Feds Must Also Answer for Lynchings

The much disputed opening in Atlanta last week of the controversial photo exhibit of lynchings, "Without Sanctuary," dredged up horrid memories of the period when lynch law ruled the South. The exhibit, organizers say, is further proof that the South is finally facing up to a hideous part of its past. And it is a gruesome past. During the years from 1882 to 1968 nearly 5000 persons, the majority of whom were blacks, were burned, shot, and mutilated by white mobs. That number is almost certainly a gross undercount of the carnage. Many deaths were never reported, and officials never investigated many that were reported.

But an even more troubling truth is that the mostly black victims were not merely victims of rampaging white mobs; they were also victims of a racially indifferent, even hostile federal government. Despite decades of intense lobbying by the NAACP during the lynch years, the White House refused to support and Congress refused to pass a federal anti-lynching law.

All attorneys general refused to push for indictments against public officials or law enforcement officers complicit in racial murders. The FBI rarely investigated, and even more rarely, made any arrests in these cases. Less than one percent of the lynch murderers were tried in state courts. Federal officials claimed that it was the job of the states to prosecute the murderers, and if they didn’t there was nothing they could do about it.

Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson cautiously and reluctantly pushed the FBI to make arrests and the Justice Department to bring indictments in the murders of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964, army major Lemeul Penn in Georgia in 1964, and civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo in Alabama in 1965. But these were murders that triggered national outrage, and state officials were defiant in their refusal to take action. When pressed for more prosecutions, federal officials claimed that the states were solely responsible for prosecuting these crimes, and if they wouldn’t there was little they could do about it.

A shameful example of the feds see-no-evil, hear-no-evil toward racial murders is the 1963 Birmingham church bombing in which four black girls were killed. The FBI almost immediately identified the bombers. But when state prosecutors stonewalled the case, the Justice Department flatly refused to bring charges. The feds' inaction was blatant legal evasion.

Two federal statutes gave the Justice Department the power to prosecute public officials and law enforcement officers who committed or conspired with others to commit acts of racial violence. The statutes were enacted by Congress immediately after the Civil War and were aimed at specifically punishing racial attacks against blacks. Federal officials also could have prosecuted many of the lynch murders under the Lindberg Act, passed in 1934, which made kidnapping a federal offense. When local police agencies could not handle interstate crimes such as bank robbery, auto theft, and fireworks sales, Congress passed new federal laws and the Justice Department enforced them. Congress and the White House raised no outcry about states rights, constitutional violations, or federal limits of power to curb these abuses.

The South has made much progress in purging the racial demons of its past. State prosecutors in Mississippi convicted Byron de la Beckwith in 1994 for the 1963 murder of civil rights leader, Medgar Evers, and former Klan Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers in 1998 for the 1965-firebomb murder of Mississippi NAACP official Vernon Dahmer. And, Bobby Frank Cherry, the last of the alleged Birmingham church bombers is now on trial. Two others have been convicted.

But there are other cases of racially motivated murders that still scream for closure. In 1959, Mack Charles Parker was seized from a Mississippi jail by a group of armed white men. Parker was accused of raping a white woman. The FBI had solid evidence that the murderers had crossed state lines, and that law enforcement officers had conspired with the killers. No state or federal charges were ever brought.

In 1961, a white Mississippi state representative on an open highway murdered Herbert Lee, an NAACP worker, during a traffic dispute. He was unarmed. No state or federal charges were ever brought. In 1965, Jimmy Lee Jackson, a black church deacon was gunned down by an Alabama state trooper following a voting rights protest march and rally in Marion, Alabama. No state or federal charges were ever brought.

The Atlanta lynching exhibit tosses an ugly glare on the hideous period in America when blacks were murdered with the quasi-official approval of Southern state officials, and the federal government turned a racially insensitive blind-eye to these crimes. Unfortunately, it will take more than hideous pictures of black bodies swinging from trees to force federal officials to admit they were as complicit in those deaths as raging white Southern mobs.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: thehutchinsonreport.com He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).

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