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Public Statements

Apologizing To Lynching Victims And Their Descendants

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Location: Washington, DC


APOLOGIZING TO LYNCHING VICTIMS AND THEIR DESCENDANTS -- (Senate - June 13, 2005)

The PRESIDING OFFICER. The clerk will report the resolution by title.

The bill clerk read as follows:

A resolution (S. Res. 39) apologizing to the victims of lynching and the descendants of those victims for the failure of the Senate to enact anti-lynching legislation.

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Ms. LANDRIEU. Mr. President, tonight this body will take an important and extraordinary step. The Senate will, belatedly but most sincerely, issue a formal apology to the victims of lynching and their families, some of whom are with us tonight in this Chamber, for its failure to pass antilynching legislation.

Without question, there have been other grave injustices committed in the noble exercise of establishing this great democracy. Some have already been acknowledged and addressed by this and previous Congresses, and our work continues. However, there may be no other injustice in American history for which the Senate so uniquely bears responsibility. In refusing to take up legislation passed by the House of Representatives on three separate occasions and requested by seven Presidents from William Henry Harrison to Harry Truman, the Senate engaged in a different kind of culpability.

Beginning in 1881, this tragic phenomenon of domestic terrorism was documented in large measure through the groundbreaking and heroic efforts of Ida B. Wells-Barnett and the independent newspapers and publications. From that year until 1964, 4,742 American citizens were lynched. These are the recorded numbers. Historians estimate the true number to be much higher.

An apology alone can never suffice to heal the harm that was done, and for many victims justice is out of reach. Yet I believe, and this resolution lays forth the principle, that a sincere and heartfelt apology is a necessary first step toward real healing.

It is important that the people of our country understand the true nature of this unprecedented rampage of terror. Many Americans have images from popular books and movies, like ``To Kill a Mockingbird,'' that cloud their understanding of lynching. A group of angry White men take an accused and presumed guilty Black man deep into the woods and hang him. Those are the images, although accurate and tragic, but they delude us from the true nature of lynching in this dark period of American history.

The thought of a small, angry mob murdering Black prisoners in the dead of night ignores the reality of lynching in most respects. We are fortunate and grateful that a passionate and resolute independent scholar named James Allen saw something catalytic in the photographic evidence of lynching, and he began to collect these gruesome and horrific photographs. His work, ``Without Sanctuary,'' showed the real faces of lynching, and the images he unveiled began to change the way people viewed these tragic events and called to several of us in the Senate to issue this apology tonight. It is because of his work, this book, that the Committee for a Formal Apology and the families of the lynching victims--and some victims themselves who are here--are here today and that this important historic resolution is before the Senate.

I would like to show some of these photographs now. This is one of the hundreds--thousands of photographs of men, women, and children who were lynched in this Nation, lynching that occurred--a citizen of our Nation, lynched. As your eyes look at this picture, they are immediately drawn to the victim. These hangings were sometimes--in most instances--very brutal events. Sometimes the hanging itself came after hours of torture and just excruciating fear and humiliation.

After this book was published and these pictures came into more full view of the American public, what happens is your eyes leave the figure of the victim and move to the audience. This is part of the story that, in my mind, has not been completely told, and it needs to be told tonight and every day into the future.

As you can see, there are children gathered here. These are children looking up at this man hanging from a tree. History will record that some of these children were let out of Sunday schools to attend the lynchings. History will record that some businesses closed down so that the whole town could attend these lynchings. History will record that these lynchings did not occur mostly at night or in the back woods or across the levees--lynchings were a community event. In many instances, it was a form of public entertainment. It was mass violence, an open act of terrorism directed primarily against African Americans and others who sympathized with their cause.

If we are truly to understand the magnitude of this tragedy, we must study the stories behind this grim parade of death.

In March of 1892, three personal friends of Ida B. Wells opened the ``People's Grocery Company,'' a store located across the street from a White-owned grocery store that had previously been the only grocer in the area. Angered by the loss of business, a mob gathered to run the new grocers out of town. Forewarned about the attack on their store, the three owners armed themselves for protection, and in the riot that ensued, one of the businessmen injured a White man. All three were arrested and jailed. Days later, the mob kidnapped the men from jail and lynched them. This was the case that led Ida B. Wells to begin to speak out against this injustice.

