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Congress can help atone for our past by making lynching a federal crime

Visitors looking at markers bearing the names of

Visitors looking at markers bearing the names of lynching victims at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. in this April 28, 2018 photo. Credit: AP/Beth J. Harpaz

Since the Civil War, Americans have struggled to define what seems to be obvious: What is a lynching? It conjures visions of a mob pulling a man from a jail cell, hauling him to a tree and throwing a rope over a branch. But debates have centered on how many people must take part in such an extrajudicial killing for it to qualify as a lynching (the NAACP suggested in 1921 at least five).

And must the motive be racial? Was the hanging of a suspected white horse thief in the Wild West by ranch hands the same as a white Southern mob, amid taunts, jeers and spit, turning a black man accused of insulting a white woman into “strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees,” as Billie Holliday once sang?

Do the nuances really matter? It’s true that not all lynching victims were black, but blacks were overwhelmingly the targets (and many white victims of lynching had defended blacks or opposed lynching). We cannot sever that horrific practice from our disgraceful history of racism. Slavery was abominable, and to this day the nation is influenced by the riches — from New England shipowners to New York financiers to Southern farmers and brokers — and the evils of our original sin.

Lynching became slavery’s evil spawn, acts of indefensible extrajudicial brutality meant to scare former slaves and their descendants to hew to their constricted place in a white society. After slavery, these acts of terrorism — more than 4,700 documented cases from 1882 to 1968 — became the ultimate expression of racism and white supremacy.

Rather than being shamed, some whites celebrated racial lynching. Photographers sold pictures and postcards as souvenirs; to this day you can see white faces beam smiles into the camera as bloody bodies dangle gruesomely overhead. Some of the cards collected and posted on the “Without Sanctuary” site, part of a 1999 book and film project, are shocking in the banality of the notes to friends.

“Well John,” reads the back of one card sent to Dr. John W.F. Williams of Lafayette, Ky. “This is a token of a great day we had in Dallas, March 3, a negro was hung for an assault on a three year old girl. I saw this on my noon hour. I was very much in the bunch. You can see the negro hanging on a telephone pole.”

That photo was dated March 3, 1910 — two years after the post office supposedly banned lynching cards from the mails.

It is to this nation’s continuing embarrassment that Congress has, for generations, failed to make lynching a federal crime (Philip Dray documented the history in his “At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America”). It wouldn’t act more than a century ago when it might have made a difference, as local prosecutors looked the other way or local juries refused to indict or convict. And it won’t act today, even after the law’s necessity has faded and its value resides primarily in its symbolism.

The old argument against a federal anti-lynching law is that murder is a state crime and not the business of the federal government. States rights and all that. But that argument was fig leaf over the racism that propelled lynching, in which local and state prosecutions of the perpetrators were rare, convictions rarer still. The 14th Amendment guarantees equal protection of the laws, and when local communities in numbers small and large come together to use collective violence to repress African Americans, that is clearly a federal interest.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) has co-sponsored a fresh piece of legislation to classify a lynching as a deprivation of civil rights — essentially a federal anti-lynching law that she says would give the Justice Department a few more teeth in prosecuting attempted lynching and conspiracy. Yet as Times reporter Jaweed Kaleem wrote recently, the prognosis for its passage isn’t much better than the fate of its 200-plus predecessors.

Why is unclear. It could be that lynching has moved to an “out of sight, out of mind” status, even though three white supremacists lynched James Byrd Jr. only 20 years ago in East Texas by beating him then chaining him to a truck while he was still alive and dragging him three miles. All three perpetrators were convicted; one has been executed, a second is on death row and the third is serving a life sentence.

Those local authorities, unlike their predecessors elsewhere in the South, did their jobs. So, some question, why bother with a law now? Isn’t this just a symbolic gesture?

Yes, it is a symbolic gesture. But a necessary one. Lynching served as a powerfully intimidating symbol — “behave yourselves, lest you meet the same fate” — that resonates today. Racism in the workplace often surfaces as a noose left in a locker or on a desk. Three years ago two members of the University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity were expelled (inappropriately given the right to even hateful speech) and the chapter shut down after a video surfaced of members singing a song including the N-word, “You can hang ‘em from a tree / But he’ll never sign with me / There will never be a … SAE.” Just last year, nooses were left at the African American Museum in Washington, D.C.

The symbolic weight of that despicable act is heavy. The U.S. Senate did approve a resolution in 2005 apologizing to lynching victims and their descendants for failing to act in the past. It passed in a late-night voice vote; 11 senators opted not to co-sponsor it.

We cannot, of course, turn back the calendar and undo the sins of our forebears. But we also cannot ignore them, or their legacy.

In an era in which African Americans take to the streets to protest the killings of unarmed black men by police, when reported hate crimes are on the upswing, when the president uses dog-whistle racism to mobilize his hard-right political base, when minority neighborhoods are over-policed and when African Americans disproportionately are subject to death sentences, Congress standing up now and correcting this historical wrong by making lynching a federal crime would send a powerful symbol to the entire nation.

And not passing this measure would also send a message, one that would reflect poorly on Congress, and on the nation.