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“We Can Control Our Affairs Pretty Well”: Southern Senators Protest Proposed Antilynching Legislation

Between 1882 and 1964, nearly five thousand people died from lynching, the majority African-American. The 1890s witnessed the worst period of lynching in U.S. history. Lynchings, often witnessed by large crowds of white onlookers, were the most extreme form of Southern white control over the African-American population, regularly meted out against African Americans who had been falsely charged with crimes but in fact were achieving a level of political or economic autonomy that whites found unacceptable. The history of failed attempts to pass federal antilyching legislation goes back to 1894, when a House bill to set up a committee to investigate lynchings failed. In 1922, the House passed a bill to make lynching a Federal crime, but despite President Warren G. Harding’s support, Southern senators filibustered and defeated it. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt failed to support an antilynching bill proposed by the NAACP, fearing that key Southerners lawmakers would retaliate and interfere with his New Deal agenda. In February 1948, President Harry S. Truman asked Congress for federal antilynching legislation. In the following testimony to a House subcommittee, four Southern Congressmen discussed their reasons for opposing what they deemed federal interference in state judicial responsibilities and defend segregation and the “peaceful relations now existing between white man and Negro” in the South. Congressman Charles E. Bennett (Florida) also offered his historical explanation for lynching. None of the bills under consideration by the subcommittee passed.


Mr. BENNETT. I oppose the enactment of the proposed so-called antilynching bills for a variety of reasons. First of all, I think that the bills are unconstitutional as a violation of the tenth amendment of the Constitution. The Constitution would probably never have been enacted if it had not been for the inclusion of the tenth amendment which is part of the Bill of Rights. It provides that when governmental powers are not given specifically to the Federal Government, they shall remain with the people or the States into which these people may organize themselves or have organized themselves.

Along that same line, I oppose this type of legislation because I feel that it is projecting still further the Federal Government into local government which trend in government in late years I feel to be a mistake and a very dangerous mistake. When our country was founded, it was founded through experience. The colonists had experienced a remote governmental control and they desired to return to what they had experienced somewhat when they were in Europe which was more of a local control; plus that they desired to add to the grass-roots control that they anticipated being able to have in this country. In other words, they rebelled against being controlled remotely from England and they wanted to get even a heartier participation in local government than they found possible in England itself when they were actually living in that country or whatever country they happened to live in in Europe.

No one would come here and take up for lynching, and I say that lynching should be a thing that we should not have. Certainly a person who engages in a lynching mob is a person who should have put upon his or her shoulders the responsibility of meeting a charge of crime and being convicted of it if guilty. The State laws, however, in every State of the Union are adequate to cover the question of lynching, and particularly they are in the South. We have murder laws in every State in the Union, and lynching is murder. A person can be and should be convicted of murder when he participates in a lynch job.

Mr. KEATING. Is there not a serious question, Mr. Bennett, whether or not those laws are being enforced?

Mr. BENNETT. I will get to that in just a minute, if I may.

The history of lynching is a very interesting one. Many people do not understand the background of what brought about lynchings. Of course, some lynchings occurred prior to the War Between the States. There were many lynchings after the War Between the States when the Federal Government, despite the provisions of the Federal Constitution, saw fit, by fire and sword, to force back into the Union the States which had decided and determined their desire to be out of the Union. When the Federal Government did that, it did not use the kindly hand of Abraham Lincoln, nor the somewhat faltering but kindly hand of Andrew Johnson, but the Senate and the House of Representatives ruled the South with an iron hand. They sent down people to control the government; they allowed and encouraged people to assume high office who were not capable of assuming those offices. They overlooked and countenanced great corruption which led to the demoralization of the Government.

With that picture before them, as heinous and as culpable as taking the life of another man is without a just and due trial, these people, some people in the South, at least, took upon themselves to try to gain some sort of order and some sort of government since the constituted government offered them no protection. Therefore, in the early days, there were reasons why lynchings were indulged in and reasons why many good people at least overlooked them.

As the years have gone on, however, and the South has at last been able to reign through its own government, through its own State governments as provided for in the Constitution in State matters, and has gained control of its courts again, there is now no justification for such mob violence, if there ever was any such justification.

The South deplores lynchings more than any other section of the country. There is nothing that makes a southerner more unhappy and more depressed than the occurrence of a lynching—that is, the average southerner. There are people in our midst—I may say a great many of them, in my opinion, are not true southerners, either by having lived in the South for long or being consistent with the southern principles—who do engage in mob violence occasionally. . . .

