African-Americans had been so thoroughly demonized by the media of those days, many whites considered lynching a public service. We marvel at our former acceptance of such racist injustice. But in the future we'll look back on our current apartheid system of criminal justice and shake our heads in disbelief.
I thought about this when the Senate passed a voice vote apology for its inaction in the face of a documented 4,743 lynchings from 1882 to 1968.
During that period about 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress. Although three bills passed the House, the Senate, dominated by filibustering Dixiecrats, always said no.
On June 13, the Senate passed a non-binding resolution, sponsored by Senators Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and George Allen, (R-Va.), that apologized to the victims and survivors for its failure to act.
The measure "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." The resolution also "remembers the history of lynching to ensure that these tragedies will be neither forgotten nor repeated."
Both Landrieu and Allen requested a vote by official roll call. But Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) insisted on a voice vote, which allowed senators to avoid recording their position on the measure. Senators could add their names as co-sponsors, however, and 90 of 100 signed on.
Both senators from the state with the highest number of lynchings (Mississippi) were among those withholding their signatures, as well as senators from New Hampshire and Wyoming.
Expressing public regret for complicity in well-documented cases of domestic terrorism apparently was too risky for the 10 Republican senators who refused to sign as co-sponsors. Many of these same senators are among Congress' fiercest opponents of Islamist terrorism.
While they refused to endorse an apology for abetting racist violence, several of the unsigned senators also were prominent in later forcing Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin to apologize for inviting comparisons between abusive treatment of suspected terrorists at Guantnamo Bay, Cuba, and the treatment accorded victims of Nazi camps and Soviet gulags.
Had Durbin sought a more cogent comparison, he could have cited Pelican Bay State Prison in California and made the same point. The United States hosts 6 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of its prisoners; this nation's prison-industrial complex is the new gulag.
What's more, the racist impulse that impelled white hate mobs to lynch black suspects still is recognizable in America's apartheid gulags. Although black men are about 6 percent of the U.S. population, they account for about half of the nation's prisoners. Study after study has provided statistics that confirm how racial injustices corrupt and corrode the criminal justice system, yet denial persists.
Some of this denial is being camouflaged by a seeming readiness to atone for the anti-black violence of our nation's racist past. In recent years, some of the most egregious crimes committed during the turbulent period of the Civil Rights struggle have been re-examined and in some cases, resolved.
Byron de la Beckwith was convicted in 1994 for the sniper murder of Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers; in 2002 Bobby Frank Cherry was convicted for killing four black girls in the infamous 1963 bombing of a church in Birmingham, Ala. On June 21, a jury convicted Edgar Ray Killen of manslaughter in the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss.
This new thrust for retroactive racial justice also is, I suspect, a muted reaction to African-Americans' increasing push for reparations.
But even supportive senators seem oblivious to the connection between our past of anti-black brutality and the racial disparities of today's criminal justice system. And although the resolution wanly concedes Senate complicity in mob murders, it does little to compensate victims of a racist terrorism that was culture-deep.
Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times and an op-ed columnist for the Chicago Tribune.