Jun 20, 2005
On June 13, the U.S. Senate voted a resolution to apologize for not voting a law against lynching. Between 1920 and 1964 (when Congress finally passed the Civil Rights Act), legislation had been sponsored several times, which would have made lynchings a crime; white Southerners voted down or filibustered such bills to death each time.
So the Senators have now finally apologized for not passing legislation. But the point is not what they failed to do! It's what the Senate and others did. By its actions, as well as its attitude, the Senate supported an entire repressive apparatus, made up of federal, state and local officials, of the judicial system and law enforcement agencies – all encouraging or carrying out lynchings and not just the 4742 recorded between 1882 and 1963.
Historians looking at the record say there were actually tens of thousands of lynchings in U.S. history – and not just in the South. They took place in at least 46 out of the 50 states, and created a real reign of terror.
The vast majority of those lynched were black people, but other minorities also faced illegal death from mobs – Jews, Italians, Latinos, Asians and American Indians, or native born white union organizers or anti-segregation activists.
Politicians promoted this decades-long human calamity starting at the end of the U.S. Civil War – and running up way beyond 1963. The constant threat of lynching was aimed at controlling the whole black population. It helped impose lower wages, terrible working conditions and the worst social conditions in the country on that population.
But the fact that the ruling class could impose these conditions on one part of the laboring population meant it could reduce the wages and living conditions of everyone – including those impoverished whites induced to be the torturers and executioners of their fellow workers. And the dehumanizing done to them can be seen still today in the photographs of Southern mobs laughing as lynching victims died. Many bought postcards of these disgusting events to send to others.
The entire situation in the South and parts of the rural Mid-West was reinforced by underfunded schools and by the preachers in their Sunday sermons. Before 1865, white preachers proclaimed from the pulpit that slavery was God's will. After the war ended, these same Christian ministers defended Jim Crow laws and the torture of black people, the beatings, arrests, false imprisonment and daily humiliations.
The legacy of this history still lies heavily on the black population today. And not just because almost every black family in this country knows of someone who was lynched.
Looking at this whole bloody reign of terror and the resulting human catastrophe, the Senate believes it can offer an apology. An apology?