You must also investigate the type of lynchings which were referred to or what is defined as a “lynching,” because nowadays if two people shoot somebody else and they happen to be of a different race, they consider it a lynching, which is, of course, quite different from the lynchings that most people read about when they read about the situation in the South. In other words, some lynchings which are called lynchings are truly nothing, completely nothing but ordinary types of murder. There is no mob violence in it. Somebody shoots somebody else and they happen to be of another race.

Now that sort of thing occurs in the North as well as the South. I think in the last few years, as I have tried to read the newspapers on this subject, I have found about as many incidents pointed out in the North as there are in the South on the racial basis, about as many white people killing colored people under circumstances which, in the South would be called lynchings, because that is the popular propaganda way to refer to them when they occur in the South. When they occur in the North, they are “murders.” . . .

Now, I feel, therefore, that not only is this law unconstitutional, but I feel furthermore that the incidence of lynching has been so greatly on the decline that presently it is almost like the dodo bird, something entirely out of the practical realm of modern-day activity. And the few cases that do occur, most of them are not what most people think about when they think of lynchings. They are just murder. . . .

The Federal Government now proposes to say that the State governments are not sufficient and the Federal Government should come along and lend a helping hand. The ways in which this tender of assistance is offered is important with regard to the reaction that people will have to this legislation. Southern pride is hurt because the South believes it can take care of its own government. It resents the implication that the South is not able to handle its own affairs. It resents the propaganda which is given out with regard to lynching. I remember when I was overseas in New Guinea I read in Time magazine, I believe it was, that there was about 100 lynchings a year on the average. It came back with an apology in a footnote in a letter to the editor saying that there were only three during the average years to which it had been referring. But that is typical of the sort of propaganda that is issued.

We in Congress have a responsibility to look at the facts. We are here to be statesmen, not politicians. When you approach this question with regard to the South, what you are really interested in is trying to decrease the number of lynchings, I think it is quite probable that the enactment of a law of this kind will not decrease the incidence of lynching—it might increase the incidence of lynching because it will be a slap at a person. Just like a crippled person—if you tell him he has to have somebody to look after him there, he is going to resent it and he is perhaps going to take chances he should not take in driving a car, or something of that kind. In other words, the injury which is coming to the southern pride with regard to lynching is first the fact that it does exist, even though in a small number of cases, and second, that we resent antilynching laws because they imply that we are not able to control our own affairs.

We think we can control our affairs pretty well. We certainly think we handle the matters with regard to race relationships much better than the rest of the country, and if I got into that, I would be here all afternoon; but I would like to quickly point out to you some facts with regard to race relations. The great race riots which occur in the country do not occur in the South. The one in Detroit a few years back saw 25 Negroes killed. It has been years and years and years since 25—I do not think there has been any times when 25 Negroes were killed in a race riot in the South, certainly not for many years. . . .

Mr. BYRNE. Mr. Bennett, have you read the letter that was issued by the Tuskegee Institute dated December 29, 1949, for release December 31, 1949, relative to its findings regarding lynching?

Mr. BENNETT. I have not read the letter.

Mr. BYRNE. I am going to put the letter in the record at this point because it would be pertinent to this type of cross-examination that is going to be made of you, perhaps, by some of the members.

(The letter referred to is as follows:)


Tuskegee Institute, Ala., December 29, 1949.

DEAR SIR: I send you the following information concerning lynching for the year 1949.

Number of lynchings: According to records compiled in the department of records and research, Tuskegee Institute, I find that three persons were lynched during the year. This is one more than the number two for 1948; two more than the number one for 1947; three less than the number six for 1946; and two more than the number one for 1945. Thus, for the 5-year period, 1945–49, inclusive, 13 lynchings have been recorded.

One of the victims was Caleb Hill, Jr., 28-year-old Negro chalk-mine worker of Irwinton, Wilkinson County, Ga., charged with creating a disturbance and resisting arrest. Lodged in jail, he was removed by a group of men, beaten and shot to death.

The second victim was Malcolm Wright, 45-year-old Negro tenant farmer of near Houston, Chickasaw County, Miss., who is reported to have “hogged the road” and of not moving his wagon over fast enough to permit a group of white men, riding in a motorcar, to pass. He was beaten to death.

The third victim was Hollis Riles, 53-year-old prosperous Negro landowner of near Bainbridge, Decatur County, Ga., found dead with a number of bullet holes in his body after an argument with a group of white men, who had been fishing in his pond without permission. It was reported that sometime previously Riles' home had been riddled with buckshots fired from an automobile.

The States in which the lynchings occurred and the number in each State are as follows: Georgia, two; Mississippi, one.

