Anti-Lynching Legislation: More than a Century in the Making

In March 2022, President Biden signed the Emmet Till Act into law, recognizing lynching as a federal hate crime – a landmark decision that was more than a century in the making. For over a hundred years, people have been painstakingly fighting to criminalize racial violence under federal law. Early efforts to pass such legislation have mainly sprung from the African American community, thanks to the leadership of people like Ida B. Wells and the work of the organization she helped to create – the NAACP. Throughout the decades, several prominent political figures, from Eleanor Roosevelt to the current Vice-President, Kamala Harris, have openly lobbied for anti-lynching legislation. After many failed attempts, their activism finally succeeded, culminating in the passage of the Emmet Till Act.

The law is named after Emmett Till, who was brutally killed after being accused of offending a white woman in Mississippi in 1955. The murder of the 14-year-old African American boy became one of the most infamous lynchings in American history and drew nationwide attention to racial violence. Till’s assassination was not an isolated incident; in fact, the cases of extrajudicial killing of African Americans in the US go back a long way. During the Reconstruction era (1865-1877), the period immediately following the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery in the country, thousands of African Americans fell victim to white supremacists. Despite the passage of constitutional amendments recognizing citizenship rights for Black Americans, true equality remained elusive, especially in the South.

As Southern white Democrats regained political control, they introduced vicious segregation laws at the state level that limited and contested the newly acquired rights. African Americans were assaulted, tortured, and killed, in many cases just because – according to their accusers – they had not complied with the discriminatory “code of conduct” imposed upon them. White perpetrators were seldomly persecuted for their brutality, even when violence was committed openly on courthouse lawns.[1] Although the number of lynchings declined in the beginning of the twentieth century, it went up after black war veterans returned home due to post-war violence in the aftermath of WWI and WWII.

It was white Republican Leonidas C. Dyer who, in 1918, at the height of the Jim Crow era, introduced the first bill to criminalize lynching at the federal level – a key moment in the history of anti-lynching legislation. The bill allowed the federal government to persecute mob violence and the killing of African Americans, bypassing the inaction and negligence of states and local officials. However, southern white Democrats did everything in their power to block the legislation. They justified violence against African Americans as a response to the frequently alleged rape of white women and argued that instances of lynching were a matter of states’ rights in which the federal government should not get involved.

In 1918, Captain George S. Hornblower, invited in front of the House Judiciary Committee to discuss the Dyer Bill, stated, “While they (black soldiers) are fighting abroad, their relatives and dependents are being injured and lynched here. They say, Uncle Sam has taken us from our homes, and Uncle Sam says we must go to France, but when a lawless mob strings us up to a tree or sets fire to our homes, Uncle Sam says it is none of my business. I do not know anything about it and I have not anything to do with it.”

The Committee’s Chairman, Edwin Y. Webb from North Carolina, responded by noting that “there would not be any Uncle Sam if it were not for the 48 sovereign states. That is what makes Uncle Sam. When you take jurisdiction away from those sovereign states you destroy Uncle Sam. I am in sympathy with anything that will counteract the propaganda you speak of, but the constitutional question is a serious one.”

The Dyer bill would eventually not make it through the Senate because of the Southern Democratic filibuster. However, the debate on the boundaries of federal and state power would continue. Despite repeated efforts by anti-lynching advocates, it would take more than a generation of activists, lawmakers, and state officials to finally make lynching a federal crime.

The Roosevelt Institute for American Studies holds a significant collection of primary documents on the Justice Department’s position on antilynching legislation, spanning the years 1918 to 1963. The collection appeals to anyone interested in hate crimes and lynching, and it can be extremely useful also to those interested in constitutional law, the fundaments of American democracy, and the nature of US citizenship.

 

[1] On April 6, 1892, a white mob lynched a black man named Isaac Brandon on the courthouse lawn after breaking him out of his jail cell in Charles City, Virginia.

 

This piece was written using the following sources available at the RIAS:

“To Protect Citizens Against Lynching. June 6, 1918,” The Civil Rights Movement and the Federal Government Records of the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, 1958-1973. Part 1: Lynching—Hearings, 1918–1950) (microfilm edition, Roosevelt Institute for American Studies, Middelburg).

A Guide to the Microfilm Edition of The Civil Rights Movement and the Federal Government: Records of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, 1958-1973: pp. V.