Despite repeated efforts, a federal anti-lynching law has not passed Congress in 130 years
By Aneurin Canham-Clyne
WASHINGTON — Although lynch mobs primarily targeted Black people, the first effort to pass a federal anti-lynching law had nothing to do with African Americans. Instead, it followed the 1891 lynchings of 11 Italians in New Orleans.
1891 lynchings in New Orleans to 1908 Springfield, Illinois, race riot
The Italian government protested. The U.S. responded by saying it could not prosecute the murderers, because Louisiana had jurisdiction over such crimes. Instead of any local, state or federal prosecution, President Benjamin Harrison offered the King of Italy $24,330. He accepted.
Harrison also asked Congress to pass a federal law protecting foreigners from lynchings. Congress declined.
This work is a collaboration of the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism and Capital News Service at the University of Maryland, Morgan State University, Hampton University, Howard University, Morehouse College, North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University and the University of Arkansas.
A year after the lynchings, Harrison issued a proclamation honoring Christopher Columbus. It marked the 400th anniversary of the Italian’s 1492 voyage, which Harrison credited with discovering the Americas.
Nine years after the Italians were lynched, in January 1900, U.S. Rep. George Henry White, a Black Republican from North Carolina, introduced the first anti-lynching bill that specifically protected American citizens.
It followed two incidents.
In 1899, The Atlanta Constitution, a white-owned newspaper, reported on a white mob hunting a Black man accused of killing a white man. “He will either be lynched and his body riddled with bullets or he will be burned at the stake,” the newspaper reported April 14, 1899.
The newspaper published updates on the location where the man, Sam Hose, sometimes called Sam Holt by The Constitution, would be lynched, and the methods the mob intended to use to kill him.
“News from the pursuing mob is hourly expected,” the newspaper reported.
After more than a week, Hose was captured and lynched.
“Fully 2,000 people surrounded the small sapling to which he was fastened and watched the flames eat away his flesh, saw his body mutilated by knives and witnessed the contortions of his body in his extreme agony,” the Atlanta Constitution correspondent wrote.
Mob members took parts of Holt’s body as souvenirs, the paper reported.
“Not even the bones of the negro were left in peace, but were eagerly snatched by a crowd of people drawn here from all directions, who almost fought over the burning body,” the April 24, 1889, article said.
Hose’s lynching, however, was small in comparison to the massacre that preceded it.
Just days after Democrats won North Carolina’s statewide elections in 1898, mobs of white supremacists marched through Black neighborhoods in Wilmington, destroying homes and businesses, and murdering Black residents, the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission Report found.
The Democrats were opposed to the multiracial, elected city government, which was composed of Republicans they believed friendly to formerly enslaved people, and Populists, a third party representing poor farmers, according to the commission report, published in 2006.
Irving Joyner, vice-chair of the commission and a professor at North Carolina Central University School of Law, said the massacre was part of a campaign to destroy a nascent political alliance between mostly Black Republicans and mostly white Populists.
The white mob went to City Hall, where it threatened the lawfully elected mayor and Board of Aldermen, along with the appointed chief of police.
“They were brought into a room of about 500 armed whites,” Joyner said. “They were forced to sit in the center of the room in a chair surrounded by all of these hostile whites. And were told that they had a choice: that they could resign or they would be killed.”
The mobs burned down The Daily Record, the city’s only Black newspaper, and killed large numbers of Black people, according to Joyner. The commission report stated that white mobs used machine guns against Black people, killing dozens. Joyner said many deaths went unreported, but that it was likely the mobs killed hundreds of Black people.
The Wilmington massacre was a successful coup d’état that, in addition to the deaths, forced the flight of thousands more Black people from the once-thriving, predominantly Black city, according to the commission’s report.
White, then the only Black member of the U.S. House, introduced HR 6963 in January 1900 to ban lynching. He had given a speech after the Wilmington massacre that reflected his frustrations and those of his constituency.
“We are entitled to 13 United States Senators, according to justice and according to our numerical strength, but we have not one … yet we keep quiet,” he said. “We have kept quiet while hundreds and thousands of our race have been strung up by the neck unjustly by mobs of murderers.”
As White introduced his bill, his words were cut short by a representative from Tennessee, who objected. White was never allowed to finish, and his bill did not make it out of the House Judiciary Committee.
The effort to enact anti-lynching legislation continued in December 1901 when Sen. George Frisbie Hoar and Rep. William Henry Moody, white Republicans from Massachusetts, introduced bills to protect citizens from lynching when states failed to protect them.
