Tuesday, June 14, 2023
By Steven L. Taylor

Via the AP: Senate Apologizes for Lynching-Ban Delays

Seven presidents petitioned Congress to end lynchings. Nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in the first half of the 20th century. The House passed three anti-lynching measures between 1920 and 1940, but the Senate passed none.

Senators filibustered anti-lynching measures for a total of six weeks, said the main Republican sponsor of the resolution, Sen. George Allen of Virginia. “It’s not easy for people to apologize, but I think it does show the character of the Senate today,” he said.

While this is wholly symbolic and of precious little help to those slain in the context of irrational hatred, it is nonetheless a positive action.

Really, it is useful for the purpose of reminding us of a rather ugly feature of our past–one that ought not be forgotten or glossed over. Indeed, it something that I do not think many in the southeastern United States have fully comes to terms with: that while they or their ancestors may have had nothing to do with these events, that nevertheless such events are part of the South’s heritage and, as such, the romanticizing of the South’s past is often misplaced.

Is there any wonder to the fact that many see cries for the South to “rise again” to be misplaced? (I, for one, would like the South to move forward, not back). For that matter, is it a shock that many see the Rebel Battle Flag as a problematic symbol–not only as a banner that flew over the battles fought to help maintain slavery as an institution, but also as a symbol adopted by those who perpetrated the crimes for which the Senate is now apologizing for not stopping. Yes, I recognize that everyone who supports the flying of the Battle Flag is not a supporter of lynching. However, to pretend like there isn’t an association of that flag to lynching, the KKK and slavery is fool one’s self. Certainly were I African-America, I wouldn’t be all that fond of the flag.

There are many positive things about southern culture, but there is far, far too much in the past that should be condemned and remembered, rather than pretending like the past is a romantic period that should be idealized and restored.

And yes, there were lynchings in most states (just as there were non-racial ones), but certainly the preponderance were in the South and were racial in nature:

Lynching is variously defined as a violent act, usually racial in nature, that denies a person due process of law and is carried out with the complicity of the local society. There were reported lynchings in all but four states, with Mississippi at the top with 581 documented incidents between 1882 and 1968, according to researchers at Tuskegee University.

That Mississippi number is a substantial proportion of the recorded incidents of lynching (via the NYT):

There have been 4,742 recorded lynchings in American history, Ms. Landrieu said. Historians suspect that many more went undocumented. Although the House passed antilynching legislation three times in the first half of the 20th century, the Senate, controlled by Southern conservatives, repeatedly refused to do so. Senator George Allen of Virginia, chief Republican sponsor of the new resolution, called it “this stain on the history of the United States Senate.”

And indeed, in re: Senator Allen’s comment.

And I have to agree with Senator Kerry (not something I am prone to say):

Although the Senate garnered praise on Monday for acting to erase that stain, some critics said lawmakers had a long way to go. Of the 100 senators, 80 were co-sponsors of the resolution, and because it passed by voice vote, senators escaped putting themselves on record.

“It’s a statement in itself that there aren’t 100 co-sponsors,” Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, said. “It’s a statement in itself that there’s not an up-or-down vote.”

Really, rather remarkable.

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11 Responses to “On Lynching, Apologies and the Past”

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    1. Fersboo Says:

      Or maybe, 20 Senators felt that it was ridiculous for the Senate to apologize for things in the past that occurred during a time that they were either not in the Senate or were not born yet.

    2. Dr. Steven Taylor Says:

      Granted, I suppose. But what is the harm is co-sponsoring the apology? I have no illusions about the lack of actual power that pronouncements like these have, but also understand the symbolism can be very important.

    3. Buckland Says:

      Far be it for me to come down on the pro-lynching side, but…

      I can see why the senates in past years decided not do act – they had little power to act meaningfully. States were much more independent then. The house passed the bills between 1920 and 1940. The federal role in law enforcement was limited to things that dealt with suspects crossing state lines. The feds were chasing bank robbers and booze runners (including some ancestors of mine) only when they sought refuge in a state away from the crime. J. Edgar Hoover as head of the only federal law enforcement agency at that time and was very hesitant to expand duties to include organized crime, much less local issues.

      Passing a bill making lynchings illegal then would have been the equivalent of today’s Senate declaring a week “National Sugar Beet Growers Week?. It would express the will of the body, but not actually do anything important. But unlike National Sugar Beet Growers Week it would have really ticked off some of the senators that the administrations needed to get work done.

      Murder has always been against the law. If local prosecutors couldn’t get people interested in prosecuting local miscreants then guys in suits from DC sure wouldn’t. That’s just the way the South worked at the time.

      The years 1920-1940 were eventful years. Events included recover from the Great War, stock market boom and bust, depression, prohibition, the rise of organized crime, and preparation for an even Greater War. Picking a fight with states over what was seen as local criminal matters just wasn’t going to happen. Not until the war ended and federal role was expanded in people’s minds would any such legislation be meaningful.

    4. Meezer Says:

      I’m a life-long Yankee of immigrant grandparents and even I sometimes feel a rebellious desire to fly the “evil” flag once in a while. Doggone it, what you do should be judged on your own motivations. If someone were to tell me they want to fly that flag because it means something to them (other than racist oppresion) then why the hell shouldn’t they? My people have been driven out of every country they tried to settle in, burned at the stake in France, etc, and finally driven from their homes in mid-winter in Illinois. And I don’t feel anyone owes me anything. The people who took our land and homes are long dead. Illinois did applogize recently, but at no instigation or desire of mine.

