Anti-Lynching Law in U.S. History

Robert Siegel discusses the history of efforts to pass anti-lynching legislation in Congress.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The United States Senate today took up a rare resolution expressing remorse. The Senate is apologizing not for something it did, but for something it failed to do. It never approved a law against lynching. To say that the resolution comes late in the day is an understatement. When the anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells wrote that `The silence and seeming condonation grow more marked as the years go by,' it was in January of 1900. During the first half of the 20th century, there was no shortage of anti-lynching bills introduced in Congress, but in the end there was no law. Harvard Sitkoff is a professor of African-American history and American studies at the University of New Hampshire.

Professor Sitkoff, how often, actually, was an anti-lynching bill introduced in Congress?

Professor HARVARD SITKOFF (University of New Hampshire): Several bills were introduced in the 1920s, then again in the 1930s and 1940s, passed several times by the House of Representatives, but never actually coming to a vote in the United States Senate.

SIEGEL: What blocked the bills in the Senate?

Prof. SITKOFF: Filibusters by Southern senators or the threat of filibusters by Southern senators, which again particularly in the midst of the Great Depression, the very threat of the filibuster when it was important to pass other legislation as well--that threat was enough now to kill the various anti-lynching bills of that decade.

SIEGEL: What would the anti-lynching bills of, say, the 1930s have actually said and done?

Prof. SITKOFF: To a very large extent, what they aimed to do was prosecute lynchers if the states failed to do so--that is, if there wasn't state action against those who were engaged in the lynching, then the federal government would get involved. And that, of course, was the crux of the constitutional issue that the Southerners made much of, that in a federal system murder was a state crime, that it wasn't a federal crime.

SIEGEL: This sort of bill would have brought about the kind of prosecutions we saw much, much later on in the civil rights era, when there would be a...

Prof. SITKOFF: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: ...trial, federal trial, for someone who'd been acquitted in a state court. How many lynchings were there in the South during the 1920s and '30s, say?

Prof. SITKOFF: Well, in the 1920s, probably an average of about 20 a year. And then it spiked again in the early years of the Great Depression. I think there were 28 in 1933, which would have been the worst total, again exacerbated by the economic situation, the competition for jobs, the frustration caused by the Great Depression. All of these things made racial violence in the South much worse.

SIEGEL: In the end, was the cause of an anti-lynching bill simply subsumed by the Civil Rights Act of the 1960s? Is that what happened, or...

Prof. SITKOFF: Yes. I mean, lynching as such now has decreased very significantly. In part because of the threat of federal anti-lynching legislation, Southern states began to do much, much more to stop lynching from occurring and to themselves prosecute lynchers when a lynching did occur. To a very large extent, then, a federal anti-lynching law became superfluous.

SIEGEL: Professor Sitkoff, thank you very much for talking with us.

Prof. SITKOFF: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Harvard Sitkoff is professor of African-American history and American studies at the University of New Hampshire. He spoke to us from Newmarket, New Hampshire.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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