George Henry White and the Anti-Lynching Bill of 1900

September 17, 2016

 

H.R. 6963 - A bill for the protection of all citizens of the United States against mob violence, and the penalty for breaking such laws. Introduced by Mr. WHITE and referred to Committee on the Judiciary on January 20, 1900

 

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,

 

That all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, and being citizens of the United States, are entitled to and shall receive protection in their lives from being murdered, tortured, burned to death by any and all organized mobs commonly known as “lynching bees,” whether said mob be spontaneously assembled or organized by premeditation for the purpose of taking the life or lives of any citizen or citizens in the United States aforesaid; and that whenever any citizens or citizens of the United States shall be murdered by mob violence in the manner hereinabove described, all parties participating, aiding, and abetting in such murder and lynching shall be guilty of treason against the Government of the United States, and shall be tried for that offense in the United States courts; full power and jurisdiction being given to said United States courts and all its officers to issue process, arrest, try, and in all respects deal with such cases in the same manner now prescribed under existing laws for the trial of felonies in the United States courts.

 

SEC. 2. That any person or persons duly tried and convicted in any United States court as principal or principals, aiders, abettors, accessories before or after the fact, for the murder of any citizen or citizens of the United States by mob violence or lynching as described in section 1 hereof, shall be punished as is now prescribed by law for the punishment of persons convicted of treason against the United States Government.

 

SEC. 3. That all laws and parts of laws in conflict with this statute are hereby repealed.

 

George Henry White and the Anti-Lynching Bill of 1900

An essay by Benjamin R. Justesen

 

As the new year of 1900 opened, Rep. George Henry White (R-NC, 2nd District) faced a stark dilemma. During 1899, he had carefully attempted to repair his image among North Carolina Democrats by adroitly hewing to a moderate position on emigration by African Americans, and hoping to head off supporters of a disfranchisement amendment to the state constitution, now due for a vote in August.

 

Yet he was irrevocably committed to introducing his carefully crafted bill to make lynching a federal offense, punishable by death; he had worked feverishly on the proposed language for months, with considerable help. It was certain to be unpopular among Democrats in the Old North State. He must have known the firestorm of controversy his bill would ignite in the South, one probably ending his political career, even his professional one, in North Carolina. As the nation’s only African-American member of Congress, he was nonetheless prepared to take that risk.

 

Such personal considerations must have danced in his head as George White prepared for a symposium in the first week of the year in Washington, aptly titled “The Negro in Politics” [Colored American, January 2, 1900]. His measured arguments against the disfranchisement of black voters were soon published in his first mainstream article, “The Injustice to the Colored Voter” [The Independent, January 18, 1900], opposite an article supporting disfranchisement of illiterates by Mississippi Democratic Sen. Hernando Money.

 

Two days later, White introduced his bill and then sought to lay the groundwork for a national discussion of anti-lynching measures, by offering a petition signed by thousands of Northern citizens requesting just such a law [Congressional Record, January 20, 1900]. Yet opposition was already mounting, with parliamentary maneuvers forcing the Speaker to deny White’s request to have the petition read aloud, and delaying White’s hopes to speak on the bill itself [Congressional Record, January 20, 1900, p. 1017].

 

That petition, as described elsewhere in the Congressional Record [January 20, 1900, p. 1022], was signed “by 2,413 citizens of Massachusetts urging legislation making lynching and mob violence a crime against the United States, providing penalties therefor, and for the creation of a central detective bureau at Washington, with branch offices in several sections of the country, to collect and transmit information of the movements of such lawless bodies.” Like the several such petitions later submitted by White from other groups of U.S. citizens, it was referred to the House Judiciary Committee.

 

But the language of George White’s bill had changed significantly since that Massachusetts petition had been circulated and signed. Its language had been worked and reworked for months. As originally drafted, it had sought to create that national police force—a forerunner of the eventual Federal Bureau of Investigation—to pursue cases and charges against members of lynch mobs. As presented on January 20, the bill contained no such proposal. Dropping the controversial requirement was most likely a result of furious negotiations behind the scenes to make the bill itself more palatable to a wider group of Republicans in the House, and presumably to the Senate and the White House.

 

The bill’s introduction was noted a day later by at least one national newspaper, the New York Times [“Bill To Punish Lynchers. Congress to Make the Perpetrators Guilty of Treason,” January 21, 1900], whose writer described its author as “Representative White, the colored representative in the House.” The Washington Post did mention the bill’s introduction [“Protection from Mobs. Representative White Presents a Bill and a Petition from Colored People,” January 21, 1900]. But few other newspapers paid much attention.

