How the new monument to lynching unravels a historical lie

tags: Reconstruction, lynching

Nina Silber is professor of history and American studies at Boston University and the author of a forthcoming book on the fight over Civil War memory in the New Deal era.

... The memorial [to lynching that opened this past week in Montgomery, Alabama] exposes how both Southern and Northern politicians used nostalgia and false history to preserve the system of white supremacy that stood at the core of their political power.

Nowhere is this clearer than the fight over anti-lynching laws. On numerous occasions from the end of the 19th century through the middle of the 20th, civil rights workers like Ida B. Wells and activists in the NAACP pushed federal lawmakers to act against lynching. In the 1920s, the NAACP focused its efforts on the first federal anti-lynching law, the Dyer bill, which called for federal prosecution of those responsible for lynchings and compensation for lynching victims. Thanks to NAACP efforts, the House of Representatives passed the Dyer bill — which then became the first in a string of anti-lynching laws to die in the Senate, filibustered by Southern Democrats.

A blatantly false retelling of the American past helped filibustering lawmakers justify their opposition to this legislation. It undergirded their fight against another measure, the Costigan-Wagner bill, that twice went down to defeat during the 1930s in the Senate. Repeatedly, Senate opponents explained their hostility by reminding listeners of the purported horrors of Reconstruction.

The false historical narrative they put forth went something like this: In the years after the Civil War, the federal government, having assumed the bad intentions and rebellious spirit of white Southerners, had come to the aid of “negroes” with disastrous results. The story of vengeful carpetbaggers, working in concert with ignorant and sometimes malicious blacks, squelching the honest efforts of Southern whites to rebuild after the Civil War, was, by the 1930s, one of the most hardened myths about the American past.

It was the story enshrined in countless textbooks and in movies like “Birth of a Nation.” But it proved especially powerful in the hands of politicians seeking to defeat anti-lynching laws.

During a 1938 debate over the anti-lynching proposal, Sen. “Cotton Ed” Smith, a notorious white supremacist representing South Carolina, recalled the “strife and contention that ran rife during that dark period subsequent to the war known as the period of reconstruction.” He denounced the Costigan-Wagner bill as “an effort to bring in the very identical same element, reopening the chasm that once divided the Confederate States from the other States for the sole purpose of getting the vote of a certain race.”

Newspaper writers and editorialists contributed to the historical fabrication that shored up the political debate. Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia argued against the law by drawing on a Washington Post editorial that claimed lynching “became a serious problem in the South largely because of the stupid ‘reconstruction’ policies foisted upon that section following the Civil War. Carpetbaggers imposed a reign of terror on the South.” The new legislation, The Post insisted, “would permit the Federal Government to invade the rights of the States” presumably in a way that would only further incite racial antagonism....

Read entire article at WaPo

comments powered by Disqus