It’s good to know that Republican Senators Lamar Alexander, John Cornyn, Michael Crapo, Michael Enzi, Chuck Grassley, Lisa Murkowski, Richard Shelby, and the just-retired Orrin Hatch are willing to go on the record against lynching. Apparently they’ve had a change of heart, because in 2005—the last time the Senate voted to condemn lynching—these eight courageous souls failed to do so.
In December, a week before the end of the congressional session, they joined their Senate colleagues in a unanimous bipartisan vote to approve a bill that declares lynching a federal crime in the United States, adding it to the list of federal hate crimes. The bill describes lynching as “the ultimate expression of racism in the United States following Reconstruction.” (The House didn’t have time to vote on the bill, so it will be introduced again once Congress begins work this month.)
Presiding over the proceedings was Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, a Mississippi Republican, who, during her run-off election in November against former congressman Mike Espy, an African American, was caught on camera praising a supporter by saying, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” (Mississippi led the nation in the number of recorded lynchings.)
It only took 100 years for the Senate to vote against mob killings that take place without legal authority. In 1918, Congressman Leonidas C. Dyer, a Missouri Republican, introduced another bill to make lynching a federal crime. The bill passed the House but did not to make it through the Senate.
Over the next century, Congress introduced more than 200 anti-lynching bills. Between 1920 and 1940, the House of Representatives passed three of them, but the Senate—controlled by segregationist Southern Democrats—used the filibuster to oppose the law, on the grounds that it interfered with “states’ rights.” One of the most powerful opponents was Georgia Democrat Richard Russell, whose name now adorns the Senate office building.
In 2005, faced with her colleagues’ unwillingness to make racist mob violence a federal crime, Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, sponsored a watered-down resolution that simply apologized for its failure to enact anti-lynching legislation. But even then, 20 of the 100 senators initially declined to cosponsor the resolution. On June 13 that year, Senate majority leader Bill Frist (a Republican from Tennessee) insisted on a voice vote, rather than a roll-call vote, to avoid forcing members to put themselves on record against lynching. Pressure from constituents pushed Hatch, Murkowski, Crapo, and Grassley to add their names as co-sponsors, but only after the vote was already taken. Alexander, Cornyn, Enzi, and Shelby were among the 10 senators who refused to co-sponsor the bill at all.
Now—more than 13 years later—they’ve come around, voting to outlaw an act that the bill defines as “willfully cause bodily injury to any other person, because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin of any person.”
Of course, the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act—introduced by Senator Kamala Harris—is entirely symbolic. There’s no justice for the victims of lynching, no reparations payments for their descendants, and no effort to identify the perpetrators, even though many participants in lynch mobs were public figures, including politicians and law-enforcement officials.
There were 4,732 recorded lynchings in the United States between 1882 and 1951, although there were certainly many undocumented lynchings before and during that period. Most of the recorded lynchings occurred before 1930. The vast majority took place in the South and the border states, although these acts of vigilante mob violence were not unknown in the North and Midwest, too. Three-fourths of the victims were African Americans. The Senate bill notes that “99 percent of all perpetrators of lynching escaped from punishment.” According to Stewart Tolnay and E.M. Beck’s authoritative 1995 study, A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930, on average, “a black man, woman, or child was murdered nearly once a week, every week” during those years by a white lynch mob. Most lynchings took place in small towns and isolated rural communities, characterized by widespread poverty and illiteracy.
Lynchings were often triggered by a (typically unfounded) rumor of a sexual offense such as rape by a black man against a white woman or by other offenses which whites interpreted as blacks not “knowing their place,” such as insulting a white person, trying to vote, murder, or stealing. Back then, rural Southern white society was divided into two major classes—the dominant planters and major employers, and the class of day laborers, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers. The planters and big employers depended on cheap white and black labor. When economic conditions worsened, poor whites felt threatened by competition from even cheaper black labor.
Most upper-class and middle-class Southern whites, and most white politicians, condoned lynching as a form of maintaining the racial hierarchy. At the time, groups like the Farmers Alliance were trying to mobilize a coalition of white and black laborers and tenant farmers to regulate the banks and railroads that were gouging small farmers. But racial fears and violence undermined the Southern Populist movement. By identifying with the ideology of white supremacy and segregation, most poor Southern whites chose to form political alliances around race rather than class lines.
The Southern aristocracy “gave the poor white man Jim Crow,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. explained in his speech at the end of the Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965. “And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man. And when his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide, he showed them the Jim Crow signs on the buses and in the stores, on the streets and in the public buildings. And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow.”
But, while most Southern whites held racist beliefs, they did not always act on these beliefs through mob violence. Tolnay and Beck discovered that the number of lynchings each year fluctuated widely, highly correlated with the price of cotton. Low cotton prices—an indication of poor economic conditions—led to an increase in lynchings.
Economic hard times brought out the worst in these people, pushing them to act out their frustrations. Lynching was an act of social control and scapegoating, not unlike the way the German people vented their frustrations by vilifying and killing Jews when their country was thrown into economic depression in the 1930s.
The number of lynchings peaked at 230 in 1892, which coincided with a dramatic softening in demand for Southern cotton. The bloody 1890s were followed by several years of rising cotton prices and a decline in mob violence against Southern blacks. Following World War I, cotton prices bottomed out, accompanied by a new wave of racist extremism—the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in the South and white-on-black riots in northern cities like Chicago and Detroit.
Many of these lynchings were caught on camera, but not by photographers seeking to expose white racism and bring the perpetrators to justice. Many of the photos reveal spectators in crowd smiling for the cameras rather than hiding from them. They were proud of their participation and certainly not fearful that they would be arrested. Indeed, some of these photos were turned into postcards. They were popular souvenirs.