Punishment of lynchers: Two men jailed in connection with the lynching of Caleb Hill, Jr., were later freed for lack of sufficient evidence to bring them to trial.

Lynchings prevented: In at least 14 instances; lynchings were prevented—4 in the North and 10 in the South. One person escaped from a group of men bent on lynching him by jumping into a river; in the 13 other instances, officers of the law gave protection. A total of at least 17 persons were thus saved from mob violence. Of these, 6 were white persons and 11 were Negroes.

Although there are three clear-cut cases of lynching reported for 1949 according to criteria now used, attention should be called to other killings which according to all intent and purpose would seem to fall into this category. These include murders reported as being committed by less than three persons; killings by specially deputized posses, who in some instances appear to be composed of irresponsible persons bent not on upholding legal institutions but on vengeance; prisoners meeting violent death in jails after confinement; and other cases of police brutality.

Very truly yours,

F. D. PATTERSON, President. . . .

Mr. KEATING. There are cases that have been brought to Nation-wide attention where in my judgment, at least, local law enforcement officials have not taken the action which might be properly expected of them. You may disagree with that.

Mr. BENNETT. I certainly do.

Mr. KEATING. But I do believe firmly that there are such cases.

Mr. BENNETT. There may be such cases, but every one I have had a chance to look into was written with red ink, written by people who wanted to destroy the South and wanted to create fomentation between the North and the South in this country and wanted to serve the communistic cause. When you get to look at the facts, you find different situations.

Mr. KEATING. I do not believe all the reporters in the South are Communists. . . .< Mr. BENNETT. If the committee got the impression that I meant to imply that all stories which emanate from the South and are critical of the handling of lynchings emanate from Communists, I certainly meant to make no such statement; and if I made a statement that all these reports are written by Communists, I hereby retract it—but I don’t think I said it. I did say that I felt that this country has been flooded with propaganda with regard to the South that is so remote from the facts that it is hard to recognize it when you actually are faced with it. And I do say that I feel that these reporters who are getting that information out—and I do not think they are southern reporters because I do not think a southern man would do that even to get the money—I do feel that their activity in painting the South in improper colors is very helpful to the Communist cause. I suspect—I do not have any factual foundation to say that this is true—but I suspect that some of them are actually in the pay of the Russian Government or at least are people who are carried away with their desire to help Russia, like Judith Coplon apparently was, through misguided idealism, if you can call it idealism. They think it is to the best interests of the world, whatever is going to happen hereafter, to destroy America by pitting one side against the other. . . .


Mr. TACKETT. I wish to appear, Mr. Chairman, in opposition to the antilynching bills. I presume that is the only matter you have under discussion at this time.

I have had considerable experience in the State of Arkansas prosecuting and defending criminal cases, and I can truthfully say and can prove it without any fear of contradiction, that there have been more white people lynched during my life in the State of Arkansas than there have been Negroes. During my life of 38 years, I recall four white people being lynched in my home county and I believe that there has been one Negro lynched in those 38 years in the State of Arkansas.

Mr. FRAZIER. What that in the entire State?

Mr. TACKETT. That was within the entire State. If I am in error about that, it was something that happened back when I was a child and do not recall it. But I do recall that four men, four white men, were lynched in my home county because they killed an old peddler. They were burned in jail. Of course, the northern newspapers did not carry that story. I honestly believe that you call homicide in the North murder. And you call homicide in the South lynching. There are more unsolved homicide cases in any eastern or northern city than there is in the whole of the south United States. . . .

I believe that my record as prosecuting attorney down there in the State of Arkansas should be sufficient to show that I am against discrimination. I do not believe in the white people mistreating the colored people, and it is not going on in my State, and I live just as deep in the South as any person in this Congress. We have made a lot of advancement down there. You will have to remember that the Negroes were slaves approximately 90 years ago. They have come a long way. If the white people will leave them alone, they will do well. If we quit meddling in their affairs and trying to bring dissension between the white people and the colored, they are going to advance in life. But every time this Congress meets up here and uses some of this political demagoguery, to stir up the feeling between the white and the colored people, they are not doing but one thing, and that is holding back the colored people within my section. All in the world that the East and the North has done is given the Negro a change to ride in a streetcar and make him think that he has gained something wonderful. Down in the South, we don’t put the Negro in the back seat of the car but feel free to ride with them up and down the streets in the front seat. They are free to come into our homes; have more access to our white homes in the South than they have to white homes in the North. . . .


When you stir friction, those Negroes are going to move. Where are they going—Harlem, New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Chicago, Indianapolis? Then what are you going to do with them?