 

Still, advance reaction to the bill had been simmering offstage since he had made his intentions known in African American newspapers in late 1899. The Colored American and others recounted his progress [“Mr. White’s bill,” editorial, December 2, 1899], which reports reached the desk of at least one newspaper in Washington, D.C., the Washington Post. In its occasional articles, the Post mentioned the bill and its related efforts, if not always in welcoming terms [“Federal Lynching Law. Edward Everett Brown Discusses Measure He Is Urging Before Congress,” December 18, 1899; “An Anti-Lynching Petition. It is Referred After Debate to the Senate Judiciary Committee,” January 17, 1900; untitled editorial shorts, December 12, 1899, and January 22, 1900].

 

The language of the bill, as it turned out, was not the greatest problem White faced. For when the firestorm he feared came, a fortnight later, it arose almost accidentally. George White had still not spoken on the content of his bill, but by making a simple, factual observation on another Congressman’s [Rep. Romulus Z. Linney, R-NC] seemingly helpful entree to the subject, White found himself quickly embroiled in the nastiest political fight of his career by his now infamous “15 percent” remark [Congressional Record, January 31, 1900, p. 1365].

 

In those remarks, he had accused fellow Congressman Robert E. Burke (D-TX) of exaggerating the controversial justification often offered for lynching African American men: the frequency of assaults by black men against white women.

 

“Since my race is assailed, please allow me to answer,” White began. “I have examined that question, and I am prepared to state that not more than 15 percent of the lynchings are traceable to that crime, and there are many more outrages against colored women by white men than there are by colored men against white women.” His rejoinder was duly noted by the New York Times [“House Discusses Expansion. Debate, However, Gets Tangled with the Race Problem,” February 1, 1900] but not given much play by the Washington Post [“Debated Ballot Law: Judge Linney’s Caustic Words Arouse the House,” February 1, 1900].

 

Five days later, White did rise to speak again on the same subject. But instead of the measured description of his bill he had planned, he was now forced to defend himself against the renewal of vicious attacks on him by the Raleigh News and Observer, his state’s largest newspaper, and published by Daniels [Congressional Record, February 5, 1900, p. 1507].

 

I did the other day, while my colleague [Mr. LINNEY] was speaking, interject a remark to the effect that from an investigation which I made last summer, as stated in a paper which I read before a local organization of this city, I had found that less than 15 per cent of the lynchings in this country were for assaults committed upon women, not in the South, but in the entire United States. I repeat that utterance. I did not justify the commission of assaults by black men upon white women on the ground that white men did the same in regard to black women.

 

I said that there were assaults occasionally committed upon women and that they were not committed by black men upon white women, but were also committed by white men upon black women, as evidenced by the great numbers of mulattoes in the Southland. I said that then; I repeat it now; and if any man here or elsewhere desires to verify the truthfulness of that statement, he has but to make a visit through the South, where I live.

 

I repudiate as much as any man can anyone, whether he be a white brute or a black brute, who commits an assault upon any woman, whether a white women or a black woman. I think such a man ought to be hung--hung by the neck until dead. But it ought to be done by the courts, not by an infuriated mob such as the writer of that article would incite.

 

Two weeks later, White returned to the floor of Congress to present his case for the antilynching bill, and offered one of the longest speeches of his political career. It included a detailed accounting of recent U.S. lynchings and the language of his proposed bill in its entirety [Congressional Record, February 23, 1900, pp. 2151–2154].

 

The following is a portion of his lengthy remarks on that momentous date:

 

Since January 1, 1898, to April 25, 1899, there were lynched in the United States 166 persons, and of this number 155 occurred in the South. Of the whole number lynched, there were 10 white and 156 colored. The thin disguise usually employed as an excuse for these inhuman outrages is the protection of the virtue among white women.

 

I have taken the pains to make some little investigation as to the charges against the 166 persons killed, and find as a result of my efforts that 32 were charged with murder, 17 were charged with assault, criminal or otherwise, 10 with arson, 2 with stealing, 1 with being impudent to white men, and I am ashamed to acknowledge it, but this latter took place in North Carolina. Seventy-two of the victims were murdered without any specific charge being preferred against them whatever. ... Of the 63 lynched there were 1 Italian, 1 Cuban, 4 white men, and 57 Negroes.

 

These facts and figure which I have detailed are reliable; still the same old, oft-repeated slander, like Banquo’s ghost, will not down, but is always in evidence.

 

... Mr. Chairman, the sickening effect of these crimes is bad enough in degenerating and degrading the moral sensibilities of those who now play upon the arena of the nation, but this is nothing when compared with degrading and morbid effect it must have upon the minds of children in communities where these murders are committed in open daylight with the flagrant defiance of all law, morals, and the actors are dubbed as the best citizens of the community.

 

I tremble with horror for the future of our nation when I think what must be the inevitable result if mob violence is not stamped out of existence and law once permitted to reign supreme.

 

If State laws are inadequate or indisposed to check this species of crime, then the duty of the National Government is plain, as evidenced by section 1 of the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States, to wit:

 

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

 

To the end that the National Government may have jurisdiction over this species of crime, I have prepared and introduced the following bill, now pending before the Committee on the Judiciary, to wit:

 

A bill for the protection of all citizens of the United States against mob violence, and the penalty for breaking such laws.

