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Senate Apologizes For Lynchings - But Not Hate Crimes

by Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Why Federal Hate Crimes Law Essential

(PNS) -- If they were still alive, NAACP executive directors James Weldon Johnson, Walter White and Roy Wilkins would smile at the Senate's apology for lynching with a non-binding resolution this week. But their smiles would be faint because Congress still refuses to pass an expanded hate crimes law.

The late civil rights leaders 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 efforts to get the law passed.

That was the government's shame. Lynching was the dirtiest of dirty stains on American democracy. Between 1890 and 1968 there were nearly 5,000 known lynchings. The carnage was probably much higher as many killings weren't reported. The majority of the victims were black. The coming Senate resolution offers "solemn regrets" to their descendants. At least it would make it official that the feds fumbled the ball badly when it came to protecting blacks. The Senate resolution, however, doesn't answer 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 excuse after lame excuse. Some officials claimed that if they pressed too hard the Southerners who dominated Congress would filibuster anti-lynching bills to death, paralyze the government and bottle up other more "important" legislation. Others claimed it was up to the states to prosecute the killers and there was nothing the federal government could or should do. Still others were mute on the issue and hoped it would go away. They were all disingenuous and hypocritical.

Presidents Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt 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-lynching 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, who made modest efforts to strengthen and enforce federal laws against racial violence. But they didn't do so out of a moral epiphany or 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 America well into the 20th century. It seeped into and deeply colored the thinking of the men who sat in the White House and Congress.

Some of that thinking sadly is still present. In 2004, the Senate grudgingly passed an expanded hate crimes 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 was a virtual carbon copy of the excuse the White House and Congress used to scuttle an anti-lynching law -- that it would violate states rights and stretch the constitutional power of the federal government way too far.

The Congressional inaction on an expanded hate crimes law reinforces the public perception that terrorism comes only in the form of Al-Qaeda attacks, and presumes that sexually and racially motivated violence are isolated acts committed by a handful of quacks and unreconstructed bigots, and that state authorities vigorously report and prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes. This is a myth.

In its annual reports on hate violence in America, the FBI notes there has been only a marginal decline in the number of hate crimes during the past decade. Nearly 40 percent of the attacks were racially motivated, with blacks the most frequent target of hate-mongers.

But even the number of reported hate crimes only scratches the surface of hate violence in America. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a public advocacy group, claims that the 9,000 cases the FBI reports each year are a gross undercount. The Center puts the actual number at closer to 50,000.

The Senate apology is a small step toward righting a huge wrong. Congress could take an even bigger step by strengthening the hate crimes law. That might bring a real smile to the NAACP leaders who fought long and hard to wipe away the stain of racial hate violence that soiled America for a century and still soils it today.

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Albion Monitor June 10, 2005 (

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