It was nearly a century ago that Rep. Leonidas C. Dyer, a Republican from Missouri, introduced a bill to make lynching a federal crime. With vigilante slayings of African-Americans rampant, it promised to force the federal government to prosecute lynch mobs for murder.
The bill wasn’t the first in Congress to target lynchings. Others had tried to stop the killings carried out largely against blacks by angry Southern whites who nearly always got away without punishment. (The first attempt, in 1900, by Rep. George H. White, a North Carolina Republican and the only black person in Congress, was defeated in committee.) But Dyer’s legislation was the first to have a serious chance of becoming law when it passed in the House of Representatives and made it out of committee in the Senate.
Southern Democratic senators filibustered to block the bill in 1922, with one, Sen. Lee Slater Overman of North Carolina, saying that African-Americans did not want the law and “do not need it.”
It was one of more than 200 failed attempts to make lynching a federal crime. Bill after bill failed, even as the killings continued.
Tuskegee University researchers documented 4,475 lynchings that took place in the U.S. between 1882 and 1968. Most occurred in the South and targeted black people, though Mexicans, Native Americans and some white people were also victims.
“Southern white federal officeholders repeatedly blocked anti-lynching legislation over the decades of the early 20th century, asserting that a federal role in thwarting lynching would violate ‘state’s rights,’” said Michael Pfeifer, a history professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
Lynchings, he said, “performed a terroristic function, in the sense that they were intended to intimidate and create fear” among African-Americans and other minorities.
Now, Congress may add one more anti-lynching attempt to its list of shortcomings.
Bipartisan groups of lawmakers introduced bills in the House and Senate over the summer to make lynching a federal hate crime, with the Senate text calling lynching the “ultimate expression of racism” after Reconstruction.
The proposed laws are largely symbolic, as modern-day lynchings are rare and unlikely to go without punishment. Lynchings declined dramatically after the Justice Department, which long ignored them as “local matters,” began prosecuting them in the 1940s, Pfeifer said.
Yet lawmakers behind the bills and supporters including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said a new law would go a long way in correcting past wrongdoing by Congress and setting the record straight on where the country stands on racist violence.