WASHINGTON — The Senate late Monday formally apologized for having rejected decades of pleas to make lynching a federal crime as scores victims’ descendants watched from the chamber’s gallery.
On a voice vote and without opposition, the Senate passed a resolution expressing its regrets to the relatives as well as to the nearly 5,000 Americans who were documented as having been lynched from 1880 to 1960.
These deaths occurred without trials, mostly in the South, often with the knowledge of local officials who allowed mob lynchings to become picture-taking, public spectacles.
Some 4,743 people were killed by mob violence between 1882 and 1968, according to Tuskegee University records. Of those, nearly three-fourths, 3,446, were African Americans. Lynchings reached a peak of 230 in 1892, but they were prevalent well into the 1930s. Twenty lynchings were reported in 1935.
Hundreds of bills rebuffed
During that time, 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.
But the Senate, with Southern conservatives wielding their filibuster powers, refused to act. With the enactment of civil rights laws in the 1960s and changes in national attitudes, the issue faded away.
Such legislation would have made lynching a federal crime and allowed the U.S. government to prosecute those responsible, including local law enforcement officers.
Dan Duster, a descendant of Ida B. Wells, a former slave who became an anti-lynching crusader, praised senators who publicly backed the resolution of apology and scorned those who did not.
No lawmaker opposed the measure, but 20 of the 100 senators had not signed a statement of support of it shortly before a vote was taken on a nearly empty Senate floor.
“I think it’s politics. They’re afraid of losing votes from people of prejudice,” Duster said of those who did not sign the statement of support.
The resolution was first proposed last year by Sens. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, and George Allen, a Virginia Republican, after they read the book, “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America,” a pictorial history by James Allen.
“The more I learned about this terrorism in America, the more committed I became to doing something positive and passing this resolution,” Landrieu said.
“The Senate failed these Americans,” Allen said. “If we truly want to move forward, we must admit that failure and learn from it.”
Apology extends to descendants
The resolution expresses apologies not only to the victims of lynchings, but also to their descendants, nearly 200 of whom came to the Capitol to witness passage of the measure.
Also there was James Cameron, 91, believed to be the only known lynching survivor. Cameron was arrested in August 1930 in Marion, Ind., and taken to jail along with two of his friends for the murder of a white man and suspected rape of a white woman.
A mob broke into the jail and pulled the three out. Cameron’s two friends were hanged, and a noose was placed around the neck of Cameron, then a 16-year-old shoeshine boy.
But as the noose was tightened, a voice reportedly shouted out that Cameron was guilty of no crime. He was returned to his cell and later convicted of being an accessory to the white man’s death. He was pardoned in 1993, by then-Gov. Evan Bayh, now a Democratic U.S. senator from Indiana.
“The apology is a good idea, but it still won’t bring anyone back,” Cameron said. “I hope that the next time it won’t take so long to admit to our mistakes.”
While most lynching victims were deemed criminal suspects, others had merely gotten into a spat with a white man, perhaps for looking at a white woman. Lynchings refer not only to hangings, but mob executions by beatings, bullets and fire.
Rice: ‘Better late than never’
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the first black woman to hold the post, praised the Senate for its apology, saying, “better late than never.”
“I remember as a kid the stories about lynchings — everybody’s family had at least one story,” Rice, who grew up in the South, told MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews.”
“My grandfather, who ran away from home at 13 because he’d gotten into an altercation with a white man over something that happened with his sister, and he was pretty sure that if he hung around, that’s what was going to happen,” Rice said in a “Hardball” segment to be aired on Tuesday.
The nonbinding resolution offers apology to the victims for the Senate’s failure to act and “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.”
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said President Bush talked about slavery and the travails of American democracy in a meeting Monday with five African leaders.
The Senate, McClellan said, “has taken a step that they feel they need to take, given their own past inaction on what were great injustices.”
Acknowledging the mistakes of the past “is an immensely important first step,” said Emma Coleman Jordan, professor at the Georgetown Law Center and an expert on the subject. Other steps, she said, could include establishing a national research center and showing atonement by setting up trust funds for the descendants of victims.
Congress in the past has apologized to Japanese-Americans and other persecuted groups, but the issue of reparations has complicated efforts to apologize to black Americans for slavery. Jordan said a trust fund for lynching victims descendants would target a far smaller group.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.