Her great grandson is with us today. He has told this story through the halls of Congress to give testimony to her life and to her courage and to her historic efforts. Without the work of this extraordinarily brave journalist, this story never really could have been told in the way it is being told now, today, and talked about here on the Senate floor. To her, we owe a great deal of gratitude. She knew these men personally. She knew they were businessmen. They were not criminals. She knew they were successful salespeople, not common thugs. And she wrote and she spoke and she tried to gather pictures to tell a story to a nation that simply refused to believe.

Forty-two years and thousands of lynchings later is the case of Claude Neal of Marianna, FL. After 10 hours of torture, Claude Neal ``confessed'' to the murder of a girl with whom he was allegedly having an affair.

For his safety, he was transferred to an Alabama prison. A mob took him from there. They cut off his body parts. They sliced his side and stomach. People would randomly cut off a finger here, a toe there. From time to time, they would tie a noose around him, throw the rope over a tree limb. The mob would keep him there in that position until he almost died then lower him again to begin the torment all over.

After several hours, and I guess the crowd exhausted themselves, they just decided to kill him. His body was then dragged by car back to Marianna, and 7,000 people from 11 States were there to see his body in the courthouse of the town square. Pictures were taken and sold for 50 cents a piece.

One might ask, how do we know all the grizzly details of Claude Neal's death? It is very simple. The newspapers in Florida had given advance notice. They recorded it one horrible moment after another. One of the members of the lynch mob proudly relayed all the details that reporters had missed in person. Yet, even with the public notice, 7,000 people in attendance, and people bragging about the activity, Federal authorities were impotent to stop this murder. State authorities seemed to condone it, and the Senate of the United States refused to act.

Time went on. In 1955, just 9 years before Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, the world witnessed the brutal lynching of Emmett Till. Fourteen years old, Emmett Till was excited about his trip from his home on Chicago's southside to the Mississippi Delta. Like many children during the summer, he was looking forward to visiting his relatives. Prior to his departure, his mother, Maimie Till Bradley, a teacher, had done her very best to advise him about how to behave while in Mississippi. With his mother's warning and wearing the ring that had belonged to his deceased father, on August 20, 1955, Till set off with his cousin, Curtis Jones, on a train to Mississippi.

Once there, he and some friends went to buy some candy at the general store. According to his accusers, this young 14-year-old whistled at a store clerk as he left. She happened to be a white woman.

Armed with pistols, the mob took Emmett from his uncle's home. His uncle is with us tonight. They took him in the middle of the night. Three days later his little body was discovered in the Tallahatchie River, weighed down by a 75-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. His face was so mutilated when Wright identified the body he could only do so based on the ring that he had been wearing.

Coincidentally, through no asking of our own, but I guess it is appropriate, the trial of his accused murderer, Edgar Ray Killen, begins today in Mississippi.

While the details that led to the lynching are not always clear from just these few that I have described, there is little doubt what took place at the lynchings themselves. In most instances, prelynching newspaper notices, school closings to allow children to view the spectacle, special order trains to carry people to the event, are all part of a gruesome but true part of America's history.

Jazz legend Billy Holiday provided real texture in her story and song ``Strange Fruit.'' She defied her own record label and produced and published the song on her own, was threatened with her life because she continued to sing it. But like so many things, words can't always describe what is happening, even though speeches were given, words were written, newspapers were published.

The words to the song are as follows:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and a bitter crop.

Something in the way she sang this song, something in the pictures that described the event, must have touched the heart of Americans because they began to mobilize, and men and women, White and Black, people from different backgrounds, came to stand up and begin to speak. They spoke with loud voices and with moving speeches and with great marches.

But the Senate of the United States, one of the most noble experiments in democracy, continued to pretend, to act like this was not happening in America and continued to fail to act.

It would be a mistake to look at this ugly chapter in our democracy's development with pity and hopelessness, however. The truth is, today's apology should be seen as a tribute to the endurance and the triumph of African-American families.