In the rest of the South—and I am speaking particularly of my district where the relationship is the best I have ever known between the whites and the colored people—you talk about lynchings. There has not been a lynching in my county since I was born, and I am as old as the gentleman from New York, nearly. . . .

So, the relationship is the best I have ever known. You are talking about schools, education. At home, schooling is compulsory. The Negroes have their own schools, and they want their own schools. They get along. Negroes in my town now have a better schoolhouse than the one I went to school in when I was a boy. We have no friction with them. They behave themselves better evidently than they do in New York, because we do not send half as many to the penitentiary. They are enjoying a protection that they do not get anywhere else except in the Southern States. If you do not believe it, you just take the records of any other State in this Union now and check and see how many they have living in those States and how many they have in the penitentiary. You will find that those States that are raising the most howl about the conditions in the South have the largest percentage of their Negroes in the penitentiary.

When you disturb the peaceful relations now existing between white man and Negro, one of them is going to move. Which one is it? You know who it is going to be. You have done more harm, just such agitation as this has done the Negroes of the South more harm, deprived more of them of homes, than anything else that has occurred since I have been a Member of Congress. And today, as I said, the time has come when they are not needed as servants. We have three servants to take their place: oil, gasoline, and electricity.

You are not doing them any good. And you do not care a tinker’s damn about them. That is the tragedy of it. You don’t give a tinker’s damn, if you will excuse the expression, about the Negroes in the South. This is done to try to create a political furor for political purposes in the North.

I was here when this crazy measure was up during the Harding administration. There is a speech I made on it at that time in which I exposed the ridiculousness of a bill of this kind, the antilynching bill.

Of course, the Senate talked it to death; and you know good and well this bill never will become a law. I came to Congress that year, and the Republicans had a 169 majority in the House. They took this thing up, and we filibustered it and turned the spotlight onto it in the House. The Senate did the same thing. The election came off that year, and it took about 2 weeks to organize the House, they came so near losing the House; and Mr. Cooper, from Wisconsin, ran on an independent ticket and tied the House up for 2 or 3 weeks, if I remember correctly.

That is what you are doing now. You are not doing yourselves any good. If you want to know about this, go down there. Do not go down there and ask the chief of police or the sheriff. There [indicating] is what they call the Negro section. Go over there. Go and see how they live and ask them and see how ridiculous they will make you feel before you get away from there. This thing is not for a thing in the world but just to create disturbance in the southern States, where we have done the very best we could. Nowhere else under the shining sun—nowhere—has the Negro ever received the treatment at the hands of the white people where he lived in large numbers as he does now among the white people of the South. But you are injuring the cause of the poor Negro. . . .


Mr. BRYSON. I wish to concur in what has been said by these distinguished Members of Congress who have preceded me, and I observe that most of the gentlemen who sit on this distinguished committee live north of the Mason-Dixon line.

I seriously doubt—I do not question the sincerity, but I seriously doubt—whether the average man who annually sponsors and introduces these kind of bills knows what he is doing. . . .

God Almighty in His infinite wisdom made distinct differences between the Negro and the white race. I do not know what His purposes were. But since He endowed the different races with different characteristics, I believe it was His purpose for the races to remain separate and distinct and I think it should be unlawful, both against civil law and divine law, for an intermingling of the races. If the average Members of Congress react as I do to some of the exhibitions we saw here yesterday and today, I do not believe we will ever get legislation like this through. With the necking, the fondling, and the loving, even in the gallery of the House, which was called to my attention by other Members of Congress, it seems to me people of different races have no regard for decency. . . .

I have every seriousness in appearing here. Heretofore we probably have not treated the minority race as we should. But I can easily tell the attitudes in the South are changing as well as elsewhere. I believe every person, whether a Yankee or a Rebel, has an inherent God-given desire to do justice to and for all mankind; and I believe we are making great progress toward that end. But some long-haired men and short-haired women, so highly educated, continue to penetrate into our Southland and try to dictate and force their alleged advanced ideas upon our people. It is retarding the progress that we are making.

Although we are poor, as a rule the colored people per capita are much poorer than the white people and they are more prolific, it seems to me; however, the white people are rather prolific in our country. Perhaps the North would be better off if the native-born people who live there were a little prolific and looked after their home work a little bit better rather than try to lift the restriction of the immigration law so as to import a lot of foreigners. If we had more good, native-born American citizens, we would not need to talk about amending the law. . . .

Source: Antilyching and Protection of Civil Rights, Hearings before Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, 81st Congress, 1st and 2d Sessions, June 1949; January 1950. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1950.