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Why is the Senate Apologizing for Lynching?

Despite the annoying interruptions of Social Security reform and judicial nominees, our august plenipotentiary body managed to stage a little ceremony to formally apologize for their collective failure to ever pass legislation making lynching a federal crime. The MSM reports the sad truth that though many such laws passed out of the House and several presidents urged passage between 1880 and 1960, such measures were routinely filibustered on the Senate floor or died in committee. Meanwhile, as many as 5000 people, the vast majority of whom were black citizens, were publicly murdered. The Senate passed what is known as a non-binding resolution that “expresses the deepest sympathies and most solemn regrets of the Senate to the descendants of victims of lynching, the ancestors of whom were deprived of life, human dignity and the constitutional protections accorded all citizens of the United States.”

Lynching is obviously one of the sadder features of American history, but yesterday’s media event leaves this Americans a little irritated. It partakes of the general attitude of politics perfected by liberals over the last half-century that sees the world in terms of victims and guilt. Also, it clearly misplaces the blame for lynching in America.

A little dose of the ancient discipline known as “history” reveals that the federal government was quite active in the defense of black Americans, even in the face of Southern resistance. Besides the sting of forceful and sweeping legislative initiatives enacted over time (Civil Rights Acts of 1866, 1870 1871 and 1875, plus the 14th Amendment), Congress enacted 42 U.S.C. § 1983 also known as the "Ku Klux Klan Act" (as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1871) because one of its primary purposes was to provide a civil remedy against the abuses that were being committed in the southern states, especially by the Ku Klux Klan. Criminal statutes were ineffective because Congress and the President lacked the power to force state and local authorities to enforce the law. Congress passed the Klu Klux Klan Act to provide a civil cause of action in federal courts for those whose rights had been unjustly violated by either private citizens or, significantly, by government officers. This meant that the local sheriff who was either cowed by KKK intimidation or complicit in the lynchings could be hauled into federal court. On the House floor, I’m fairly confident it was David Perley Lowe of Kansas who offered these remarks:

“While murder is stalking abroad in disguise, while whippings and lynchings and banishing have been visited upon unoffending American citizens, the local administrators have been found inadequate or unwilling to apply the proper corrective. Combinations, darker than the night that hides them, conspiracies, wicked as the worst of felons could devise, have gone unwhipped of justice. Immunity is given to crime and the records of public tribunals are searched in vain for any evidence of effective redress.”

Besides being awed by the bodacious locution “unwhipped of justice,” one cannot escape the conclusion that it is not the federal government as whole, nor even the collective Senate, that was responsible for the lynching phenomenon. That burden lies at the feet of the South exclusively.

The failure of the Senate to pass anti-lynching legislation was not a collective failure at all, but a Southern one. Southern senators marched in lock step to filibuster and otherwise thwart legislation designed to curb the injustice stemming from Southern recalcitrance. It would be interesting indeed to hear a reckoning from a Southern politician, and there may be excellent discussions on this topic of which I am not aware. But there was none of it yesterday. The Old South was able to hide amid the ringing “Yea” of a crowded voice vote without in any way addressing the specific crimes alluded to in the resolution. Such dissembling strikes me as the same attitude under which lynching flourished as a recreational activity in the South. The best way to show contrition is to be accountable for consequences and honest about history. Yesterday’s ceremony accomplished neither.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on June 14, 2005 11:09 AM.

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