There is a particular family here, the Crawford family. I think there are over 150 of them. Earlier today I talked with some of the leaders of the family. I said: What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. They nodded because that is exactly what happened to this family. The town tried to kill this family, to run them out, and, in fact, ran them out of the town, but this family just grew stronger, and with their love and lack of bitterness, but with a determination to find justice some way, they are here today. In fact, it was the progress of African Americans that spurred this terrible reaction to them in the first place.

As I stated earlier, the early lynchings were not of criminals. The early lynchings were of successful farmers, of successful businessmen, leaders in their communities because these lynchings were an act of terrorism to make American citizens feel they had no voice and no place.

W.E.B. Dubois summarized the motivation behind these slayings perfectly when he said:

..... [T]he South feared more than Negro dishonesty, ignorance and incompetency, Negro honesty, knowledge, and efficiency.

With slavery abolished by the Civil War, a group of Americans had to mentally justify as inferior and subhuman those who suddenly were equals and competitors. Having lost the war throughout the South, watching the progress of former slaves was simply too much in that region and in other regions throughout the country, as well.

As a senior Senator from the State of Louisiana, I feel compelled to spend just a few moments, before I acknowledge my friend and cosponsor in the Senate, Senator GEORGE ALLEN, who has brought this resolution to the attention of our Senate colleagues.

Louisiana has a distinct history from much of the United States due to its long colonial ties with both France and Spain. One consequence of this history is that Louisiana had more free people of color than any other Southern State. Nearly 20,000 Louisianians who were largely concentrated in New Orleans formed a large and very prosperous African-American community in the 1860s. They enjoyed more rights than most free men of color. A large percentage spoke only French and educated their children in Europe. The community, the records show, owned more than $2 million worth of property, which was quite a large sum in those days, and dominated skilled labor areas such as masonry, carpentry, cigar making, and shoemaking.

That is why Louisiana's prominent role in lynchings is so bitter. It mars a long history of tolerance and integration that to this day distinguishes Louisiana from other places in the South.

Still the difficult fact remains that only three States have had a higher incidence than Louisiana of these occurrences. The NAACP, which was founded over the issue of lynchings, recorded 391 such murders in my State.

I ask unanimous consent that a list of all the Louisiana victims compiled by Professor Michael Pfeifer, author of ``Rough Justice, Lynching and American Society,'' be printed in the RECORD.

There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the RECORD, as follows:

List of Louisiana Victims

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Ms. LANDRIEU. It is also true that members of the Senate delegation from Louisiana participated in the actions that led us to not act.

However, I am very proud to stand here with my colleague from Virginia and to note that the other Senator from Louisiana, a Republican, stands with me. We are united in our support of this resolution to offer the sincere apology to try to bring to light the facts about lynching, to encourage people to seek the truth.

I said earlier today people are entitled to their own opinions. But they are not entitled to their own facts. And the facts about this terrible domestic terrorism and rash of terrorism stand today and will not be pushed aside. It is with humility but with pride that I support and put forth before the Senate today, with the Senator from Virginia, this resolution.

The junior Senator from Louisiana is an original cosponsor of this resolution, as are a number of sons of the South. Furthermore, in Louisiana's legislature in Baton Rouge, a very similar resolution passed today. Thus, the people of Louisiana can truly say we are trying to open a dialogue, and bring closure to a bitter history.

This is a particularly important step for the South. For while lynchings occurred in 46 of the 50 States, and people of all races were affected, it would be a mischaracterization to suggest that this was not a weapon of terror most often employed in the South, and most often against African Americans. That is why I am so glad to be joined in this endeavor by the junior Senator from Virginia, Mr. Allen. He has been instrumental in getting us to this point of consideration, and I truly appreciate his hard work and dedication to our joint effort.

It is also important to acknowledge the bravery of those who took personal risks long before this day in opposition to lynching. First and foremost, we must acknowledge the pioneering journalism of Ida B. Wells. Though personally threatened with death, Ms. Wells continued to document these outrages before justice, so that future generations might know the history of this era. It should be noted that it was her example that led other women, such as Jane Adams, to join in her fight against lynching. In fact, women, generally, are viewed as having played a major role in the antilynching campaign.