    5. Signifying Nothing Says:

      Progress and regress

      As reputed Klansman Edgar Ray Killen goes on trial for his role in the Philadelphia Three murders, the U.S. Senate decided to apologize for its complicity in Klan terrorism, which I suppose would be a more meaningful gesture if more than 6% of the Sena…

    6. Dr. Steven Taylor Says:

      I used to be far more agnostic on the Rebel Flag issue than I am now. Having lived in the Deep South for around 7 years now, I can see the problems that exist by virtue of the fact that many whites in the South have not fully recognized what happened in the past.

      Further, as one who deeply believes in fundamental human freedom, I find it difficult to extol a symbol that was used in a war fought to defend slavery, and then later used as a symbol of defiance against desegregation (and not just by fringe groups). This strikes me as highly problematic.

    7. Dr. Steven Taylor Says:


      You make a very legitimate point. However, even if the laws were symbolic, there is something to be said against the idea of filibustering the attempt.

      I think that there is usefulness, even if it is limited, in acknowledging past wrongs in our democracy.

    8. Pros and Cons » Senate Apolgoizes for Lynchings Says:

      See story here. The Sultan of Brunei (Poliblogger) has a great deal to say about it here and here and here. Personally, I hate this kind of post hoc apologies. Did bad things happen in the Sou [...]

    9. Says:


      Steven Taylor’s got a nice post on the filibuster, lynchings, and the Senate. He also reprints a map showing which states were the worst offenders; no real surprises, I’m afraid.

    10. Beldar Says:

      I’m certainly not suggesting that Buckland’s comment above is “pro-lynching,” but I can only agree with that comment to a limited extent.

      The anti-lynching legislation that was introduced, (or contemplated) and uniformly successfully blocked (or its supporters dissuaded from even filing) by filibusters before 1957, was the least-possibly-intrusive federal reaction to the problem. And it was addressed to only the most obvious and vile symptom of institutionalized southern racism. Buckland writes,

      Murder has always been against the law. If local prosecutors couldn’t get people interested in prosecuting local miscreants then guys in suits from DC sure wouldn’t. That’s just the way the South worked at the time.

      But the point of the legislation was not that it would let guys in suits from DC try to get local people to prosecute racial murders. It was to give local U.S. attorneys power to bring federal court lawsuits, based on indictments from federal grand juries, before judges who (like the U.S. attorneys) had been picked by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Such prosecutors, grand juries, and judges were (and are) less vulnerable to local pressures and biases. And federal juries are drawn from panels summoned from larger (less parochial and locally dominated) federal districts. The intent of the federal legislation was to bypass local prosecutorial and judicial indifference, local grand jury reluctance to indict, and local jury nullification — all of which combined to prevent effective enforcement of state criminal statutes in so many racially motivated violent crimes, including lynchings.

      Had it not been for filibustering by southern senators, those anti-lynching bills would have passed. Would there have been resistance to their implementation? Absolutely. There would have quite probably been violent resistance, and more of it than there eventually was in the 1950s and 1960s when broader civil rights measures began to be implemented through executive orders (desegregation of the military) and, eventually, legislation (starting with the almost toothless Civil Rights Act of 1957, which LBJ brilliantly and cynically gutted to avoid a filibuster). But would some offenders have been punished who got away with their crimes under state enforcement? Would others have perhaps been deterred? I think the answer to those questions, more probably than not, is also yes.

      So I can’t agree with Buckland that these anti-lynching bills would not “actually [have] do[ne] anything important” had they been passed. And I’m unconvinced that the price paid by victims of institutionalized racism in the interim was worth the arguably smoother implementation of civil rights laws later.

      The other point I’d add to the discussion is that it’s not just the southern senators (in that day, uniformly Democrats) who participated in (or threatened) the filibusters who bear moral responsibility for the obstruction of civil rights legislation. By themselves, those southerners could not defeat a cloture vote. They always relied upon non-southern allies from both political parties. The southerners enlisted such allies’ support through rhetorical misdirection, claiming that they were championing not racism, but “States’ rights,” “protection of the minority,” and the Senate tradition of unlimited debate. Sometimes they elisted such allies’ support through log-rolling other local or regional legislation important to the allies, or bestowing (or withholding) important committee seats — carrots and sticks that the southerners had in their power to control disproportionately to their own numbers by virtue of their domination of Senate committees under the seniority system.

      (I write, by the way, as a third-generation Texan who’s alternately proud of most parts of that heritage, and sickened and repelled by some other parts. I can and do admire Robert E. Lee or John Bell Hood as gentlemen and warriors and generals, but condemn the cause for which they fought, and I have absolutely no desire to fly the Confederate battle flag.)

    11. Tom C Says:

      I have an idea: How about the Senate issue an apology for the total decimation of the South by the Union Army? If you want to know where all that hatred came from in the South, I’d suggest it had something to do with Southerners need for a scapegoat after the near total destruction of their homes, businesses, and infrastructure. That and the absolute failure of Reconstruction after the War. This is not meant as an excuse for the racial hatred that once existed here, but a reminder that the North contributed greatly to the environment which produced it.

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