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Public Statements

Apologizing To Lynching Victims And Their Descendants

Location: Washington, DC



Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, I join my colleagues in condemning the shameful role of lynching in the Nation's history and the decades of refusal by the Nation, especially the United States Senate, to act against it. I commend my colleagues Senator Landrieu of Louisiana and Senator Allen of Virginia for bringing this important issue before the Senate floor and taking this long overdue action. And I thank the family members of the victims of lynching, many of whom traveled great distances to be here today.

The history of lynching is a stain on the Nation's past. Over 4,700 persons were lynched in the United States from the 1880s to the 1960s.

These lynchings involved acts of unspeakable cruelty. Many victims were shot, burned or hanged. Some of the victims were accused of criminal offenses, while others were attacked because of something they said or because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The vast majority of victims were African Americans who were killed solely because of their race. In the year 1892 alone, 230 persons were lynched--at least one victim every other day. We must never forget that injustice. Many whites also fell victim to this brutality, singled out for their religion or ethnicity, their refusal to accept the racial hierarchy, or other reasons.

Lynching was devastating to African American communities. It struck fear into the hearts and minds of African Americans, who knew they could be killed at any time for the most trivial of offenses or for no offense at all.

Year after year, the Federal Government and State and local governments failed to respond effectively to the danger. The perpetrators had little reason to fear that they would be prosecuted or convicted. In some cases, scheduled lynchings were announced in newspapers beforehand, demonstrating the unwillingness of local law enforcement to intervene. Photos of lynchings show onlookers grinning at the camera. The failure of local authorities to prevent these atrocities dehumanized, demoralized, and terrorized black Americans.

When the 370,000 African-American soldiers who served in World War I returned home, many believed that they had earned the equality they had previously been denied. Their hopes soon turned to frustration, as the discrimination of the pre-war years was renewed and reinvigorated. Even newly discharged soldiers were lynched, still wearing their uniforms.

Lynching was more than isolated acts of brutality. It was vigilante mob murder that became systemic, ritualized and condoned by a racist society. It became a cruel weapon of white supremacy which took the lives of many African Americans and terrorized whole communities. Along with Jim Crow laws, segregated schools and dismal lack of property rights, lynching was used as an organized weapon of oppression that denied the fundamental rights of tens of millions of African Americans. As W.E.B. DuBois stated, the things that ``the white South feared more than Negro dishonesty, ignorance and incompetency, [were] Negro honesty, knowledge, and efficiency.'' Lynching was part of an organized attempt to oppress African-American communities and exclude them from the American dream.

In 1900, African-American Congressman George White introduced the first antilynching bill, only to see it die in committee. Brave men and women like Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, and others in the NAACP, lobbied tirelessly for Federal antilynching legislation in the first half of the twentieth century. Their efforts succeeded in the House of Representatives, which passed such legislation three times between 1922 and 1940. Each time, however, the legislation died in the Senate.

In 1945, President Truman proposed a new antilynching bill, to make lynching a crime under Federal law. His proposal never made it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

We cannot undo the Senate's past failures to act against lynching. But we can and must do all we can to erase its bitter legacy.

Today, there is strong need to strengthen laws against hate crimes and other violence motivated by bigotry. As the Supreme Court has stated, bias-motivated violence is ``more likely to provoke retaliatory crimes, inflict distinct emotional harms on their victims, and incite community unrest.'' Like acts of terrorism, hate crimes have an impact far greater than the impact suffered by individual victims; they are crimes against entire communities and against the whole Nation. Whether based on prejudice against the victim's race, religion, ethnic background, gender, disability, or sexual orientation, hate crimes are modern-day lynchings which threaten not just individuals, but our entire social and political order.

My colleague, Senator Smith and I have introduced bipartisan legislation to strengthen our laws against hate crimes, and I urge all of our colleagues to support it. That bill passed the Senate last year and died in the House. We will not give up until it becomes law.

As each of us knows, the past has consequences for the present, and past acts of lynching over many decades contributed substantially to the disparities between African American and Whites. We cannot undo that history, but if we are sincere in our apology today, we must match our words with deeds and work harder together to close the gaps.

At the beginning of this year, members of the Congressional Black Caucus put forward a plan for doing so, and we should work to implement it as one of the most important issues before us in this Congress.

We need to do more to ensure the job security of African Americans, whose unemployment rate is 10.1 percent--almost double the national average and more than double the unemployment rate of Whites.

Thirty-four percent of African American children live in poverty, nearly double the national average. We know that education is the key to opportunity and a better life, and we should be doing more to improve education at every level. We need to do more to help the youngest children in American--and the earlier, the better. Head Start has a 30-year track record of achievement in preparing children for kindergarten. It makes an enormous difference for 300,000 young African American children.

We must meet our promise of fully funding the No Child Left Behind Act. The President's proposed budget shortchanges elementary education under the Act by $12 billion--for a total deficit of $39 billion since the school reform law was first enacted. The No Child Left Behind Act is already leaving 3 million children behind.

In fact, the President's proposed budget contains the first absolute reduction for education in a decade. It has a cumulative cut of $40 billion for education over the next 5 years. One out of every three programs eliminated by the President is a program in the Department of Education.

We should also be doing more to fund opportunities for college. We know that African Americans are only half as likely as Whites to earn a college degree. The current annual unmet need of a typical undergraduate now averages $5,800. It is more important than ever to increase grant aid. Yet the Bush administration has proposed only a $500 increase in the maximum Pell grant this year.

The budget also reduces a number of important programs to help African Americans, while preserving tax cuts for the rich and powerful. It proposes a 5-year freeze on child care funding, which will reduce the number of low-income children receiving this assistance by 300,000 in 2009. The budget also cuts $10 billion over 5 years from Medicaid, the program that provides basic health care for the poor.

As we review our legislative priorities, we cannot forget that we have a special duty to address the malignant disparities created by long-standing racial bigotry in this country--of which lynching was the most vicious example but far from the only example.

It's fitting that we enact this apology today, the first day of the long overdue trial for the brutal lynching of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in 1964. Those murders, 41 years ago this month, took the lives of three young men whose only offense was attempting to register African Americans to vote in Mississippi, and it shows how deeply rooted racial violence once was in American life. All of us hope that the prosecution now taking place in that case, like the Senate apology today, can begin to heal these bitter wounds of injustice that the nation still feels because of the sordid legacy of lynching.

I look forward to working with my colleagues to achieve the great goal of genuine equal opportunity for all our citizens. May the passage of this resolution mark a new beginning of race relations in America.


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