Senate should've included money with apology for lynching inaction

June 22, 2005|By GREGORY KANE

WHERE'S THE late, great Walter White when we need him?

Last week, members of the U.S. Senate made a great whoop in "apologizing" for their predecessors' failure to pass a law against lynching. The good senators conveyed their "deepest sympathies and most solemn regrets of the Senate to the descendants of victims of lynching, the ancestors of whom were deprived of life, human dignity and the constitutional protections accorded all citizens of the United States."

An article in The Sun noted that "the resolution offers no compensation to victims for their families."

Well then, what was the point?

It is here that White, who was assistant secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People before succeeding James Weldon Johnson as secretary of that organization, might provide some help. As a survivor of a 1906 race riot in Atlanta and a man who closely missed being lynched himself, White at one time was America's leading authority on lynching.

Of mixed black and Caucasian ancestry, White had blond hair and blue eyes. His skin was so light that he could pass for white, which he did when he conducted firsthand investigations of more than 40 lynchings and eight race riots.

In 1926, White took a leave of absence from the NAACP after breaking the story of a lynching in Aiken, S.C. He went to France for a year to write a book about lynching. Published in 1929, the title was Rope and Faggot: A Biography of Judge Lynch.

In the latter chapters of the book, White informed his readers that the U.S. government paid damages of more than $24,000 to the government of Italy after the 1891 lynching of 11 Italians in New Orleans. After noting that "mobs had lynched Italians, Chinese, Japanese, Bohemians, Mexicans and citizens of Great Britain and Switzerland" between 1887 and 1901, White wrote that our government had to fork over close to half a million bucks to China, Italy, Great Britain and Mexico as an indemnity. The Italian government got another $5,000 after an Italian citizen was lynched in 1903.

So just where does today's Senate get off with this no compensation stuff?

I'm sure surviving family members of lynching victims might feel that if the senators wanted to apologize, they might as well apologize with some money. When the denizens of political correctness all but coerced an apology from the U.S. government in the late 1980s for the World War II internment of Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans, money was part of the deal.

It's not that I'm for this apology business, mind you. White made clear in his anti-lynching treatise that some senators of his day were blatant racists who fully supported stringing up a Negro or two to keep the rest in line. You can't really apologize for people like that.

White also conceded that there were senators of his day who "honestly doubt the constitutionality of a federal anti-lynching law, however well framed" and "contend that lynching is murder and nothing more and that punishment lies wholly and solely upon state governments for murder, whether it be committed by one or by ten thousand."

In other words, there were those who could be ardently pro-10th Amendment (states' rights) and anti-lynching at the same time. Needless to say, White and other NAACP officials didn't agree with them. White wrote of Johnson's 1926 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee when the NAACP secretary said "lynching is not simply murder; it is murder plus something else. It is murder plus revolution and anarchy."

My feeling is that White and Johnson were closer to the truth about lynching than those strict 10th Amendment constructionists. But does such a sincere adherence to the 10th Amendment decades ago warrant an apology today?

Our ambivalence about the 10th Amendment continues. For the past 40 years, we've been pile-driving it into the ground with the ferocity of a professional wrestler. Then, depending on where we stand on the political spectrum, we'll give it some smelling salts, revive it and use it. The good old 10th came in mighty handy for those lefties who urged that states and cities pass resolutions rejecting the Patriot Act.

Some on the left and the right now agree that President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act is an unwarranted federal intrusion into the state function of education.

The U.S. Senate not passing an anti-lynching bill on the grounds that it would have been unconstitutional is not an "offense" that warrants an apology. But those who voted for it last week should have been required to read White's Rope and Faggot before doing so.

Then, at least, they might have been inspired to "show the money" to the folks they were apologizing to.

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