Published June 13, 2005
WASHINGTON – The Senate on Monday acknowledged its own failure to stand against the lynching of thousands of black people, a practice that continued well into the 20th century.
"It's important that we are honest with ourselves and that we tell the truth about what happened," Sen. Mary Landrieu (search), D-La., said before the Senate by voice vote approved an apology for blocking anti-lynching legislation at a time when mob violence against blacks was commonplace. At least 80 senators signed on as co-sponsors.
Nearly 200 descendants of lynching victims, and a 91-year-old man thought to be the only living survivor of a lynching attempt, listened from the visitors' gallery to speeches about what Sen. George Allen (search), R-Va., described as "the failure of the Senate to take action when action was most needed."
"I came here to bear witness on behalf of my cousin Jimmy," said Janet Langhart Cohen, wife of former Defense Secretary William Cohen (search) 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 anti-lynching 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 away.
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 Allen, 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," said Cameron, who went on to found America's Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee. "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 Monday 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 with 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 an expert 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 issue of reparations has complicated efforts to apologize to blacks for slavery. Jordan said a trust fund for lynching victims descendants would target a far smaller group.