There was tremendous political courage shown in Georgia. Georgia was the first State to adopt antilynching legislation in 1893. Yet, the State continued to experience a disproportionate share of lynching attacks. However, starting with Governor Northen in 1890, several of Georgia's Governors fought lynch violence in their State resolutely. In many cases it came at personal cost. Gov. William Atkinson, having left the Governor's mansion, personally challenged a lynch mob of 2,000 people in his home town. It is a record of political leadership upon which Georgia can now proudly reflect.

Another great voice in the antilynching crusade was Congressman George White of Tarboro, NC. He was the last former slave to serve in Congress--ending his congressional career in 1901. He introduced an anti-lynching bill to stem the rising tide of violence, with 107 attacks having occurred in 1899. While his bill was defeated in the House of Representatives, he initiated one of its first political considerations.

Finally, we cannot ignore the Senate's own passionate voices to end the practice of lynching. Senator Champ Clark of Missouri famously posted photos of a recent Mississippi lynching in the Democratic cloakroom with the caption: There have been no arrests, no indictments, and no convictions of any one of the lynchers. This is not a rape case. Regrettably, those photos and his convictions could not bring these terrible events to a close. We also salute the efforts of Senators Robert Wagner of New York and Edward Costigan of Colorado. The Wagner-Costigan bill was yet another noble effort to inject Federal resources into combating lynching. While it was again filibustered, it was another noble effort that demonstrated that people of good will remained the majority.

Because of the courage of these and other individuals, by the 1930s public opinion had turned against lynching. In 1938, a national survey showed that 70 percent of Americans supported the enactment of an antilynching statute. Even in the South, at least 65 percent of these surveyed favored its passage. In short, even if southern Senators had the political latitude to endorse Federal antilynching legislation, most seemed to be too mired in personal prejudice to accept that fact. Where these southern Senators were concerned, justice was mostly deaf, but never color blind.

In closing, I would like to acknowledge several members of my staff: Jason Matthews, Kathleen Strottman, Nash Molphus, Sally Richardson, and many others, who have helped, along with others, put this resolution before the Senate today.

I want to end with one of the most moving comments that I read in the book ``Without Sanctuary,'' as I have read excerpts from publications and magazines and newspapers about this situation, and have been reading them now for months on this issue. It is taken from McClure's Magazine, in 1905, by Ray Stannard Baker, who wrote about one of the lynchings--I think it was of a Mr. Curtis. I will submit that for the RECORD. He says:

So the mob came finally, and cracked the door of the jail with a railroad rail. The jail is said to be the strongest in Ohio, and having seen it, I can well believe the report is true. But steel bars have never yet kept out a mob; it takes something much stronger: human courage backed up by the consciousness of being right.

Mr. President, the Senate was wrong not to act. It was wrong to not stand in the way of the mob. We lacked courage then. We perhaps do not have all the courage we need today to do everything we should do, but I know we can apologize today. We can be sincere in our apology to the families, to their loved ones, and perhaps now we can set some of these victims and their families free and, most of all, set our country free to be better than it is today. However great it is, we can most certainly improve.

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Ms. LANDRIEU. Mr. President, I will be happy to yield to the Senator from Massachusetts in just a moment. He has been very patient. As a cosponsor of the resolution that just passed, it is a privilege and it is appropriate for Senator Kerry to be one of the first Senators to speak upon its passage.

I wish to just mention very briefly, because I am not sure he is going to be able to stay with us much longer, Mr. James Cameron has been with us all day. Mr. Cameron is 91 years old. He lives in Marion, IN. In 1930, when he was 16 years old, a mob dragged him from a cell at Grant County Jail and put a rope around his neck. He was accused of a murder and a rape. He was nowhere around when it occurred. His associates, Abe Smith and Thomas Schipp, were both lynched that night. A man in the crowd spared him by proclaiming that he, in fact, was innocent and should be let go. He then went on to live an extraordinary life without bitterness, with a lot of love. He has been married for 67 years, has 4 children and multiple grandchildren. Senator Evan Bayh, who serves in this body--when he was Governor of Indiana, he pardoned Mr. Cameron. But he is really the one who has forgiven us for what was done against him.

