Sorry For Murdering You

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If they were still alive, NAACP executive directors James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, and Roy Wilkins would smile at the Senate's plan to apologize for lynching. But their smiles would be faint.

They fought a tireless, frustrating battle for a half century to get eight presidents and Congress to pass an anti- lynching law. The White House and the lawmakers ducked, dodged, and stonewalled their efforts to get the law passed. That was their shame. Lynching was the dirtiest of dirty stains on American democracy. Between 1890 and 1968 nearly 5,000 known persons were lynched.

The carnage was probably much higher since many of the killings weren't reported. The majority of the lynch victims were Black. The non-binding Senate resolution offers "solemn regrets" to the descendants of the lynching victims. At least that makes it official that the feds fumbled the ball badly when it came to protecting Blacks. The Senate resolution, however, doesn't answer the tormenting question why eight presidents and Congress did nothing to stop lynching. It also doesn't tell why Congress still refuses to go all out to nail hate mongers today.

The foot-dragging presidents and Congress rebuffed the NAACP with lame excuse after excuse. Some claimed that if they pressed too hard for the law the Southerners that dominated Congress would filibuster the bills to death, paralyze the government, and bottle up other more "important" legislation. Others claimed that it was up to the states to prosecute the lynch killers and if they didn't there was nothing the federal government could or should do. Still others were mute on the issue and hoped that it would go away. They were disingenuous and hypocritical.

Presidents Harding, Coolidge, <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" /><st1:City w:st="on">Hoover</st1:City>, <st1:place w:st="on">Roosevelt</st1:place> had enough congressional votes and the executive muscle to pass or at least get a close vote on an anti-lynching law. They didn't even try. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy had the votes, the political muscle and the country's changing racial mood to power an anti-lynch law through Congress. They made only a half-hearted attempt to do so. The only arguable exceptions to the pattern of White House inaction were Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman. They made modest efforts to strengthen and enforce federal laws against racial violence.

But they didn't act because of a sudden moral epiphany or out of racial enlightenment. They urged prosecutions of white terrorists only in select high profile cases that provoked public fury and triggered mass pressure by civil rights groups. The eight presidents and Congress didn't act because they were trapped by the savage history and legacy of slavery and segregation that for two centuries systematically devalued Black lives. Throughout the slave and segregation era Black inferiority was enshrined in law, custom and practice.

The color Black symbolized evil, villainy and criminality. The negative racial typecasting of Blacks was an intimate part of the political and cultural ethic that tainted law and public policy in <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">America</st1:place></st1:country-region> well into the 20th century. It seeped into and deeply colored the thinking of the men that sat in the White House and Congress. Some of that thinking sadly is still there. In 2004, the Senate grudgingly passed an expanded hate crime law. It would've designated crimes motivated by sexual orientation as hate crimes.

It permitted federal officials to prosecute them as hate acts when local authorities refused. House Republicans killed a similar bill. The excuse they used to dump it was a virtual carbon copy of the excuse the White House and Congress used to scuttle an anti-lynching law. They claimed that it violated states rights, and would stretch the constitutional power of the federal government way to far.

Black Star columnist Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst. For interview requests call 323-296-6331. For more reports and articles please call (2120 481-7745 to subscribe to the newsstand edition of The Black Star News.

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