Hoar, who joined the Republican Party in the 1850s as a young abolitionist, remained committed to Black civil rights while serving in a variety of state and federal legislative positions until his death as a U.S. senator in 1904.
Moody was a Harvard University-trained lawyer, who served as a Massachusetts district attorney, secretary of the Navy under President Theodore Roosevelt and eventually as a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
While both failed, they shared a common legal theory, developed by Albert E. Pillsbury, former attorney general of Massachusetts and a lifelong supporter of civil rights.
In 1902, Pillsbury authored an essay in the Harvard Law Review, “A Brief Inquiry into A Federal Remedy for Lynching,’’ which argued, “The equality clause of the Fourteenth Amendment forbids the states to deny any person within their jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.’’
Pillsbury, who went on to draft the NAACP’s constitution and bylaws, maintained in the essay that states had denied Black Americans their constitutional rights by failing to protect them from lynch mobs. Consequently, he said, Congress and the federal government had the authority to intervene.
“Open and notorious neglect … of this duty on the part of a state, by suffering lawless mobs to murder citizens for want of legal protection, may be declared an offence against the United States,” Pillsbury wrote.
His essay would serve as the legal framework for 20th-century anti-lynching legislation introduced by lawmakers until the passage of the first hate crimes laws in 1968.
Opponents of anti-lynching legislation would claim the state alone had jurisdiction over murder cases, as Pillsbury noted. However, states rarely, if ever, prosecuted any of the thousands of mob members involved in lynchings and massacres of Black people, he argued.
Anti-lynching forces grew as a result of a racial massacre that occurred in Springfield, Illinois, the home of President Abraham Lincoln, from Aug. 14-16, 1908.
George Richardson, a Black man, was jailed in Springfield for the alleged rape of a married white woman, Mabel Hallem. Richardson’s cellmate was a Black man named Joe James. James had been jailed the previous month, accused of fatally stabbing a white man.
A white mob gathered outside the jail and demanded the release of the men, but Sheriff Charles Werner, along with another white man, Harry Loper, had secretly moved the two men out of Springfield for their safety, according to Roberta Senechal, historian and author of “In Lincoln’s Shadow: The 1908 Race Riot in Springfield, Illinois.’’
White people responded by destroying Loper’s restaurant, Black businesses in downtown Springfield and a Black neighborhood called the Badlands. Many hundreds of African Americans fled the city. Some later returned, Senechal wrote.
The mob, numbering in the thousands, lynched two elderly Black businessmen who had not been accused of any crime: a barber, Scott Burton, and a shoemaker, William Donnegan, 84, who was married to a younger white woman. Burton was taken from his home, lynched, mutilated and his corpse hung from a tree, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
Gov. Charles Deneen ordered the state militia to quell the destruction, but not until after Donnegan was lynched, according to Senechal.
Senechal noted that the city’s association with Lincoln made the violence even more shocking.
The NAACP, one of the nation’s oldest civil-rights organizations, was founded a year later in response by Black and white activists. Founders included Harvard-educated scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, labor activist and Socialist Republican William English Walling, and journalist and suffragist Mary White Ovington.
As part of its anti-lynching campaign, led by James Weldon Johnson, the NAACP embraced Pillsbury’s 1902 essay.
The organization and its magazine, “The Crisis,” lobbied Congress intensely for passage of federal anti-lynching legislation — and continues to do so more than 110 years later.
WORLD WAR I, THE RED SUMMER AND THE FILIBUSTER
The economic mobilization for World War I destabilized the economy of the United States, particularly for Black Americans.
Rising crop prices created more opportunities for Black farmers in the South. Simultaneously, jobs in the North accelerated the exodus of Black workers and families from the rural South to industrial cities.
The shifting social conditions fueled fear among white Americans, prompting lynchings, racial terror and massacres.
In 1917 in East St. Louis, Illinois, where the Black population nearly doubled in the leadup to the war, at least 39 Black people were killed in riots and their homes were burned after white workers on strike were replaced by Black workers.
In 1919 in Elaine, Arkansas, hundreds of Black people were killed after Black farmers attempted to form a union to get better prices for their cotton crop.
That same year, in what came to be known as the Red Summer, dozens were killed in Chicago, and the city’s Black neighborhoods were besieged by white mobs. Also in 1919 in Washington, D.C., about 40 people, most of them Black, were killed by lynch mobs and in gun battles, while in Omaha, Nebraska, a white mob stormed the courthouse and lynched a Black man.