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Ms. LANDRIEU. Mr. President, I am here tonight on behalf of my colleague from Virginia, Senator Allen, and all of our colleagues who participated in the debate to close out this evening on this very important and historic resolution, S. Res. 39, which has apologized formally, officially, and with great sincerity to the thousands of victims of lynching and to their descendants. It was, as was stated most eloquently and passionately on this floor, a very dark chapter, indeed, in American history, but a real mark against this Senate that, despite the repeated pleas of the victims and their families, thousands of Americans, the House of Representatives, and seven Presidents, of both parties, the Senate failed to act.

Tonight the Senate has admitted its mistake and has taken a very positive step in admitting failure so that we can have a brighter future. I know that many of these victims and their families--``survivors'' is really a better word--have triumphed against this evil. Many were African Americans, but they were people of all different races and religious backgrounds. Many of them were here tonight and have been with us all day today.

I know their names are part of the record, but again they were James Cameron, 91 years old, a victim of lynching who miraculously survived to tell his story; Doria Johnson, the great-granddaughter of Anthony Crawford--Grandpa Crawford, as he has been called--from Abbeville, SC--what a story that family has to tell. Dan Distel, the great-grandson of Ida Wells. What a brave and historic journalist she was. In the face of literally constant threats to her life, she continued to write. What a role model for journalists everywhere of the courage of what it really takes to tell a story. And she did it.

We had many other family members and history professors with us today. There was a tremendous effort that enabled us to get to the floor tonight. As I wrap up, I want to again thank the staff. I thank my staff, including Jason Matthews, my deputy chief of staff; Kathleen Strottman, legislative director; Nash Molpus, who is with me on the floor. Our staff has been very helpful. Senator Allen's staff has also been remarkable and so many have contributed to this effort.

I had many quotes to choose from, Mr. President, to end tonight. Really, there were hundreds of them that would be appropriate. But one was especially appropriate, for the close of this debate because, while it ends one chapter, it begins many new chapters in the history of our Nation. The woman I will quote from is one I have admired my whole life. I have read much about her and have been taught a lot about her. I will read this quote from this particular woman because it took guts to say what she did, at a time when people in America didn't want to hear it. This came at a time when people didn't want to hear what women had to say, generally, about any subject, let alone the subject of injustice and intolerance not only in our Nation but the world.

The woman I will quote is Eleanor Roosevelt, who actually led a group of descendants into this Chamber in 1938 to urge the Senate, hopefully by their presence, to act--men and women who came with their own being, their own bodies to try to tell the Senate what you are reading about isn't true; these are innocent people. Eleanor Roosevelt escorted them to this Chamber and, of course, through all of their mighty efforts, actions were not taken, but not through any fault of hers. What I want to quote is what she wrote about universal human rights. I read this as a young legislator. Of course, we read lots of things, and some things stick and some don't. This particular quote is seared into my heart. I try to remember it every chance I get. I read it often, and I would like to read it tonight because it is very relevant to the debate that we have had. She wrote:

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home--so close and so small they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person, the neighborhood he lives in, the school or college he attends, the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close at home, we shall look for them in vain in the larger world.

We have heard stories today--hundreds of stories about these small places close to home--trees in a public square, river banks, levees, streets, alleys, open fields, behind school buildings, and in front of stores. This is where people want to experience dignity and justice. Some of these towns are so little they may still not be on any map of the United States. Maybe in some of these towns--because of what happened in the past--there are very few people who live there. And some of these places are quite large, where you can find them on the map. I think it is instructive for the Senate, as we make this sincere apology tonight, that we really take a breath and be very introspective to think about where these small places are in America, where these places of any size are in America, and recommit ourselves to be honest about our failings and our shortcomings, to be honest about the fact that we are not always as courageous as we should be.

But when we come to a point where we know we made the wrong decision, we didn't act in the best interests of our country or the American citizens who look to us for their protection and their support, we should at least be able to sincerely say we are sorry. That is what we did tonight. I thank Eleanor Roosevelt. I am forever grateful for her great leadership for the country and for thousands of Americans, people of all races, who advocated for justice and freedom at great expense to their own life--which is not what most of us experience today, gratefully--with great expense to their reputation, their livelihood. She was really not understood or appreciated in the world in which she lived.

There were many children in the Senate today, these children and great, great, great-grandchildren. Some of the victims and some of the journalists who have written about this in the past were here. Let's make sure they know the truth and they know that tonight we apologize.

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