In December 2018, the U.S. Senate passed a federal anti-lynching bill for the first time. The significant milestone is preceded by at least 240 failed attempts since 1901 to pass any bill or resolution mentioning lynching in Congress. These attempts to outlaw lynching peaked during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was a strong supporter of anti-lynching legislation, but FDR never supported it for fear of alienating white Democratic voters in the south.
Eleanor joined the NAACP during FDR’s first term in 1934 and began working with leader Walter White to outlaw lynching. This work earned her a lot of enemies, as well as some death threats. Critics of her husband like J. Edgar Hoover spread racist rumors that she was mixed race; and in the 1950s, the Ku Klux Klan put a $25,000 bounty on her head. Her work also caused a rift between her and her husband, whom she could never convince to support her cause.
In the mid-30s, the NAACP persuaded Democratic Senators Robert Wagner and Edward Costigan to sponsor an anti-lynching bill. The legislation couldn’t survive without the president’s support, so Eleanor arranged a meeting with White and FDR to try to convince the president to endorse it. The meeting didn’t go well.
“Somebody’s been priming you. Was it my wife?” FDR asked in annoyance after White presented his case. “If I come out for the anti-lynching bill now, [southern Democrats] will block every bill I ask Congress to pass to keep America from collapsing. I just can’t take the risk.”
Those bills he wanted to pass to keep America from collapsing were part of the New Deal. At the time, “the southern Democrats in the Senate are holding the New Deal hostage and refusing to move on New Deal issues unless the rest of the Democratic party backs off the anti-lynching bills,” says Eric Rauchway, a history professor at the University of California, Davis.
The demographics of Republican and Democratic voters back then were much different than they are today. From the mid-19th century through the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Democratic party’s base was made up of white southerners in the south, and Catholics and immigrants in big industrial cities of the north and west.
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“That’s a real awkward coalition to hold together if you’re talking about…issues of race,” Rauchway says. In the south, racist laws and practices prohibited black Americans from voting. When thousands of black people moved north during the Great Migration, they began exercising their voting rights in the big industrial cities that Democrats had counted on for votes. Some Democrats, like Senator Wagner, courted these new votes by supporting civil rights legislation. Others, like FDR, chose to hold onto the southern white vote instead.
So when the Democrats won both the presidency and a Congressional majority in 1932, “you have this kind of split party,” Rauchway says.
The NAACP hoped it could convince the new ruling party to finally support anti-lynching legislation, which civil rights activists had been trying to pass for decades. Since at least the end of Reconstruction in 1877, white southerners had used lynching to intimidate black people from voting and enforce white supremacist rule. In 1922, the House of Representatives had passed an anti-lynching bill, but it died in the Senate. The NAACP was hopeful that FDR would support such a bill, in part because Eleanor did.
Instead, FDR never gave his support, and the anti-lynching bills introduced during his term were “filibustered to death,” Rauchway says. Senator Richard Russell, for whom one of the three Senate office buildings is still named, filibustered a 1935 anti-lynching bill for six days in order to kill it (three decades later, he also filibustered the 1964 civil rights bill). In 1937, Eleanor sat in the Senate Gallery for days as Senators filibustered another anti-lynching bill to death. Even in the early ‘40s, southern Democratic senators threatened not to support World War II bills unless their colleagues dropped anti-lynching legislation.
The NAACP estimates that between 1882 and 1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the U.S., and that the majority of the people killed in these lynchings were black. Members of Congress continued to sponsor anti-lynching legislation after FDR’s death in 1945, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. actually tried to pass anti-lynching laws several times in the ‘50s. But none made it through the Senate until Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Tim Scott sponsored an anti-lynching bill as the only black members of the 2018 Senate (it still needs to pass in the House and receive a presidential signature before it becomes law).
Before that recent bill, the last time Congress introduced anti-lynching legislation was in the mid-1960s, around the time that Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. The fact that LBJ would lose white southern support by signing the act was not lost on him, just as it wasn’t lost on FDR. Yet unlike his predecessor, LBJ resigned himself to this fact. The night that LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he told his special assistant Bill Moyers, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come.”