Hundreds more African Americans were killed and their neighborhoods burned by white mobs in Ocoee, Florida, in 1920 and in the prosperous, Black Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921.
The press played a role in the massacres and lynchings, sometimes announcing them as though they were social events. On June 26, 1919, for example, the New Orleans States newspaper printed, “John Hartfield will be lynched by Ellisville Mob at 5 o’clock this afternoon.”
It was during the wave of anti-Black violence from 1917 to 1922 that Rep. Leonidas Dyer, a Republican from Missouri, submitted and lobbied for an anti-lynching bill supported by the NAACP. Dyer’s district was across the Mississippi River from East St. Louis, and the violence there had shaken him.
Speaking at a hearing before the House Rules Committee, Dyer described a conversation he had with a man who witnessed the murders.
“He saw members of the militia of Illinois shoot negroes,’’ Dyer said. “He saw policemen of the city of East St. Louis shoot negroes. He saw this mob go to the homes of those negroes and nail boards up over the doors and windows and then set fire and burn them up.
“He saw them take little children out of the arms of their mothers and throw them into the fires and burn them up. He saw the most dastardly and most criminal outrages ever perpetrated in this country, and this is undisputed. And I have talked with others; and my opinion is that over 500 people were killed on this occasion.”
Dyer introduced his bill in 1918, and again in the 1920s. In 1920, the bill reached the House Judiciary Committee for a hearing, along with another, nearly identical bill drafted by Rep. Frederick Dallinger, a Republican from Massachusetts.
“It is based, as I understand, upon the provision of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees to every citizen of the United States the equal protection of the laws,” Dallinger told the committee, according to the Congressional Record.
During the January 1920 hearing, anti-lynching activists defended the constitutionality of Dyer’s bill.
Arthur Spingarn, one of the vice presidents of the NAACP, highlighted the barbarity of lynching in his testimony, comparing it with the Armenian genocide and ongoing massacres in the Mexican Revolution.
“No serious attempt has been made to punish the perpetrators of lynchings,” Spingarn said. “It has gone so far as to have one of our governors publicly state, when a lynching was announced in the public press to take place the next day, that he was powerless to prevent it.”
According to a transcript of the hearing, Spingarn noted that at least one congressman had spoken in favor of lynching. “Representative Thomas, of Kentucky, at the hearing on the antilynching bill sponsored by the Military Intelligence Department of New York … stated that he approved of lynching for rape,” Spingarn said.
He ticked off the brutality. “In 1919, the past year, there were 82 lynchings. And of those 82 lynchings,” he said, “14 of the persons lynched were burned at the stake: 12 of them before death and 2 of them after death. And among those lynched, there were at least two women who were pregnant.”
Despite the favorable testimony from Spingarn and prominent Black leaders, it was two more years before the House passed a version of the Dyer bill. The New York Times reported the delay had become a contentious issue among Black voters, who felt the Republican Party, which controlled both houses of Congress and was still considered the party of Lincoln, had let them down in failing to pass the Dyer bill swiftly.
The bill faced fierce opposition in the Senate, primarily from Southern elected officials. In September 1922, Sen. John Shields, a Tennessee Democrat, implied that Dyer’s bill was intended to protect criminals, according to the Congressional Record.
The party’s opposition was led by Sen. Oscar Underwood, of Alabama.
“Mr. President, because I very candidly announced that this side of the Chamber was going to use every legitimate parliamentary means, as we have a right to do within the rules, to prevent the passage of the Dyer bill, that is called a filibuster by the other side, and I confess that it is,” Underwood said on the Senate floor.
The Southern Democrats claimed the federal government had no right to interfere in state law enforcement, nor to guarantee due process of law.
Underwood threatened to hold up all legislation, including funding for government programs, if Republicans didn’t rescind their legislation.
“We are not going to deny that we are filibustering,” Underwood said. “If the Dyer bill is not off the floor of the Senate and an understanding reached in reference to it, or it is passed, you cannot pass your supply bills this winter.”
One of his exasperated Republican opponents, Sen. Knute Nelson of Minnesota, told fellow Senators from the floor, “Unless we withdraw this bill they will defeat everything.”
To which Underwood replied, “To be sure; undoubtedly.”
The Dyer bill died in the Senate in December 1922.