Local police were often part of the white lynch mobs or did nothing to stop them from abducting and killing blacks for violating Jim Crow customs. In May 1927, for example, an angry white mob hanged a black man named John Carter from a telephone pole in the countryside outside of Little Rock, Arkansas, and then dragged his body through the city’s main street, saturated it with gasoline and set it ablaze in the heart of the black section of town. An estimated 5,000 white people participated in these activities. Sheriff’s deputies did nothing to restrain the lynch mob. City police simply directed the heavy flow of traffic around the scene. The following day, photos of Carter’s lynched body went on sale for 15 cents a copy. The coroner’s report said that Carter had been killed “by parties unknown in a mob.” No one was ever charged or prosecuted for Carter’s death.
By the 1930s, lynchings had declined to about 10 a year, falling to three a year the following decade. Historians and sociologists credit the urbanization of the South, the accelerating migration of blacks to Northern cities, and the NAACP’s persistent (though unsuccessful) campaign for a federal anti-lynching law.
During the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, racist thugs in the South knew that they could still get away with the murder of African Americans—as well as burning crosses, homes, and churches—without facing arrest or, if they were arrested, conviction in court by all-white juries. Local police were often complicit in the activities of white-supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Councils.
One little-known example is the 1940 murder of Elbert Williams, believed to be the first NAACP official killed for civil-rights activism. Word spread that he was going to host a meeting of the local NAACP in his home in rural Brownsville, Tennessee, to discuss mobilizing black citizens to register to vote. But before the meeting took place, Williams, a 31-year-old laundromat attendant, was taken from his home by police, but not to the local jail. Two days later he was found in a nearby river, tied down by a log and with two bullet holes in his chest. On his death certificate the coroner wrote “cause of death unknown,” but the cause was clear: It was a warning to Brownsville’s black residents who might want to mobilize and vote. Williams’s death was hidden from history for 75 years. In 2015, Williams’s family and a group of local residents began organizing to pressure the US Justice Department to reopen the murder case, but were rebuffed by the US Attorney in Tennessee. This August, Tennessee District Attorney Garry Brown announced the reopening of Williams’s case, explaining that he was doing so after the state legislature passed a bill ordering a look into cold cases from the civil-rights era.
It wasn’t until 1994 that white supremacist Byron De La Beckworth, who was arrested within two weeks of the murder of Mississippi civil-rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963, was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison for the crime.
It took until 2005 for Mississippi to convict Edgar Ray Killen for participating in the murders of three civil-rights workers—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—41 years earlier.
The 1955 murder of Emmett Till by two white segregationists is still officially unresolved. The murder of the 14-year-old black male from Chicago—who was visiting his family in Mississippi—triggered widespread outrage. A month after Till’s body was pulled from a local river, an all-white jury acquitted Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam of the murder, despite eyewitnesses who identified them. Local Sheriff Clarence Strider greeted black reporters and Congressman Charles C. Diggs Jr. of Michigan (who had come to observe the proceedings) with a cheery “Hi, niggers.” The next year, the two killers confessed to a magazine writer that they had killed Till, but, because of double-jeopardy laws, they couldn’t be tried again. But in July of 2018, the US Department of Justice reopened the case, based on “new information” and in accordance with a 2007 unsolved civil-rights crime act that allows the DOJ to “expeditiously investigate” unsolved pre-1980 murders.
“We finally have a chance to speak the truth about our past,” said Senator Harris, “and make clear that these hateful acts should never happen again without serious, severe, and swift consequence and accountability. ”
No doubt the Senate’s unanimous vote last month to make lynching a federal crime was prompted in part by rising concern over the upsurge of hate crimes. These include mass shootings at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Many Americans are also outraged by President Trump’s many racist rants, including his remark that there were “good people” among the Nazis and white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. Trump also weighed in against demands to remove Confederate monuments. He has yet to visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a museum dedicated to the victims of America’s white supremacy, which opened in Montgomery, Alabama, in April. The museum focuses attention on the decades of racist terrorism that included the lynchings of African Americans.
There’s also, of course, growing anger over the mistreatment and murders of unarmed African Americans by local police. The emergence of the Black Lives Matters movement has helped to put these issues on the public agenda.
As a result of the growing use of cell phones, YouTube, and Twitter—as well as to the growing number of police cars and cops now outfitted with cameras—more incidents of police abuse are now being captured on camera, making it harder for police to hide abusive behavior and easier for community groups to verify longstanding complaints about police misconduct. What is emerging is a picture of white-on-black violence that carries echoes of the lynchings of the Jim Crow era, many sanctioned by local police.
Studies reveal police officers today disproportionately stop black citizens and search their cars during traffic stops, and disproportionately use force on black suspects. Cops also kill unarmed black citizens in disproportionate numbers. In 2015, for example, 2.9 out of every 1 million white Americans were killed by police, compared with 3.5 Latinos and 7.3 African Americans.
Long-standing tensions between law enforcement and the black community are partly to blame for this disparity. Most police officers are almost certainly not virulent racists, but they are part of a police culture and criminal-justice system with a long history of a racist double standard. Discrimination takes the form of both overt abuse and looking the other way when whites use violence against black citizens.
The names of black victims of police violence—Michael Brown, Eric Garner Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Sean Bell, Jordan Davis, Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Freddie Gray, Renisha McBride, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and Kelley Thomas, among them—have been seared into the national consciousness.
Our racist criminal justice system isn’t just about the police, either. Studies reveal that blacks on trial for murder are much more likely to be sentenced to death than white murderers, and that blacks who murder whites are more likely to get the death penalty than whites who kill blacks.
The new anti-lynching legislation will hopefully catalyze a reckoning with America’s racist past. But if Congress wants to go beyond symbolic actions, it should begin to address the reality of our racist present.