On Ideology and Anti-Lynching Legislation

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

3 thoughts on “On Ideology and Anti-Lynching Legislation

  1. Would you happen to know some more details about the handful of Northern Democrats who voted against the Gavagan-Wagner bill and Gavagan-Fish bill? Of them, I did some extensive research into Frank E. Hook, including reading the biography written by his daughter Mary Louise Hook Allen. The book said that Hook was apparently concerned with the plight of blacks in the South, but hardly specified anything further.

    Scouring through the Congressional Record details on the day the House passed the Gavagan-Wagner bill, I found an interesting speech given by Hook, who seemed to emphasize concerns with the impact of the legislation on law enforcement. Hook also introduced an amendment to the bill, which failed.

    Also, another important thing to mention are the two Senate anti-lynching rider amendments of 1937 introduced by New York Democrat Royal S. Copeland, both of got tabled due to many Northern Democrats joining their Southern counterparts opposing it. Among them included Joseph O’Mahoney, who later introduced the jury trial amendment that officially gutted the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

    1. They were predominantly rural westerners of progressive inclinations. For some their opposition to anti-lynching legislation stood as the only issue in which they voted against civil rights. This was the case with John Murdock of Arizona, Compton White of Idaho, and Knute Hill of Washington. Harry Coffee of Nebraska and Guy Moser of Pennsylvania, on the other hand, appear to have just been against civil rights legislation altogether given their votes against the modest 1942 anti-poll tax bill.

      The Most Notable:

      Clarence F. Lea of California, who served from 1917 to 1949 and voted against the 1922 and 1940 anti-lynching bills but voted for the 1937 proposal. He represented Sonoma and Humboldt counties, thus was very strongly an advocate for the area’s wineries and a foe of Prohibition. Lea was also overall a moderate who often favored Republican positions on taxes.

      Clarence Cannon of Missouri, who served a long time as the chair of the House Budget Committee. I actually wrote an article about him not too long ago. One of his last major votes was for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

      Walter M. Pierce of Oregon, who had been a Klan sympathizer during the 1920s and served a term as the state’s governor. He strongly supported a KKK-backed law requiring attendance in public school, which the Supreme Court struck down unanimously as unconstitutional. The aim of this law was to end Catholic schooling in Oregon.

      Abe Murdock of Utah, who was, like Frank Hook of Michigan, ultra-liberal. In 1940, he defeated for renomination to the Senate William H. King, who was a New Deal critic. Murdock served one term before being swept away in the 1946 midterms.

      1. Hmm, good compilation/analysis. I’ll have to examine some of those individual representatives more thoroughly soon.

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