Senate Issues an Apology for Inaction on Lynchings
Seventy-five years after an Indiana mob dragged him from his jail cell and nearly hanged him, James Cameron was on hand Monday to watch the Senate apologize for its failure to try to stop the lynchings that terrorized African Americans well into the 20th century.
Cameron, 91 and in a wheelchair, is believed to be the only living survivor of an attempted lynching. He joined more than 150 descendants of lynching victims to witness the Senate’s acknowledgment that although about 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced -- three passed the House and seven U.S. presidents lobbied for such laws -- none was ever approved by the Senate.
Also in attendance was Simeon Wright, 62, who was sharing a room with his cousin, Emmett Till, when two white men burst into Wright’s Mississippi home on Aug. 28, 1955, and dragged Till out. Till, who was visiting from Chicago, was suspected of having whistled at a white woman. The 14-year-old was found dead a few days later.
“If we had a federal law in 1955, there is no way those men would have come into my home and taken Emmett and killed him,” Wright said.
A total of 4,742 Americans are documented to have been lynched between 1882 and 1968, with the practice most prevalent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, according to figures provided by the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law.
Lynchings occurred in all but four states, and victims included whites, Asians, Italians and Jews. But the practice was most common in the South, and most often aimed at blacks. Of the known victims, 3,452 were African Americans. With local law enforcement officials and juries usually handling the cases, historians have estimated that fewer than 1% of the lynchers were ever convicted.
Supporters of the Senate apology, which had 80 cosponsors and passed by a voice vote, said a federal anti-lynching law could have reduced the violence and would have allowed the federal government to prosecute cases.
The resolution apologizes for the Senate’s failure to act, expressing “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 offers no compensation to victims or their families.
Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau, said it was important that Congress follow up the apology with an effort to compensate victims and their families.
“If this is all the Senate does on this issue, it is a rather hollow gesture,” Shelton said. “If this is the beginning of a process, then indeed it can be very healthy and very important to our society.”
Supporters of the apology said that despite the efforts of various groups, Congress had never apologized for slavery.
Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) said a book filled with powerful images of lynchings spurred her to push for Monday’s resolution, which she cosponsored with Sen. George Allen (R-Va.).
The book, “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America,” is the work of James Allen, an Atlanta antiques dealer who spent 15 years collecting photographs and postcards of lynchings.
It was the crowds milling about the bloodied, dangling bodies that most disturbed her, Landrieu said. They sometimes included laughing, smiling children dressed in their Sunday best.
The images made her realize, Landrieu said, that these were not crimes committed in secret -- they were often community events.
“This was domestic terrorism,” she said, “and the Senate is uniquely culpable” for failing to act against it.
Some senators complained that the debate was taking place on a Monday night, when few senators were present, and that the leadership scheduled a voice vote rather than a roll call vote.
“I think that’s a mistake,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said when he rose in support of the resolution. “I think the United States Senate should stand up and every man and woman here would have to vote during a roll call, one way or the other.”
Deborah Crawford, 54, said she felt conflicting emotions. Crawford was an adult when she learned that her great-grandfather, Anthony Crawford, was lynched in South Carolina in 1916 after arguing with a white farmer over the price of cottonseed.
She traveled from Chicago and joined dozens of relatives at a luncheon and news conference Monday before the vote.
“I feel that there should be something else, something more than an apology, but I don’t know what,” Crawford said.
Cameron, flanked by photographs of the lynching he survived, spoke with difficulty about his experience.
“I was lynched, but I wasn’t lynched like my two buddies,” he said. “I was saved by a miracle. They had a rope around my neck, they were going to lynch me right between my two buddies.”
Cameron and two friends -- Abraham Smith, 18, and Thomas Shipp, 19, were arrested on suspicion of murdering a white man and raping a white woman in Marion, Ind., in August 1930. A mob broke into the jail, dragged Smith and Shipp from their cells, beat and mutilated them, and then hanged them from a tree in the town square.
Cameron, too, was dragged from his cell and to the hanging tree. But in accounts over the years, Cameron has said that he was saved when a single voice in the crowd declared his innocence and the mob let him go.
“They allowed me to stumble, stagger the half block back to the jail,” he said. “I’m glad to be here.”
Cameron said he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the case and served four years in prison, although the female victim later said he had nothing to do with the assault. In 1993, then-Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh pardoned Cameron.
Also present Monday was Janet Langhart Cohen, wife of former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and a member of the Committee for a Formal Apology, a group that has pushed for the Senate apology for three years.
“I came here to bear witness on behalf of my cousin Jimmy,” said Cohen. She said she was the last member of her family who remembered the stories of how her third cousin, 17-year-old Jimmy Gillenwaters, was killed by a mob near Bowling Green, Ky., in 1912.
Each time the House passed an anti-lynching bill, Southern senators filibustered them -- once in a monumental battle carried out on the Senate floor for six weeks in the late 1930s.