Legacy Southern Horrors

“Our country's national crime is lynching,” wrote Ida B. Wells in 1900. While southern states drew a color line by disfranchising and segregating African Americans, they enforced that color line through intimidation by lynching. According to Ray Stannard Baker and other prominent journalists, thousands of African American men, women and children were lynched by 1908. The most comprehensive effort to document lynchings in the South is the Beck-Tolnay inventory, accessible at the CSDE Lynching Database, 1882-1930. Journalist Ida B. Wells and George H. White were among the most prominent early advocates for a federal anti-lynch law. In “Lynch Law in America (1900),” Ida B. Wells revealed the hypocrisy of southern “chivalry.” She argued that lynching in the name of southern white women’s honor failed to acknowledge any respect for African American women. Furthermore, southerners used lynching for rape as a front to deny African Americans due process for a multitude of crimes. In “A Red Record (1895),” Wells argues that some were lynched merely for property and business disputes with whites or to intimidate other African Americans from voting at the polls. George H. White introduced the first bill for a federal anti-lynch law in 1900 [The text of his bill appears in boldface after his February 23, 1900 speech]. The bill was quickly suppressed by southerners who claimed that ‘states’ rights’ prevented federal intervention in such crimes. Southern congressmen continued this ‘states’ rights’ argument when anti-lynch law advocates introduced the Dyer Bill in 1918 and the Costigan-Wagner bill in 1935. In 1937, strong federal enforcement measures passed in the House in the form of the Gavagan Bill, but ultimately failed in the Senate. A southern congressman followed by offering the federally “emasculated” Mitchell Bill. For more documents on the lynching debate, see this “Digital History” website. In June 2020, in the wake of protests of the brutal killing of George Floyd, the U.S. House passed the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Bill. Senator Rand Paul (KY) has held up the bill in the U.S. Senate by introducing an amendment to exclude vigilante actions resulting in a “minor bruise or abrasion” from the bill.