pushed forward the first anti-lynching legislation. Proposed in 1918 by Rep. Leonidas C. Dyer, a Republican from Missouri, the bill targeted state officials for failing to provide equal protection under the laws to anyone victimized by a mob.

The NAACP worked diligently to cultivate public support for the legislation. W.E.B. Du Bois, director of publicity and research for the NAACP, published articles in its magazine, the Crisis, to highlight the horrors of lynching and advance legislation to stop it. Between 1920 and 1938, after news of a lynching, the NAACP would hang a flag from its Fifth Avenue offices that read “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday.” And yet, while the Dyer bill passed the House in 1922, Southern Democrats in the Senate filibustered and Republicans, who held a majority, allowed the bill to die.

In the 1930s, the NAACP, under the leadership of Walter White, mounted a new effort to secure federal anti-lynching legislation. The Costigan-Wagner Act, sponsored in 1934 by Democratic Sens. Edward P. Costigan of Colorado and Robert F. Wagner of New York, targeted law enforcement officials who failed to prevent a lynching. Again, Southern opposition doomed the effort, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, despite being lobbied by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, disappointed activists by not promoting the bill. He feared losing Democratic votes in the South and support for his New Deal agenda. As such, the House again passed bills in 1937 and 1940, but Senate filibusters once again defeated them.

Nonetheless, cultural awareness of the horrors of lynching spread. In 1935, in an attempt to win support for the Costigan-Wagner Act, two anti-lynching art exhibitions were held in New York, one sponsored by the NAACP and the other by the Communist Party’s John Reed Club. Images by artists such as Reginald Marsh, Paul Cadmus, Harry Sternberg and John Steuart Curry brought the subject to the fore with graphic drawings of grotesquely mangled bodies at imagined lynching scenes and seemingly more mundane depictions of the crowds.

In 1939, Billie Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit,” written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high school teacher in New York, as a protest against the horror of lynching after he saw a photograph of two victims dangling from a tree. Another horrific image, that of the mutilated corpse of Emmett Till in 1955, inspired a new generation of activists. In releasing the photo, Till’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley, explained, “the whole nation has to bear witness to this.”

Legislation may have failed, but bearing witness did not. Perhaps no event in recent years has had a greater impact than “Without Sanctuary,” an exhibition of lynching postcards and photographs that grew out of a book published in 2000. James Allen, the collector, bought these lynching “souvenirs” from dealers and, in gathering and displaying them, sought to reframe the discussion of race in America and bring renewed attention to the victims.

Among its findings, the Justice for Lynching Act cites “Without Sanctuary” as a pivotal moment in the long history of bringing attention to lynching. It also cites the step taken June 13, 2005, when the Senate agreed to a resolution apologizing to the victims of lynching and their descendants for failing to pass anti-lynching legislation. Family members of those who were lynched sat in the gallery and heard senators speak, including Barack Obama of Illinois, who addressed the importance of righting the country’s wrongs and “completing the unfinished work of the civil rights movement.” “Someone is finally recognizing our pain,” said the great-granddaughter of Anthony Crawford, who was lynched in 1916.

The most recent event to build momentum toward this historic Senate act was the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. It is a powerful and potent memorial, spearheaded by Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. It includes hundreds of jars of soil, retrieved from lynching sites, and steel monuments that dangle in the air. America, Stevenson said, “has not done a good job of recognizing this history and we’ve been compromised by that.”

Following the act’s passage, Cory Booker remarked: “Today is an emotional and historic day. For over a century, members of Congress have attempted to pass some version of a bill that would recognize lynching for what it is: a bias-motivated act of terror. And for more than a century, and more than 200 attempts, this body has failed. Today, we have righted that wrong and taken corrective action that recognizes this stain on our country’s history.”

Recognition is not removal. It is a reckoning. The horrors of history should not, and cannot, be expunged. It is necessary to be reminded, and to carry the corpses with us as we endeavor to move forward.