Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill
The Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, introduced by Representative Leonidas C. Dyer, a Republican from Saint Louis, Missouri, in the US House of Representatives in 1918, was directed at punishing lynchings and mob violence.
Lynchings were committed mostly by whites against blacks (88% of victims were black) in the South (59% of lynchings.) They first peaked in the years immediately following the Civil War, falling off sharply with the dissolution of the first Ku Klux Klan. They reached a second peak in the 1890s and continued at relatively high levels for two decades, in what is often called the nadir of American race relations, a period marked by disfranchisement of blacks and Jim Crow in the South, and discrimination against African Americans across the country.
In 1917, white ethnic mobs had attacked blacks in Saint Louis and East St. Louis race riots over competition for work and punishment for strikebreakers. Representing a majority African-American district, Dyer was outraged by the violence and disregard for law in such riots. Social changes resulting from a rapid rise in European immigration and the internal Great Migration of blacks from the South to major northern and mid-western cities contributed to violent confrontations, especially in the postwar summer of 1919.
Dyer was also concerned about the continued high rate of lynchings in the South and the failure of local and state authorities to prosecute them. The lynchings were Southern whites' extrajudicial efforts to maintain social control and white supremacy, after gaining disfranchisement of most blacks through discriminatory voter registration and electoral rules, and imposing segregation, and Jim Crow laws on the black population in the late 19th and early 20th century. Maintaining white supremacy in economic affairs played a part as well.
Republican President Warren G. Harding announced his support for Dyer's bill during a speaking engagement in Birmingham, Alabama. Although the bill was quickly passed by a large majority in the House of Representatives, it was prevented from coming to a vote in 1922, in 1923 and once more in 1924 in the Senate, due to filibusters by the white Southern Democratic block. The Democrats exerted one-party rule into the 1960s throughout most of the South.
The bill classified lynching as a federal felony, which would have allowed the United States to prosecute cases. States and local authorities had seldom pursued prosecution in lynchings. The bill prescribed punishments for perpetrators, specifically:
- (a) A maximum of 5 years in prison, $5000 fine, or both, for any state or city official who had the power to protect a person in his jurisdiction but failed to do so or who had the power to prosecute those responsible and failed to do so.
- (b) A minimum of 5 years in prison for anyone who participated in a lynching, whether they were an ordinary citizen or the official responsible for keeping the victim safe.
- (c) $10,000 fine to be paid by the county in which the lynching took place, to be turned over to the victim’s family. If the victim was seized in one county and killed in another, both counties were to be fined.
21st century apology
On June 13, 2005, in a resolution sponsored by senators Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and George Allen of Virginia, together with 78 others, the US Senate formally apologized for its failure to enact this and other anti-lynching bills "when action was most needed." From 1882-1968, "...nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress, and three passed the House. Seven presidents between 1890 and 1952 petitioned Congress to pass a federal law." None was approved by the Senate because of the powerful opposition of the Southern Democratic voting bloc.
- Richard H. Pildes, "Democracy, Anti-Democracy, and the Canon", Constitutional Commentary, Vol.17, 2000, accessed 10 March 2008
- Nell Painter, "Who Was Lynched?", Nell Painter Website
- Associated Press, "Senate Apologizes for Not Passing Anti-Lynching Laws", Fox News