An Apology for Lynching Does Nothing for Victims

The Senate has passed a resolution apologizing to the relatives of almost 5,000 Americans known to have been murdered by lynch mobs over the years during which the Senate refused to pass an anti-lynch law.

Between the “whereases,” the resolution’s meaning—if impersonal—is as unmistakable as it is tragic:

“Whereas nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress during the first half of the 20th century;

“Whereas, between 1890 and 1952, 7 Presidents petitioned Congress to end lynching;

“Whereas, between 1920 and 1940, the House of Representatives passed 3 strong anti-lynching measures;

“Whereas protection against lynching was the minimum and most basic of Federal responsibilities, and the Senate considered but failed to enact anti-lynching legislation despite repeated requests by civil rights groups, Presidents, and the House of Representatives to do so …. ”

The Senatorial act of contrition got itself a certain amount of attention and probably automatic approval, but there was scant comment on why the Senate didn’t pass an anti-lynching law and the House of Representatives passed so many. The device that prevented passage in the Senate was the filibuster, exercised by Democratic Senators from the Southern states. The majorities during those years didn’t use a “nuclear option” to end the filibuster; the majority was willing to allow a minority in the Senate to use the rule to oppress a non-white, unrepresented minority outside the Senate. With that history, it takes a talent for casuistry to accept the argument that the filibuster should be retained as the necessary means of safeguarding individual rights. Sometimes the filibuster helps your cause, and sometimes it works against it—and that’s all that can be said about it.

The lynching apology was passed on a voice vote. Which Senators voted and which did not wasn’t recorded, thus affording a degree of cover for Senators who later might find it expedient to deny having come out against mob violence and lynch-law injustice. Eighty-some Senators did sponsor the resolution, even if they didn’t go on record as voting for it, and future opponents could hold their sponsorship against them.

At least 15 Senators didn’t sponsor the resolution. Every one of them was white and Republican. Two of the white non-sponsoring Senators were Orrin Hatch and Robert Bennett of Utah. Both are Mormon and, even though their church has recused itself from its teaching that black persons are “devils,” the impression persists that Mormons dislike people of color. By not sponsoring this innocuous resolution, these men have reinforced the outsider’s impression that theirs is a religion that consigns some people, by virtue of their race, to hell.

Among the other non-signers, none have names that would strike you as Jewish or Muslim or Hindu. New Hampshire’s John Sununu, of Arab extraction, didn’t sign, but he’s not a Muslim but a Catholic. The other Senator from New Hampshire, Judd Gregg, a Congregationalist, wasn’t a sponsor, either. Since they come from a state with an insignificant African-American vote, they can afford the political luxury of honesty and act according to their convictions.

Neither Senator from Mississippi signed the resolution’s list of sponsors. Trent Lott—who lost his position as majority leader because he praised the life and works of South Carolina’s longtime segregationist, Strom Thurmond, and then apologized—has now backslid. The refusal of either Senator to sign a statement condemning racial murder makes you wonder about Mississippi’s claims to have changed, although the state recently convicted Edgar Ray Killen for taking part in the 1964 lynching of three civil-rights workers, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. The murderer is 80 years old and the crime more than 40—a reminder that almost none of the men and women who murdered those thousands were punished or threatened with punishment or were ever in peril of disapproval in their communities or in Washington, where for long decades they were protected.

A bunch of slit-eyed Republicans from the cowboy states didn’t sign. Nor did the two Senators from Texas. The senior Senator, Kay Bailey Hutchison, is, according to political gossip, teetering on running for governor. Perhaps by keeping her name off the sponsorship list, she thinks she can drawn Mexican voters toward her out of their antagonism to African-Americans. The Republican’s automatic answer to such suspicions is to chant, “Big tent! Big tent!” To which Jon Stewart remarks that it isn’t that the big-tenting Republicans pit minority groups against each other, it’s just that black people don’t enjoy camping out.

The Republicans, thinking they can get to choose either black or Hispanic support, have chosen to go Hispanic. Sooner or later, they will bump into the fact that a large percentage of our Hispanic population is also black, and we shall see what happens then.

The Republican performance on this harmless resolution reinforces Howard Dean’s recent remark about the G.O.P. being white and Christian. His words, which were received with such indignation, are more or less a statement of fact—and not even a new one. Everybody in politics knows that the Republican Party set out to win the anti-black South years ago and has done so. Racial antipathies in their less violent forms have been strengthened by the party’s alliance with Southern religion. White Southern Christianity has a history of supporting slavery, the black codes, discrimination and intolerance toward people of color stretching back 200 years. In the 1950’s and 60’s, when some northern and western Christian denominations remembered their abolitionist past and backed the civil-rights movement, the white churches of the South did not, and it is they who have supplied the moral dynamic of modern Republicanism.

Some African-Americans, including a few who have family members who were lynched, greeted the resolution with satisfaction. Others were less than bowled over by it. Under a headline reading “The crime you committed against us in May vastly outweighs your weak apology in June,” the Black Commentator, a valuable Web site, writes: “Why are some Black folks so happy to hear an apology from people who don’t mean it?

“There are nearly a million African Americans in prison … a gulag of monstrous proportions, clearly designed to perpetuate the social relations that began with slavery. We demand an end to those relations, not an insincere, risk-free ‘apology’ that sets not one prisoner free …. The vast bulk of us see the ‘apology’ for what it is—a scam, with no substantial benefits, and less good faith.”

The Black Commentator’s politics would try the patience of some white Democrats. Even so, you need not be a person of color to cogitate on the worthlessness of the apology.

After its admission that its failure to act allowed thousands of people to be hung, castrated, slashed, dragged, burned alive, shot, kicked and stoned to death, the Senate followed up with nothing. Is an easy one-minute announcement that we’re sorry enough?

These are the murders of thousands of people who have families living among us now. This is not an atrocity like the sack of Rome by Alaric in A.D. 410, something so far in the past that nothing can be done except pick up the remaining bits and pieces of evidence and put them in a museum. The genocidal mass murders of the Cathars or Albigensians in the 12th century committed by the Roman Catholic Church are dust. There is no one to bring to justice, no one to make restitution to, to pay compensation to. That is over, but our crimes are still fresh.

There is no statute of limitations on atrocity. Crimes only become ancient and beyond restitution when the wounds inflicted are no longer carried in living hearts. The massacres of Armenians by the Turks and the Turkish government occurred almost 100 years ago, but for many Armenians those things were done yesterday. The same is true for Native Americans.

We know the names of many—probably most—of the murdered people. We have the means to find their families and offer a substantial financial compensation. There is compensation for the Holocaust’s survivors and families. We have compensated the families whose relatives died in the World Trade Center, where fewer perished than have been lynched and where it was not Americans who committed the crime. That’s well and good, but then what do we owe the victims of crimes committed not only by American individuals, but by the government as well?

The Holocaust ended in 1945; lynching did not. Emmett Till was beaten to death in 1955; the same death was inflicted on Mack Charles Parker in 1959; Medgar Evers was assassinated in 1963. The Nazi Holocaust was conducted by the government of Germany while the people who knew better wouldn’t or couldn’t stop it. The American holocaust was conducted and/or protected by state governments, the U.S. Senate and the rest of the federal government while the people who knew better wouldn’t or couldn’t stop it.

The survivors and descendants of the lynched—which includes some Jews, some Italians, homosexuals, labor-union organizers and political dissidents—have paid socially, psychologically and financially for the violence done to their families. They are owed better than a piece of paper embossed with the Senate’s letterhead.

An Apology for Lynching Does Nothing for Victims