FDR, THE SOUTH, THE NEW DEAL AND ANTI-LYNCHING LEGISLATION
Walter Francis White, the executive secretary of the NAACP, and Mary McLeod Bethune, a Black anti-lynching activist and education pioneer, campaigned for the 1932 presidential bid of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Despite their support and Eleanor Roosevelt’s lobbying, the president refused to push for anti-lynching legislation once in office.
Two senators from Roosevelt’s Democratic Party did, however.
Sens. Robert F. Wagner of New York and Edward P. Costigan of Colorado, both pro-labor advocates, introduced a bill in January 1934 to make lynching a federal crime.
Costigan represented coal miners in the congressional investigation in 1914, following an armed conflict between miners and a detective agency hired to break the United Mine Workers of America. He was one of the founders of the Progressive Party in Colorado before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1930.
According to congressional records, their legislation proposed federal prosecution of participants in lynch mobs. It would have allowed the prosecution of sheriffs and other public officials who failed to safeguard prisoners.
In May 1934, records show, Congress began discussing the legislation along with a similar anti-lynching bill submitted in the House by Rep. Oscar De Priest, a Republican from Chicago and the first African American elected to Congress in the 20th century.
On May 28, Costigan made a passionate appeal on the Senate floor to approve his bill, claiming support from Roosevelt and citing editorials in both Southern and Northern newspapers calling for its passage, congressional records show.
“The measure before us has been petitioned for and endorsed during the last few months by authorized spokesmen of organizations having memberships in this country totaling approximately 40,000,000 American citizens,” Costigan said. “Indeed, never in our history have protests against the anarchy of lynching risen to any comparable high level of popular conviction.
“We are faced by a problem which at last has become everybody’s business because too long it has been nobody’s business.’’
By June, the bill was pending on the Senate calendar. On the floor of the chamber, Costigan accused Congress of ignoring the legislation, the records show.
“We have every reason to believe that a substantial majority of both branches of Congress desires and would approve the measure,” Costigan said.
But Roosevelt, concerned about the fate of his New Deal initiatives, refused to push the Democratic Congress to approve the anti-lynching bills, freeing Southern legislators to once again argue that the states alone had the right to prosecute lynchings.
Sen. Huey Long, a populist Democrat and former Louisiana governor who would be assassinated in 1935, interrupted Costigan’s speech to declare that to end lynching “is merely a matter of a State performing its duty, which, of course, it can perform better than any other authority.”
Seven months later, in February 1935, both houses of the Colorado Legislature wrote Congress to advocate the passage of the Costigan-Wagner bill. Three days after the Colorado Legislature’s letter, the Georgia Legislature sent a counter-demand to the Senate, protesting the bill.
Southern senators filibustered against the bill throughout late April and May 1935, according to congressional records. The tension in the Senate came to a pivotal moment when West Virginia Sen. Matthew Neely, a Democrat, asked Alabama Sen. John H. Bankhead II, also a Democrat, to yield the floor. Bankhead asked why Neely wished to speak.
“For the purpose of opposing the filibuster which has been in progress during the last week, and of speaking in favor of the enactment of the so-called ‘Costigan-Wagner antilynching bill,’ ” Neely said, according to the Congressional Record.
“No; I cannot yield for that purpose,” Bankhead replied.
The final floor discussion came in August 1935. Georgia Sen. Walter George, a Democrat, read into the Congressional Record an earlier speech attacking the bill given by South Carolina Sen. Ellison D. Smith, also a Democrat, to an association of Confederate veterans and their supporters.
Smith, a well-known racist, opposed everything from civil rights to women’s suffrage to the minimum wage.
“As long as I am a Senator I shall continue to oppose all bills that attempt to encroach upon the sovereign rights of South Carolina,” Smith said during his speech.
The Costigan-Wagner bill died in the Senate, falling victim to the same Southern filibustering that killed the Dyer bill 13 years earlier.
EMMETT TILL, GEORGE FLOYD AND LYNCHINGS AS HATE CRIMES
On Feb. 23, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery was jogging through a suburban development not far from Brunswick, Georgia, where he lived with his mother and once starred on the high school football team.
According to interviews with his friends and family by The New York Times and other publications, his runs were not uncommon. Arbery, they said, liked to stay in shape.
Three men pursued the 25-year-old: Travis McMichael and his father, Gregory, who were armed and driving a pickup truck, and William “Roddie” Bryan, who followed Arbery in a second vehicle. Arbery was confronted and fatally shot, allegedly by Travis McMichael.
Bryan recorded a video of the event.
