On Friday, the Senate’s three black members, Cory Booker, D-N.J., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Tim Scott, R-S.C. introduced anti-lynching legislation, which would make lynching a federal hate crime. This is an effort to correct a historical wrong as opposed to stopping a current criminal phenomenon. From 1882 to 1968, at least 4,742 people were reported lynched in the United States (BBC News). The overwhelming majority of victims in the South were black, and anti-lynching legislation had been proposed over 200 times but never adopted. When I first began my political research back in high school (strictly extracurricular because I’m a nerd) on how politicians voted on major civil rights measures, I was fascinated to learn about how anti-lynching votes played out and how they related to ideology if at all. For the purposes of my case study, Southern states are defined as former Confederate states plus Kentucky and Oklahoma.
The first time an anti-lynching bill passed the House was on January 26, 1922. The Dyer bill passed the House 230-120, with 221 Republicans, 8 Democrats, and 1 Socialist voting for, while 17 Republicans and 103 Democrats voted against. 95% of Republicans, 47% of Northern Democrats, and 1% of Southern Democrats did voted for the measure, with Ben Johnson (D-Ky.) standing alone among them. There is some fascinating and unique context behind these figures. The Republican Party had a supermajority in the House at the time, and the northern wing of the Democratic Party had been wrecked in the 1920 election, as only 15 Northern Democrats cast votes on this bill. Even New York City’s Congressional delegation was majority Republican in that session. Thus, the Democratic Party was dominated by its Southern wing, which was committed to maintaining the Jim Crow system. Before the tired narrative gets trotted out about the GOP being ideologically akin to today’s Democrats, we can compare their votes on the income tax cuts during the session. The first House vote on the Mellon tax cuts occurred on August 20, 1921, the vote being 274-125. 270 Republicans, 3 Democrats, and 1 Independent Republican voted for while 9 Republicans, 115 Democrats, and 1 Socialist voted against. The final version of the bill was passed on November 21. The vote was 232-109, with 225 Republicans, 6 Democrats, and 1 Independent Republican voting for, while 11 Republicans, 97 Democrats, and 1 Socialist voted against. It must be understood that at the time, many Democrats did vote liberal, they just didn’t include blacks in their perception of who ought to be helped. The fact that 95% of Republicans backed tax cuts and 93% backed anti-lynching legislation indicates that civil rights when applied to anti-lynching legislation cannot be understood properly on the liberal-conservative dimension of politics. It is best understood as a regional issue. Unfortunately, this bill, which was a plank of the Republican Party platform and personally supported by President Harding never made it to his desk, as Senate Southern Democrats succeeded in killing it. While I could stop here, the Northern Democrat vote is best illustrated in the subsequent votes on the subject.
The next serious effort would be the Costigan-Wagner Bill, which was proposed in 1935. The politics surrounding this legislation were a bit different. In 1922 the major pushers had been conservative Republicans, with Leonidas C. Dyer in the House leading the charge and Sen. Samuel Shortridge of California leading the effort in the Senate. This time, the sponsors were liberal Democrat Senators Edward Costigan of Colorado and Robert Wagner of New York. This distinction neutralized the notion that anti-lynching legislation was a “partisan” proposal. Unfortunately, the bill would meet the same sort of resistance from the South and would be killed without having had a definitive up or down vote. Proponents would try again in 1937.
The 1937 effort was made with the Gavagan-Wagner bill, Rep. Joseph Gavagan (D-N.Y.) being the new sponsor. This bill passed 277-120, with 189 Democrats, 75 Republicans, 8 Progressives, and 5 Farmer-Labors voting for and 117 Democrats and 3 Republicans voting against. This bill once again got shelved in the Senate. Different from the bill’s reception in the House in 1922, you have a majority of Democrats voting in favor as the Republican presence is greatly compromised. Thus, many Northern Democrats are in Congress and voting for the measure. Yet, Republicans are slightly stronger in support than Northern Democrats. 96% of Republicans voting on the measure backed it, while 92% of Northern Democrats did so. Only 6% of Southern Democrats voted for, and of these only Maury Maverick (D-Tex.), whose family name was the origin of the word, was from a former Confederate state. The final effort in which a vote would be held was in 1940.
The 1940 bill, known as the Gavagan-Fish bill, with Rep. Hamilton Fish (R-N.Y.) as sponsor, passed 252-131, with 109 Democrats, 140 Republicans, 2 Progressives, and 1 American Laborer voting for and 123 Democrats and 8 Republicans voting against. The Democratic vote flipped from favorable to unfavorable due to the 1938 midterms, in which Republicans regained some of their strength in the North. Republican support stayed roughly where it was at 95% while Northern Democrat support went down to 84%. The Southern Democrat percent support fell to 1%, with only Edward Creal (D-Ky.) voting in favor.
Overall, the record proves that the determinant of support of anti-lynching legislation is not to be found on the liberal-conservative ideological spectrum. Contrary to what is probably common thought, conservatism does not mean opposition to anti-lynching legislation and liberalism does not mean support of anti-lynching legislation. While conservatives could try and say that the 1922 vote demonstrates that opposition correlates highly with the liberal side, the Democratic Party at the time was effectively a party of the South, and the upholding of Jim Crow came first, perhaps along with the price of cotton being high. The subsequent votes demonstrate a difference as clear as day and night between regions.
P.S.: The popular left-wing narrative about the “parties switching” as it relates to liberal-conservative spectrum and civil rights deserves to die, as it is an extremely convenient narrative, has poor basis in the political record, and is ignorant of certain realities about what the Republican Party is now and has been since its founding. There is other evidence I will be presenting in future posts, but I hope this article has at least nudged your thinking away from this pop history narrative.
(30 June 2018). Black US senators introduce anti-lynching bill. BBC News.
Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-44668459
“To Pass H.R. 801, A Bill to Make Lynching a Federal Crime.” Govtrack.
Retrieved from https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/76-3/h96
“To Pass H.R. 1507, An Anti-Lynching Bill.” Govtrack.
Retrieved from https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/75-1/h27
“To Pass H.R. 8245.” Govtrack.
Retrieved from https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/67-1/h94
“To Agree to the Conference Report on H.R. 8245.” Govtrack.
Retrieved from https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/67-1/h134
“To Pass H.R. 13.” Govtrack.
Retrieved from https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/67-2/h169