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Senate notes its inaction on lynchings

Acknowledges failure to pass legislation

WASHINGTON -- Fifty years ago black teenager Emmett Till was dragged from his uncle's Mississippi home and murdered, reportedly for whistling at a white woman. Yesterday, the US Senate acknowledged that it shared blame for the youth's violent death.

''There may be no other injustice in American history for which the Senate so uniquely bears responsibility," Senator Mary Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana, said before a planned voice vote in which the Senate apologized for refusing to approve legislation against the lynchings and the mob violence that terrorized blacks well into the 20th century.

In 1955, ''good men did nothing," said Simeon Wright, Till's cousin and one of the many descendants of lynching victims on hand for the Senate vote. Wright, who was there the night Till was abducted, said that if there had been a federal antilynching law, ''there was no way men would have come into my house and taken him out and killed him."

Among the witnesses to the Senate apology was a 91-year-old man thought to be the only living survivor of a lynching attempt.

''I came here to bear witness on behalf of my cousin Jimmy," said Janet Langhart Cohen, wife of former defense secretary William Cohen and a member of the group that has pushed for the apology.

Her third cousin, 17-year-old Jimmy Gillenwaters, was killed by a lynch mob near Bowling Green, Ky., in 1912. He was one of 4,743 people killed by mob violence between 1882 and 1968, according to Tuskegee University records. Of those, nearly three-fourths, 3,446, were blacks. Lynchings reached a peak of 230 in 1892, but they were prevalent well into the 1930s. Twenty lynchings were reported in 1935.

During that time, nearly 200 antilynching bills were introduced in Congress, and three passed the House. Seven presidents between 1890 and 1952 petitioned Congress to pass a federal law.

But the Senate, with Southern conservatives wielding their filibuster powers, refused to act. With the enactment of civil rights laws in the 1960s and changes in national attitudes, the issue faded.

Lynching is variously defined as a violent act, usually racial in nature, that denies a person due process of law and is carried out with the complicity of the local society.

The sponsors of the resolution, Landrieu and George Allen, Republican of Virginia, said they were motivated in part by a recent book, ''Without Sanctuary, Lynching Photography in America," in which author James Allen collected lynch pictures, mostly taken by those participating in the killings.

''More than a half-century ago, mere feet from where we sit . . .the Senate failed you and your ancestors and our nation," Landrieu told descendants at a lunch in the Capitol.

Among those present was James Cameron, who as a shoeshine boy in Marion, Ind., in 1930 was dragged from a cell and had a rope placed around his neck. Two of his friends, also accused of the murder of a white man and the rape of a white woman, were hanged. Cameron, then 16, was spared when a man in the crowd proclaimed his innocence. ''I was saved by a miracle," Cameron said at a news conference. ''They were going to lynch me between my two buddies," he said, with thousands of people ''hollering for my blood when a voice said, 'Take this boy back.' "

The nonbinding resolution apologizes to the victims for the Senate's failure to act and ''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."

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said President Bush talked about slavery and the travails of American democracy in a meeting yesterday with five African leaders. The Senate, McClellan said, ''has taken a step that they feel they need to take, given their own past inaction on what were great injustices."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who witnessed racial tensions as a child in Alabama, called the apology ''a remarkable and wonderful thing" during an interview on MSNBC's ''Hardball."

Acknowledging the mistakes of the past ''is an immensely important first step," said Emma Coleman Jordan, professor at the Georgetown Law Center and a specialist on the subject. Other steps, she said, could include establishing a national research center and showing atonement by setting up trust funds for the descendants of victims.

Congress in the past has apologized to Japanese-Americans and other persecuted groups, but the reparations issue has complicated efforts to apologize to blacks for slavery.

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