Senators insult African Americans
June 28, 2005
BY JESSE JACKSON
The United States Senate recently passed a resolution apologizing for its historic refusal to enact legislation that would outlaw lynching. The first agenda item of the NAACP when it was founded at the beginning of the last century was federal legislation to outlaw that heinous practice. Seven U.S. presidents over 60 years tried but failed to persuade the Senate to ban lynching. Two hundred bills were introduced and three passed the House; all were voted down by the Senate.
As Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana summarized, ''The Senate failed these Americans. If we truly want to move forward, we must admit that failure and learn from it.'' Not everyone agreed. Eight Republicans refused to support the apology -- Senators Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Thad Cochran and Trent Lott of Mississippi, Craig Thomas and Michael Enzi of Wyoming, Judd Gregg and John Sununu of New Hampshire, and John Cronyn of Texas. Senate Majority leader Bill Frist ran cover for them, refusing a roll-call vote so no one would have to go on record. Frist's refusal to put the Senate on record makes this apology a sorry one indeed.
Lynching is often portrayed as a fringe activity, terrorist action carried out by zealous racists acting in isolation. That portrait whitewashes the horrible reality: Lynching was generally state-sponsored or tolerated, an instrument of re-establishing political control for whites.
The two major parties cut a deal in 1877 -- the Tilden-Hayes compromise -- to pull troops out of the South and end the post-slavery Reconstruction. Immediately, Southern whites acted ruthlessly to reclaim power and to suppress the newly freed slaves. Violence and state-sanctioned terror ruled the South; lynching was the favored terrorist act. From 1890 to 1960, 4,742 lynchings were documented, but the actual number is far higher. Mississippi -- with two of the senators who refused to apologize -- was at the top of the list.
Lynching was not simply a nighttime practice of men garbed under the hoods of the Ku Klux Klan. Many were foul civic rituals. Many were draped in the garb of religion, taking place on Sunday afternoons after church with entire church congregations as witnesses.
Congress apologized and offered reparations to Japanese Americans for the national shame of clapping a large number into concentration camps during World War II. But Republicans found it hard even to apologize for lynching, much less offer African Americans reparations for the 200 years of slavery and the 100 years of legal apartheid that robbed them of their liberty and of decent pay for their labor.
After the Civil War, freed slaves were promised a mule and 40 acres; the end of Reconstruction broke that promise. Dr. King marched on Washington to redeem the promissory note that had been returned marked insufficient funds. Instead, Nixon offered a conservative alternative -- affirmative action and better education. Investment in schools remains starkly separate and unequal.
Cochran suggested that he needn't apologize because he wasn't involved in lynching. But his family fortunes rest upon the brutal repression of African Americans through slavery and segregation. Now Cochran joins his Senate colleagues in trying to stack the courts with right-wing judges who oppose affirmative action, in cutting programs for the poor while ladling tax breaks and subsidies on the wealthy, and in seeking to undermine the Voting Rights Act that expires in 2007 unless reauthorized by Congress.
Republican strategists keep fretting about how to appeal to African-American voters, as if that were a mystery. It isn't hard. Champion equal investment in education. Lift the minimum wage and provide decent health care for all. Create a full-employment economy so African Americans, too often the last hired, can find work for a change. Make college affordable. Reauthorize the Voting Rights Act to ensure that the right to vote isn't taken away. Support our civil-rights laws, including affirmative action, and enforce them against those who discriminate.
But not only do they oppose that agenda, GOP senators even choke on apologizing for the lynching that terrorized a people and shamed this nation. No wonder African Americans retain a healthy suspicion of these Guardians of Privilege.
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