 

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,

 

That all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, and being citizens of the United States, are entitled to and shall receive protection in their lives from being murdered, tortured, burned to death by any and all organized mobs commonly known as “lynching bees,” whether said mob be spontaneously assembled or organized by premeditation for the purpose of taking the life or lives of any citizen or citizens in the United States aforesaid; and that whenever any citizens or citizens of the United States shall be murdered by mob violence in the manner hereinabove described, all parties participating, aiding, and abetting in such murder and lynching shall be guilty of treason against the Government of the United States, and shall be tried for that offense in the United States courts; full power and jurisdiction being given to said United States courts and all its officers to issue process, arrest, try, and in all respects deal with such cases in the same manner now prescribed under existing laws for the trial of felonies in the United States courts.

 

SEC. 2. That any person or persons duly tried and convicted in any United States court as principal or principals, aiders, abettors, accessories before or after the fact, for the murder of any citizen or citizens of the United States by mob violence or lynching as described in section 1 hereof, shall be punished as is now prescribed by law for the punishment of persons convicted of treason against the United States Government.

 

SEC. 3. That all laws and parts of laws in conflict with this statute are hereby repealed. I do not pretend to claim for this bill perfection, but I have prepared and introduced it to moot the question before the Congress of the United States with the hope that expediency will be set aside and justice allowed to prevail, and a measure approved by the Committee on the Judiciary that will come within the jurisdiction of the Constitution of the United States, as above cited.

 

There remain now but two questions to be settled: First, perhaps, is it expedient for the American Congress to step aside from this consideration of economic questions, the allabsorbing idea of acquisition of new territory, and consider for a moment the rights of a portion of our citizens at home and the preservation of their lives? ... The second is: Has Congress power to enact a statute to meet these evils? In my opinion it has ample authority under the Constitution of the United States.

 

... By permission I will here reproduce a letter written by one of the ablest lawyers in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, an ex-attorney-general of that State, to a friend of his in this city. I refer to the Hon. A[lbert] E[noch] Pillsbury. His letter is as follows:

 

... The precise question is whether the United States has any power, under the fourteenth amendment or otherwise, to protect its own citizens against mob violence within the States which the States do not prevent or punish or commonly make any attempt to prevent or punish. This question has never been directly decided. There are two grounds upon which I think it at least possible that Federal legislation for this purpose may be supported.

 

The first is found in the express rights and powers conferred by the fourteenth amendment [which] creates and defines citizenship of the United States as a Federal right, and makes the primary change and citizenship of the States secondary and derivative ... But this is only a negative reason, and does not affirmatively exclude the exercise within the State of any power, expressed or implied, which the United States may possess. There is now another possible ground which had not appeared in the day of the Civil Rights case.

 

Siebold’s case (100 U.S., 371, 394) broadly intimates, and Neagle’s case (135 U. S., 1, 69) directly decides, that there is a “peace of the United States” throughout our jurisdiction; that the United States may preserve and enforce it by preventing an assault upon a Federal officer within a State, even to the extent of killing the assailant, and that this is not an invasion of State sovereignty.

 

... To admit that our nation, which is made up of several States, is unable to enforce law throughout its limits whenever the people therein are disposed to violate the same, and that the State governments, or rather lack thereof, are superior to and ultimately independent of the General Government, is to admit, if I mistake not, the soundness of the late contested platform in secession. What is government if not enforcement, rather than the enactment of law? And what is law if not the protection of the lives and peace of the people?
 

In concluding these statements, Mr. Chairman, I wish to disclaim any intention of harshness or the production of any friction between the races or the sections of this country. I have simply raised my voice against a growing, and, as I regard it, one of the most dangerous evils in the country. I have simply raised my voice in behalf of a people who have no one else to speak for them here from a racial point of view; in behalf of a patient and, in the main, inoffensive race, a race which has often been wronged but seldom retaliated; in behalf of the people who--

 

Like birds, for others we have built the downy nest;

Like sheep, for others we have worn the fleecy vest;

Like bees, for others we have collected the honeyed food;

Like the patient ox, we have labored for others’ good.”

 

Rep. White’s cause, however celebrated, was ultimately unsuccessful. His bill would never emerge from the bowels of the House Judiciary Committee, and would not be voted on by the House of Representatives before his departure from that body in 1901.

 

In his own farewell address delivered a year later [Congressional Record, January 29, 1901, pp. 1634–1638] he would refer to his bill’s fate in poetic, somber terms:

 

During the last session of this Congress I took occasion to address myself in detail to this particular measure, but with all my efforts the bill still sweetly sleeps in the room of the committee to which it was referred. The necessity of legislation along this line is daily being demonstrated. The arena of the lyncher no longer is confined to Southern climes, but is stretching its hydra head over all parts of the Union.

 

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