Hearing the Senate's Apology

Historian and civil rights leader John Hope Franklin muses on his own brush with a lynch mob back in 1934, when he was 19 years old and a senior at Fisk University. Monday, the United States Senate apologized for not passing anti-lynching legislation in the 1950s. From 1882 to 1968, 4,743 people were killed by lynching. Three out of four of them were African-American.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Yesterday, the United States Senate passed an unusual resolution. It was an apology for the body's failure to pass anti-lynching legislation in the 1950s. Between the years of 1882 and 1968, 4,743 people were killed by lynching; three out of four of them were African-American. Historian and civil rights activist John Hope Franklin thinks this Senate apology is too little too late.

JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN:

In the summer of 1934, when I was a student at Fisk University, I was employed to assist in a survey of black cotton farmers. I encountered a group of white men in Macon, Mississippi, who seemed dissatisfied with my explanation of my presence there and indicated to me that they could and might lynch me. The suggestion of such a dire possibility caused me to tell my supervisor that I could not remain there another hour. Since he was already packed for a hasty departure, we left in less than an hour.

That harrowing nightmare was the second of what seemed to be an endless number of terrible experiences for me. The previous year, a mob had come within two blocks of Fisk University and seized Cordie Cheak, a young black man, and returned him to Maury County, Tennessee, where he had already been acquitted, for a lack of evidence, of sexually assaulting a white girl. The mob, bent on dispensing its own justice, followed him to Nashville, seized him, returned him to Maury County, where the mob castrated and hanged him and riddled his body with bullets.

When I returned to Fisk University for my final undergraduate year in the fall, I joined my fellow students in expressing outrage and fear that we were vulnerable to this mockery of justice. As the president of the student body, I felt the need to take steps to allay the panic that was about to spoil any semblance of safety at the college. Several of us attempted to see President Franklin D. Roosevelt at Warm Springs to ask him to condemn the Cordie Cheak lynching and lynching in general, but we failed in our effort.

The remarkable thing about these events is that they are not remarkable, for untold millions of African-Americans have endured the terror of the lynch mob. Without anti-lynching laws and without sanctuary, most have had to work constantly in a climate of humiliation and intimidation. For most African-Americans, lynching and the fear of mob violence have been central to their experience, while those in power have used it to create and maintain racial disparities in health, education, economic opportunities and every conceivable aspect of life.

An apology for past crimes or the failure to deal with them means very little to me. African-Americans and perhaps some others hovering near the lowest rung of the social and economic ladder would feel somewhat relieved if, for example, the Congress would raise the minimum wage to a point where the armed services would not appear quite so attractive to destitute young men and women. Apologies are not nearly enough for those who live in communities where every conceivable measurement of social and economic well-being continues to favor that element in society that is already the beneficiary of the largesse, the opportunities and the other benefits that our rich and bountiful nation possesses. It would be an indication not only of fairness, but of wise statesmanship if the Congress would use its vast powers to nudge everyone closer to the American Dream of equality.

BLOCK: Historian and civil rights activist John Hope Franklin is now 90 years old. He's written many books, including "From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans." He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

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