U.S. Department of Justice officials said Arbery was killed because he was Black. His pursuers were white. They have since been charged with murder, false imprisonment and hate crimes.
It is true that Arbery was shot to death. But was he lynched?
U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, a Chicago Democrat, says yes and has crafted legislation that would define his death and the deaths of others like his as lynchings.
Rush named his bill, introduced in 2019, in honor of Emmett Till, a Black 14-year-old from Chicago who was brutally murdered in 1955 while visiting family in Mississippi after he was accused of flirting with a white woman. The woman’s husband and another man were found not guilty of his killing, which sparked outrage around the country.
At Till’s funeral in Chicago, his mother chose to keep his coffin open so people could see the horror of a racial lynching — a decision historians credit with helping spark the civil rights movement.
Rush’s first anti-lynching bill passed the House 410-4 in February 2020, but was derailed in the Senate following objections by Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, that it defined what constituted a lynching too broadly.
Paul made his objection on the day of the funeral of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer. Floyd’s death, which some have described as a lynching, sparked one of the largest protest movements in U.S. history. A New York Times story, based on four polls, showed between 15 million and 26 million people participating in racial-justice protests.
Rush reintroduced the Emmett Till Antilynching Act in January 2021. It expands the definition of federal hate crimes, stating: “Whoever, whether or not acting under color of law, willfully, acting as part of any collection of people, assembled for the purpose and with the intention of committing an act of violence upon any person, causes death to any person, shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life, fined under this title, or both.”
In a 2020 interview with the political news website Vox, Rush said he considered the murder of Arbery to meet the definition of lynching as set out by his bill.
“Lynching exists when there’s a conspiracy between two individuals to violate the Hate Crimes Act,” he said. “And I believe, according to the news accounts that I’ve seen, this father and this son … they committed a hate crime act against Ahmaud Arbery, and that would make it a lynching under my bill.”
By expanding existing federal hate crime laws, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act avoids century-long objections that only states have the right to prosecute murders committed within their jurisdiction. Opponents of anti-lynching legislation in the 20th century often claimed that federal prosecution of lynching perpetrators was an overreach of federal power. The state alone, they claimed, had the right to punish such crimes.
Hate crimes laws lengthen sentences or add fines for those convicted of crimes that were committed based on specific hatreds, such as race, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.
In the Arbery case, Georgia has charged the alleged killers with murder, while they face simultaneous federal hate crimes offenses.
Irving Joyner is a law professor at the North Carolina Central University School of Law and a member of the commission that examined the 1898 Wilmington massacre. The commission wrote a 500-page report on the murder of Black residents in Wilmington and the overthrow of the lawfully elected city government.
He said anti-lynching laws are important.
“How do you define lynching?” Joyner asked rhetorically. “Are you just talking about those situations where a person’s head is placed in a noose and hung from a tree, or you’re talking about racialized killings that occur all over the country? I use the broader definition.”
But Tafeni English, who directs the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial Center, and Joyner are concerned that classifying lynching as a hate crime might not go far enough.
Even when police and prosecutors arrest and charge suspected perpetrators of hate crimes, those charges are hard to prove, English said. It’s difficult, she said, for the state to prove intent.
English cited the trial of Sean Urbanski, a white University of Maryland student who murdered a Black man, 2nd Lt. Richard Collins III, in College Park, Maryland, in 2017.
“There was hate crimes legislation,” English said. “The community pushed for that to be investigated as a hate crime, and then when it reached the trial, you know the judge threw out the hate crime enhancement because he felt that the state failed to prove that the crime was motivated by hate.”
According to Joyner, it is extremely difficult to establish that a crime was motivated by a specific hatred. “That is essentially kind of a double-intent requirement in the law,” Joyner said.
The latest push to pass an anti-lynching law started in 2018 when then-Sen. Kamala Harris, a Democrat from California who is now the vice president, and Sens. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, and Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican — the chamber’s three Black members — introduced a bill to make lynching a hate crime.
A version of the bill passed the Senate, but not the House. Rush’s bill has until Jan. 3, 2023, when the current legislative session ends, to pass both houses of Congress and be signed into law.
Joyner said the Emmett Till bill was important regardless of the difficulty of prosecuting hate crimes.
“It’s important, particularly to people of color, there be some pronouncement by the government, that this type of motivated killing … is not condoned, and is to be punished harshly by the state,” Joyner said. “And it gives to people of color, the notion that their lives matter, or Black lives matter.”
Molly Castle Work contributed to this report.