The Shadow of 1919

As 2019 gets underway, both my interest in political development and the project I am working on now have me thinking about 1919. To say that 1919 was not a good year would be an understatement. World War I had ended and troops were returning to massive celebrations and enthusiastic efforts to reintegrate them. But black veterans of the war and their advocates were apprehensive about the welcome they would receive – rightfully so, as it turned out. W.E.B. DuBois encouraged veterans to continue their fight for justice and democracy at home, noting that the country to which they were returning was a “shameful land” that allowed lynching, barred black education, economically exploited and cheated them, and supported segregation.

The NAACP takes up the fight

Du Bois’s concern was warranted. His May essay preceded 1919’s Red Summer, in which at least 25 coordinated mass attacks were launched against black communities. The attacks spanned the nation, taking place in Houston, East Louis, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Omaha, Tulsa, and Charleston. The NAACP had managed, through persistent engagements with Woodrow Wilson, to extract a statement out of him in July 1918. The statement condemned mob violence and asking federal, state, and local officials to step in and end it. However, as Megan Ming Francis has described, Wilson continued to disappoint. When white veterans orchestrated an orgy of violence against blacks in Washington, DC in July, Wilson stood by, only intervening by calling out the military after four days of attacks on black men, women, and children.

Legislation as a solution?

With little hope of presidential assistance, the NAACP turned to Congress. Missouri Representative Leonidas Dyer had introduced an anti-lynching bill the previous year. The NAACP now reached out to sympathetic members to try to bring the bill to the floor. The House passed the Bill in 1922 and victory seemed close at hand when it moved forward with a favorable report from a committee to the Senate floor. There, however, Southern Democrats filibustered it, resulting in its ultimate defeat. The bill’s supporters reluctantly withdrew it. Senator Lodge explained that “we had to choose between giving up the whole session . . . or getting ahead with the regular business of the session, which includes the farm legislation, the shipping and the appropriation bills.”

Later bills also died due to the Senate’s structural empowerment of racist southern politicians eager to defend white supremacy and their states’ ability to administer it. Federal anti-lynching laws were anathema because they empowered national intervention into southern racial orders. The recognition of lynching as a federal crime and enforcement of prosecutions would also have undercut southern states’ larger projects of shoring up the legitimacy of their supremacist states.

A new initiative

In December 2018, the Senate reversed its historical opposition. It passed the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act, legislation introduced by Kamala Harris (D-CA), Tim Scott (R-SC), and Cory Booker (D-NJ). The legislation acknowledges the history of lynching in the United States and apologizing to its victims. It makes lynching a federal crime, defining it as organized violent attacks against individuals based on identity characteristics. Covered identities include race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability.

It’s too early yet to know what will happen in the House. At least one evangelical and anti-LGBT group, Liberty Counsel, has objected to the legislation because they believe that it will pave the way for further federal protections of LGBT individuals. Nonetheless, a Democratic-led chamber is fairly likely to pass the legislation with the protection included. If it does, the legislation will go off to the White House. One would hope that a law that overwhelmingly passed in the Senate and the House would not prove to be controversial in the Oval Office. Trump’s unpredictability makes this less than a sure thing, as does his vocal support for Cindy Hyde-Smith during her campaign after she joked about going to a “public hanging.”

Still, it looks fairly likely that 2019 will be the year in which the victims of 1919 and many other bloody years are acknowledged, and the federal government takes action to thwart violent coordinated attacks against people based on their group identities.

Good news only goes so far

Well, with one rather significant caveat. Just a few days after the Senate approved the anti-lynching bill, NPR and other outlets reported that the Violence Against Women Act had expired due to the government shutdown. While both houses had passed legislation that would have extended VAWA until February 8, the larger budget dispute short-circuited this lifeline. VAWA is written in a way that, like the Voting Rights Act, requires its periodic reauthorization. The reauthorization itself became controversial in the summer prior to the original deadline of September 30. Democrats expressed a desire to bar gun sales to individuals against whom protective orders had been issued and to individuals convicted of stalking.  Republican opposition to this and other changes kept the measure from being brought to the House floor.

While 1919 was a grim year in many ways, one good thing happened. Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment, which extended the right to vote to women not otherwise barred by racial barriers. What will we learn at the end of the year when we look at 1919 and 2019 side by side? Hopefully the lesson won’t be that you can’t have too many good things at once.

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