Occasionally I speak publicly about the racial disparities that afflict the prison-industrial complex. I often end my talks with an observation about how racial lynching once was accepted by white Americans because they assumed that the mostly black male victims were guilty.
African Americans had been so thoroughly demonized by the media of those days many whites considered lynching a public service. We marvel at our former acceptance of such racist injustice. But in the future we’ll look back on our current apartheid system of criminal justice and shake our heads in disbelief.
I thought about this when the Senate passed a voice vote apology for its inaction in the face of a documented 4,743 lynchings from 1882 to 1968. Most of those mob murders were of black men in the South.
During that period about 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress. Although three bills passed the House, the Senate, dominated by filibustering Dixiecrats, always said no.
On June 13, the Senate passed a non-binding resolution, sponsored by Senators Mary Landrieu (D‑La.) and George Allen, (R‑Va.), that apologized to the victims and survivors for its failure to act.
The measure “expresses the deepest sympathies and most solemn regrets of the Senate to the descendants of victims of lynching, the ancestors of whom were deprived of life, human dignity and the constitutional protections accorded all citizens of the United States.” The resolution also “remembers the history of lynching to ensure that these tragedies will be neither forgotten nor repeated.”
Both Landrieu and Allen requested a vote by official roll call. But Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R‑Tenn.) insisted on a voice vote, which allowed senators to avoid recording their position on the measure. Senators could add their names as co-sponsors, however, and 90 of 100 signed on.
Both senators from the state with the highest number of lynchings (Mississippi) were among those withholding their signatures, as well as senators from New Hampshire and Wyoming.
Expressing public regret for complicity in well-documented cases of domestic terrorism apparently was too risky for the 10 Republican senators who refused to sign as co-sponsors. Many of these same senators are among Congress’ fiercest opponents of Islamist terrorism.
While they refused to endorse an apology for abetting racist violence, several of the unsigned senators also were prominent in later forcing Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin to apologize for inviting comparisons between abusive treatment of suspected terrorists at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and the treatment accorded victims of Nazi camps and Soviet gulags.
Had Durbin sought a more cogent comparison between the United States and totalitarian gulags, he could have cited Pelican Bay State Prison in California and made the same point. The United States hosts 6 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its prisoners; this nation’s prison-industrial complex is the new gulag.
What’s more, the racist impulse that impelled white hate mobs to lynch black suspects is still recognizable in America’s apartheid gulags. Although black men are about 6 percent of the U.S. population they make up about half of the nation’s prisoners. Study after study has provided statistics that confirm how racial injustices corrupt and corrode the criminal justice system, yet denial persists.
Some of this denial is being camouflaged by a seeming readiness to atone for the anti-black violence of our nation’s racist past. In recent years, some of the most egregious crimes committed during the turbulent period of the civil rights struggle have been re-examined and in some cases, resolved.
Byron de la Beckwith was convicted in 1994 for the sniper murder of Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers; in 2002 Bobby Frank Cherry was convicted for killing four black girls in the infamous 1963 bombing of a church in Birmingham, Ala.
On June 21, a jury convicted Edgar Ray Killen of manslaughter in the 1964 murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Philadelphia, Miss., and the FBI exhumed the body of Emmett Till in hopes of finding clues to the brutal 1955 murder of the 14-year-old for reportedly whistling at a white woman in Money, Miss.
This new thrust for retroactive racial justice is also, I suspect, a muted reaction to African Americans’ increasing push for reparations. The logic of reparations – that historical wounds worsen unless repaired or redressed – is apparent in many of these contemporary efforts.
But even supportive senators seem oblivious to the connection between our past of anti-black brutality and the racial disparities of today’s criminal justice system. And although the resolution wanly concedes Senate complicity in mob murders, it does little to compensate victims of a racist terrorism that was culture-deep.