Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill
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The Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, introduced by Representative Leonidas C. Dyer, a Republican from St. Louis, Missouri, in the US House of Representatives in 1918, was directed at punishing lynchings and mob violence.The Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill was passed by the House of Representatives on January 26, 1922 but its passage was halted by a filibuster in the U.S. Senate.
Lynchings were predominately committed by whites against African-Americans in the Southern and border states. According to statistics meticulously compiled by the Tuskegee Institute, between the years 1882 and 1951 some 4,730 people were lynched in the United States, of whom 3,437 were black and 1,293 were white. Lynchings first peaked in the years immediately following the Civil War (the largest number of lynchings occurred in 1892 - 230 persons were lynched that year: 161 African-Americans and 69 whites). These numbers fell off sharply with the dissolution of the first Ku Klux Klan. They continued through the 1890s and the next two decades at relatively high levels, in what is often called the nadir of American race relations, a period marked by disfranchisement of African-Americans and Jim Crow in the South, and discrimination against African-Americans across the country.
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.
In 1917, white ethnic mobs had attacked blacks in St. Louis and East St. Louis race riots over competition for work and punishment for strikebreakers. 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.
In April 1919, the NAACP published a report which disproved the myth that stated most lynchings were based on African American attacks on white women: less than one sixth of the 2500 African Americans lynched from 1889 to 1918 had the victim even been accused of rape. Representative Leonidas C. Dyer, who represented a majority African-American district, had taken notice of the hate crimes occurring around him and was outraged by the violence and disregard for law in such riots. Dyer was especially concerned about the continued high rate of lynchings in the South and the failure of local and state authorities to prosecute them. This inspired his anti-lynching bill.
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 1922,1923 and 1924 in the Senate, due to filibusters by the white Southern Democratic block.
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 or his parents, or to the United States government if the victim has no family. If the victim was seized in one county and killed in another, both counties were to be fined.
In addition, the law prescribed actions of special circumstances:
- (a) If officers fail to equally protect all citizens, they can be prosecuted in federal court.
- (b) Foreign visitors were not exempt from this law and were to be prosecuted within the laws of the state or territory, as well as protected by those same laws.
From 1882 to 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." Not one bill was approved by the Senate because of the powerful opposition of the Southern Democratic voting block. 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."
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- Richard H. Pildes, "Democracy, Anti-Democracy, and the Canon", Constitutional Commentary, Vol.17, 2000, accessed 10 March 2008
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- Robert L. Zangrando, The NAACP Crusade Against Lynching, 1909-1950. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1980.