Let’s Not Forget the Federal Government’s Hand in Lynching

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama opened with a mix of applause and some catcalls. The applause was that arguably the most hideous, heinous and barbaric assault on Black rights was the documented thousands of lynchings of Black men and women. There are many gruesome pictures on display of Black men and women being burned, dragged in chains, roasted alive and dismembered while whites crack jokes and mug for the cameras. According to official NAACP figures, between 1890 and 1960, 5,200 blacks were burned, shot or mutilated by lynch mobs. The horrid death toll is almost certainly higher, since in many cases sheriffs and local officials didn’t deem the murders significant enough to report.

Still there are catcalls about depicting any of this. The critics dredge up the standard complaint, “Why bring up all this old gruesome stuff again? It was decades ago, so, it’s time to get over it and move on.” This complaint can and should quickly be waved off for three compelling reasons.

The first is that history –the good and the bad—can’t simply be airbrushed away. History provides a teaching moment, and a learning experience for generations after events, to learn from, if for nothing else so as not to make the mistakes of the past, or conversely, to adopt and expand on the achievements of the past.

The second is that few finger-point with such public scorn, Jews and Armenians who have institutionalized their Holocausts as a teaching and learning moment. They also use the horror of the past to prod governments to admit and make restitution for their historic wrongs.

Now there’s the third, and most disturbing, reason. The lynching’s were not just the murderous assault by primitive, backwoods sheriffs and townspeople in backwater Southern towns on Blacks. It was a national assault that took place in many locales outside the South reveled and was egged on by prominent officials and businesspersons. It could not have spelled the massive extra-legal death sentence it did for so many innocent Blacks if it had not been ignored and tacitly protected by the federal government.

Most lynch murderers made no attempt to hide or mask their acts. They took out ads in newspapers and circulated flyers announcing lynching’s. They ignored the 1908 ban by the U.S. Postal Service on violent material in the mails and conducted a brisk trade in souvenir postcards and letters with snapshots of lynched victims.

NAACP officials meticulously compiled photos of lynching’s collected witness statements from law enforcement and public officials, even the lynchers themselves, and promptly turned the incriminating documents over to federal officials. But they took no action. The NAACP also relentlessly lobbied Congress and the White House to pass an anti-lynching law. The civil rights group was ignored.

Every president from Theodore Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy refused to draft or vigorously support a federal law to end lynching. Nearly every attorney general refused to push for indictments against public officials or law enforcement officers complicit in lynch murders. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover successfully manipulated Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Kennedy to steer the FBI away from direct investigation of lynching’s. The Department of Justice seldom forced Hoover to conduct such investigations.

Presidents, attorneys general and federal officials wailed that their hands were tied, because it was the job of the states to prosecute the lynch murderers. But the states refused. Fewer than 1 percent of the murderers were ever tried in state courts. Rather than risk alienating politically powerful Southern state officials and jeopardizing votes and legislative support, the feds rationalized their hands-off policy toward lynching with a narrow and rigid interpretation of the federalist doctrine of separation of state and national power.

This was a face-saving political cop-out. In many cases a bevy of Southern sheriffs, mayors and municipal and state officials openly aided and abetted the lynch mobs. The Justice Department had two powerful legal statutes to go after them. The statutes authorized prosecutions of public officials and law enforcement officers who, acting under color of law, committed or conspired with others to commit acts of racial violence. They were based on the 14th Amendment’s due process and equal protection clause.

The hideous legacy of the near-century-long federal hands-off policy toward lynching is hardly an academic, by-gone remnant of the past. The absolute refusal of Attorney General William Sessions and the Justice Department to vigorously prosecute racially motivated hate crimes, let alone police violence, against Blacks and Latinos is a modern-day carry over of the official blind eye to Black life. The police shootings of unarmed Blacks with almost no punishment for the cops who wantonly kill have often been compared to the old lynch mentality.

The Lynching Memorial graphically exposes the shame and disgrace of lynching. The tragedy is that American presidents and the Congress never shared that horror. Until federal officials publicly admit their complicity in lynch violence, it will remain the federal government’s dirtiest racial secret.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is, Why Black Lives Do Matter (Middle Passage Press). He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.

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