By Hasan Kwame Jeffries, The Ohio State University
After the Negro Silent Protest Parade, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) focused on the present and attempted to take advantage of the publicity generated to pressure the federal government into ending racial terrorism. Four days after the march, eleven members of the Negro Silent Protest Parade Organizing Committee traveled to the nation’s capital “to present a petition for redress of grievances” to President Woodrow Wilson and Congress.
Make Lynching and Mob Violence a National Crime
The petitioners explained the need for immediate federal intervention. As redress, they asked that, “lynching and mob violence be made a national crime punishable by the laws of the United States, and that this be done by federal enactment, or if necessary, by constitutional amendment. We believe that there can be found in recent legislation abundant precedent for action of this sort, and whether this be true or not, no nation that seeks to fight the battles of civilization can afford to march in blood-smeared garments.”
The delegation hoped to have an audience with Woodrow Wilson, but the president’s private secretary, J. P. Tumulty, turned them away. It is doubtful that Wilson, an avowed white supremacist, would have met with the group under any circumstances. Congress was equally unreceptive.
The refusal of federal officials to receive the NAACP delegation did not keep the leaders of the organization from continuing their drive to end racial terrorism. To dispel the myth that most victims of lynch mobs had attacked white women, the NAACP published Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889–1918.
The NAACP also worked hard to get federal anti-lynching legislation passed backing the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, which would have made lynching a federal crime. Four-term Missouri congressman Leonidas Dyer, a white, reform-oriented politician, introduced the measure in 1918. Outraged by the horrors committed in East St. Louis the year before, Congressman Dyer sought to empower the Justice Department to prosecute those responsible for such depravity. Dyer also included in the bill provisions to hold local and state officials criminally accountable for refusing to bring perpetrators to justice.
From 1920 to 1922, James Weldon Johnson, in his new capacity as Executive Secretary of the NAACP, led the organization’s lobbying campaign to secure the votes needed to pass the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill.
The Southern Democrats
In January 1922, cautious Republicans finally brought the bill to the House floor for debate. As expected, they met fierce opposition from Southern Democrats, who wanted to protect, not prosecute, whites who murdered African Americans.
Hatton Sumners of Texas led the charge. He chaired the Judiciary Committee for 16 years after Democrats regained control of the Lower Chamber in 1921. Sumners argued that the South could handle its own affairs, and accused Dyer and his Northern Republican colleagues of committing legislative ‘mob violence’ by assaulting the Constitution.
Other opponents of the measure called out the NAACP specifically, disparaging its leaders as ‘race agitators’. Despite the bitter hostility from the minority party, the bill passed the House, to the delight and relief of the NAACP. But in the Senate, the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill met a different fate.
This article comes directly from content in the video series African American History: From Emancipation through Jim Crow. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Constitutional Smoke and Mirrors
Republicans controlled the upper chamber of Congress, but they were, at best, ambivalent about the Dyer bill. Despite ample evidence that local authorities would not uphold the law when it came to lynching, Republicans insisted that the issue was best resolved locally. It was a matter of federalism, they said. But their argument was weak. They were playing a game of constitutional smoke and mirrors to avoid appearing to favor equal rights under the law for African Americans, a position that would alienate white voters not just in the South, but in the North, too. White attitudes in East St. Louis were not too different from those in Waco and Memphis.
At the same time, the Senate’s Southern Democrats, like those in the House, aggressively opposed the bill. But they had something their colleagues in the House didn’t: They had the filibuster, a parliamentary cudgel that they wielded to block bills that threatened to undermine Jim Crow. In this instance, the mere threat of tying up Senate business by endlessly speaking on the Senate floor when the bill came up for debate was enough to get Republicans to table the measure that year.
James Weldon Johnson
In a private letter to W. E. B. Du Bois, Johnson made clear the political calculations that had betrayed them. He wrote, “I should not say ‘The Republicans did not intend to pass the Dyer Bill.’ I think they would have been glad to pass it and they had more than enough votes to do so. The fact is, they were not willing to put up the fight necessary to overcome the Democratic opposition.
Johnson continued: “I do not believe the majority of the men on the Republican side hate and despise us. If they do, there are no words left for the sentiments of the majority of men on the Democratic side. The Republicans are disinterested. They want to keep the Negro in the Republican Party, but his insistence upon recognition embarrasses them. I think ‘wished to ignore us,’ expresses more exactly the attitude.”
Johnson ended his letter by concluding, “‘Cowardice and Politicians’ were the main characteristics of the Republicans.”
Southern White Opposition and Northern White Indifference
Representative Dyer reintroduced his bill the following year, during the 68th Congress. And he did so again during the Congress after that. Indeed, Dyer put his measure before his colleagues throughout the 1920s. But despite Republicans controlling both houses of Congress, the bill languished, a victim of Southern white opposition and Northern white indifference.
African Americans followed the NAACP’s campaign to end racial terrorism very closely. They monitored progress of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill in the pages of the Crisis magazine, hoping Republicans would stand firm and Southern Democrats would relent, but knowing they wouldn’t. They scrutinized reports of lynchings and racial pogroms in Black newspapers, praying for justice, but knowing there would be none. The harsh reality was that victories against those who supported white supremacy, either explicitly or implicitly, were few and far between, a realization that was dispiriting.
Common Questions about the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill
The delegation hoped to have an audience with Woodrow Wilson, but the president’s private secretary, J. P. Tumulty, turned them away.
Leonidas Dyer included provisions to hold local and state officials criminally accountable for refusing to bring perpetrators to justice.
Despite Republicans controlling both houses of Congress, the bill languished, a victim of Southern white opposition and Northern white indifference.