THE ANTILYNCHING BILL
The New Deal and Civil Rights
The New Deal marked the beginning of a shift in the federal government's recognition of civil rights as an emerging national problem, but it was not until 1940 that this concern was actually translated into action. Even then the government's role was seen as having more to do with combating discriminatory employment and housing practices than with the promotion of equality and basic civil rights. Discrimination against persons of color remained deeply rooted in American life in the 1930s and was generally acceptable to a majority of the population. There were limits, however, to prejudice and discrimination in the law. In 1931 the Supreme Court in the case of Aldridge v. United States protected the right of a defendant in a criminal trial to question prospective jurors regarding their racial views. In 1932 the Court in Nixon v, Condon struck down a law in Texas allowing political parties to establish race-based qualifications for voters in primaries. In that manner many black voters were excluded from exercising their right to vote. Nonetheless, progress in civil rights was undramatic, was still forth-coming, and set the stage for an era of far greater consequence. The campaign for a federal antilynching law, though failing to achieve its objective, would contribute significantly to that advance.
The First Wagner-Costigan Antilynching Bill
Previous attempts to introduce antilynching legislation at the federal level had met with no success. In 1902 Rep. George White of North Carolina, the most recent black man to have been elected to Congress from a southern state, had struggled for the passage of such a bill. In 1921, even with the support he received from the Commission On Interracial Cooperation and the Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, Congressman Leonidas Dyer was unable to overcome opposition to a lynch law in the Senate. It fell, finally, to the NAACP to take up the cause, and that it did with a strategy designed to mobilize support through a program of public education.
Introduction and Opposition
In 1934 the NAACP, under the leadership of its national secretary Walter White, launched its campaign to obtain passage of an antilynching bill introduced by Senators Edward P. Costigan of Colorado and Robert Wagner of New York. Like those that preceded it, the Wagner-Costigan bill placed responsibility for its enforcement with local authorities. Sheriffs who failed to take appropriate action to protect prisoners in their custody could be penalized under the act. Provision was also made to compensate the families of those who had been victimized by mob action. White believed that the president's support would be critical and was able to secure a promise from President Franklin D. Roosevelt that he would confer with the bill's sponsors and encourage the congressional leadership to move for an early vote. A filibuster was immediately organized to resist the bill's passage in the Senate. Opponents of the legislation continued to protest the bill until pressure to get on with other pending matters became so great as to force an agreement among the bill's sponsors and opponents to postpone any further consideration of it on the Senate floor.
The Killing of Claude Neal
In October 1934 a young white woman was found murdered in the Florida pan-handle. Among those who were first suspected was Claude Neal, a black employee of the victim's father. Neal was soon found and arrested by authorities in a neighboring state. Before he could be taken to a place of greater safety, however, a mob arrived, forcibly removed him from the jail, and returned him to Jackson County, Florida. The following day, the mob holding Neal sent out invitations to his lynching. Local newspapers and a radio station, announcing that a "Negro" would be "mutilated and set afire," provided details concerning the place and time of the anticipated event. That afternoon, quite unexpectedly, news of the scheduled lynching was picked up and distributed nationally by the Associated Press. The response of the NAACP and many other concerned people to this news moved Florida governor David Sholtz to offer the Jackson County sheriff the assistance of the state's national guard. The offer was refused. The mob forced Neal to eat his penis, stabbed him with a knife repeatedly in his sides and stomach, and cut off several of his fingers and toes. After suffering such torture for almost two hours, Neal died before the hundreds of people who had gathered in a carnival-like atmosphere could see him lynched. Disappointed and enraged, the crowd—including many families—resumed the mutilation of the body before burning and hanging it from a nearby tree.
The Second Wagner-Costigan Bill: The New Deal Backs Down
Neal's death was widely reported in the national press and provoked a strong reaction. The NAACP moved quickly to mobilize public opinion to pressure the administration and Congress into taking action. Senators Costigan and Wagner reintroduced their bill, and pledges of support were obtained from nine state governors, fifty-eight churchmen, and fifty-four university and college presidents. A memorial art exhibit was assembled and sent out on tour to generate further publicity. The Senate Judiciary Committee recommended passage. Forty-three senators and 123 congressmen declared their support for the bill. Elsewhere, however, progress was not quite as dramatic or as promising.
Under Walter White the NAACP had pressured the president and his attorney general to make public their support for the bill, but to no avail. Homer Cummings, the attorney general, was stubbornly resistant to any direct federal involvement in the investigation of Neal's death. White had called upon him to pursue Neal's abductors and torturers under the Kidnapping Act, popularly known as the "Lindbergh Law." Cummings declined to do so, steadfastly holding to an interpretation of the act that required a demand for ransom be made before the provisions of the law could be invoked. The mob had made no such demand with respect to Neal. The affair, therefore, remained a matter of legal concern solely to the state of Florida. Never expressed were the attorney general's fears of what federal intervention could do to the congressional support he required for the passage of a comprehensive federal crime package. The president shared those concerns. Like his attorney general, he was not willing to risk losing what progress he was making in forging a new relationship between the states and the federal government. The results of the congressional elections in 1934 convinced him that the majority of the voters favored increased social and economic reforms. Worried that the coalition he had formed in support of his New Deal program would prove too fragile to survive a confrontation over what seemed a less vital and essentially racial issue, he refused to use his influence on behalf of the bill.
Opposed to the bill were several senators, mostly representing the southern states, who were growing increasingly sensitive to the erosion of what they believed were the rights of the individual states to exercise authority expressly reserved to them by the Constitution. Concerns regarding federal encroachment were particularly intense when joined with fears that such legislation would cause an upheaval of the South's racial caste system. South Carolina senator Ellison "Cotton Ed" Smith acted swiftly to organize a filibuster to kill the proposal. Josiah Bailey of North Carolina took the Senate floor to warn his colleagues that "this is a cause worth dying for. It is a battle worth fighting if it takes until Congress begins its next session in January 1936.… Well speak day and night if necessary." Costigan's response was equally swift but still conciliatory: this was not, he proclaimed, a bill aimed specifically at the South. California governor James Rolph's praise for the deadly work of a mob in his state had been met, the senator said, with a wave of antilynching sentiment. The time for action was obviously at hand. Unmoved, the southerners refused to relinquish their control of the Senate floor. By the end of the filibuster's seventh week, feeling in the Senate against any further delay in taking up other, pending legislation began to weigh heavily against the bill's sponsors. Unable to bring the debate to an end and anxious to consider a relief bill that could add an additional half million people to the rolls of the Works Progress Administration, those in favor and those opposed to the bill eventually agreed to shelve it indefinitely. Not until 1937, and for the final time, would a more strongly worded antilynching bill be introduced in the Senate. It, too, would meet defeat in the face of an unyielding filibuster.
Robert S. McElvaine, The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941 (New York: Times Books, 1984);
James R. McGovern, Anatomy of a Lynching: The Killing of Claude Neal (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982);
Newsweek (4 May 1935): 10;
Newsweek (21 January 1938): 13-14.