Rope and Faggot



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At the same time, much can be learned about how Americans in the interwar years understood the federal system, interpreted the Constitution, and responded to calls for social justice by examining the NAACP's anti-lynching campaign.

The Great Depression hit the black community in the South especially hard; not only were blacks among the first to join the ranks of the unemployed, but white southerners often vented their economic frustrations on them. The number of annual lynchings in the United States, which had been declining since the Dyer Bill failed to pass Congress, experienced an upsurge in years immediately following the Great Crash. The NAACP, armed with Walter White's exhaustive study of lynching in America, Rope and Faggot, looked to the New Deal liberals to reverse this horrific trend as they launched the second phase of their anti-lynching campaign. Their efforts quickly caught the attention of Democratic Senators Edward Costigan and Robert Wagner who agreed to co-sponsor an anti-lynching bill. Like James Weldon Johnson, L.C. Dyer, and other anti-lynching bill proponents in the 1920s, the drafters of the Costigan-Wagner Bill believed culpability for lynchings lay at the feet of cooperative or indifferent local officials as well as the mob, and that fines levied against an entire county would motivate southern communities to stop lynchings. This bill afforded the federal government the power to prosecute the lynchers if the state refused to do so after thirty days, penalize municipal officers who were found negligent and fine counties where the lynching occurred up to ten thousand dollars.

Although President Franklin D. Roosevelt publicly denounced lynching and endorsed the bill's objective, he tempered these statements by expressing doubts about the constitutionality of the Costigan-Wagner Bill. Throughout the Senate debate, FDR was unwilling to risk losing the support of the Southern Democrats for his New Deal by actively campaigning for the Costigan-Wagner Bill, which ultimately became the victim of a Senate filibuster in 1935. The NAACP, undeterred by this major setback, shifted its attention to the House of Representatives where Representative Joseph Gavagan used a discharge petition to force the House Judiciary Committee to release the Gavagan Bill, the House version of the Costigan-Wagner Bill, in April 1937. Although this bill easily passed the House of Representatives, it again failed to overcome a Senate filibuster in 1938. By the time the Gavagan Bill passed the House again in January 1940, the NAACP had resigned itself to the legislative reality of the bill's inability to pass the Senate; the Board of Directors thought it was more prudent and fiscally responsible to concentrate their limited resources on "work for the branches, the fight against educational inequalities, and legal defense." Walter White in a personal letter to a colleague explained the organization's limited support this way, "There has been for some months, especially since the filibuster, a growing feeling among some members of our Board that a disproportionate amount of time and money was being put into the anti-lynching fight to the neglect of some other phases of our work."

The unwieldy nature of the NAACP's legislative struggle for an anti-lynching bill in the 1930s is complex but unraveling that history has a collateral benefit for secondary students. By understanding the legislative wrangling and posturing that took place at any given time during the campaign, the bill's ultimate failure will enlighten many students about the limits of public opinion in the thirties and the opposition to social justice in this period. One way teachers can encourage this insight is to have students participate in a role play activity that has them become members of a newspaper or magazine editorial board, such as The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Macon Telegraph, and The Crisis, preparing a retrospective piece about the anti-lynching campaign for publication in early 1940.



It is also our feeling that the contention of some of the defenders of lynching or of the opponents of federal legislation that lynching is nothing but murder is not altogether a sound argument. Lynching is more than murder. It is anarchy when a mob sets itself up as a judge, jury and executioner. In doing so it not only violates whatever rights the lynched person has as a citizen of the state in which he is lynched but also deprives him of his rights as a citizen of the federal government…”

Excerpt from Walter White’s Letter to Senator Edward Costigan

November 27, 1933

Source: NAACP Papers, Library of Congress


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