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Congress has tried more than 200 times to pass an anti-lynching law. This year, it could fail again

Jaweed Kaleem, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Political News

It was nearly a century ago that Rep. Leonidas C. Dyer, a Republican from Missouri, introduced a bill to make lynching a federal crime. With vigilante slayings of African-Americans rampant, it promised to force the federal government to prosecute lynch mobs for murder.

The bill wasn't the first in Congress to target lynchings. Others had tried to stop the killings carried out largely against blacks by angry Southern whites who nearly always got away without punishment. (The first attempt, in 1900, by Rep. George H. White, a North Carolina Republican and the only black person in Congress, was defeated in committee.) But Dyer's legislation was the first to have a serious chance of becoming law when it passed in the House of Representatives and made it out of committee in the Senate.

Southern Democratic senators filibustered to block the bill in 1922, with one, Sen. Lee Slater Overman of North Carolina, saying that African-Americans did not want the law and "do not need it."

It was one of more than 200 failed attempts to make lynching a federal crime. Bill after bill failed, even as the killings continued.

Tuskegee University researchers documented 4,475 lynchings that took place in the U.S. between 1882 and 1968. Most occurred in the South and targeted black people, though Mexicans, Native Americans and some white people were also victims.

"Southern white federal officeholders repeatedly blocked anti-lynching legislation over the decades of the early 20th century, asserting that a federal role in thwarting lynching would violate 'state's rights,'" said Michael Pfeifer, a history professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

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Lynchings, he said, "performed a terroristic function, in the sense that they were intended to intimidate and create fear" among African-Americans and other minorities.

Dyer, who served in Congress until 1933, made several more attempts to pass a law and repeatedly hit the same opposition from Democratic senators.

Even people later known as civil rights champions were against outlawing lynching. When President Harry Truman pushed Congress to pass laws against lynching and segregation in interstate transportation in 1947, then-Rep. Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas -- who as president signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- called out the president for a "farce and a sham -- an effort to set up a police state in the guise of liberty."

Now, Congress may add one more anti-lynching attempt to its list of shortcomings.

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