Four Lawmakers Opposed the New Anti-Lynching Law on the Basis of “States’ Rights.” Here’s Why That’s Wrong.
On February 26th, just before the close of Black History Month, the House of Representatives voted 410-4 to make lynching a federal crime. After more than a century of proposing anti-lynching bills, Congress finally indicated that, at least in this narrow instance, Black lives (finally) matter.
But one question immediately leaps to the forefront regarding the anti-lynching bill. Who were the four people who voted against it and what could possibly be the reason to oppose it?
The four representatives who opposed it were Ted Yoho (R-FL), Louie Gohmert (R-TX), Thomas Massie (R-KY), and Justin Amash (I-MI). The stated reason for opposition was government overreach and that cry has been uttered quite loudly before.
Calls for “states’ rights” have often in American history been smokescreens for more nefarious intentions. As a key ideology of the Lost Cause, “states’ rights” was the invented reason for the secession of the Southern states, when articles of secession from said states clearly reveal to us that their reason was the right of states to hold Black people in lifelong chattel slavery. So also in the case of lynching, “states’ rights” were mobilized to cut off an avenue for the protection of Black life.
Looking back nearly a century there was someone else who used “states’ rights” language to resist anti-lynching legislation. The NAACP’s Crisis Magazine called him “the arch-foe of anti-lynching bills.” His name was Hatton W. Sumners.
Hatton Walker Sumners, of Texas, served in the House of Representatives from 1913 to 1947 and throughout that time he set himself firmly against anti-lynching legislation. On January 26, 1922, the House passed a piece of anti-lynching legislation called the Dyer Bill. But Sumners argued that the Dyer bill would actually increase racial violence and ultimately, that it would undermine states’ rights. To pass a federal law against lynching was, in Sumners’ words, to “lynch the Constitution.”
Such calls fomented a racism drenched in fear-mongering. In attacking the bill, Sumners suggested that “Black beast rapists” would take advantage of anti-lynching legislation to rape white women with impunity.
On the House floor he said,
“Only a short time ago…their ancestors roamed the jungles of Africa in absolute savagery…You do not know where the beast is among them. Somewhere in that black mass of people is the man who would outrage your wife and your child, and every man who lives out in the country knows it.”
Sumner’s charges of Black male bestiality and rapaciousness created a toxic environment that saturated debates over anti-lynching legislation throughout the height of the lynching era. Whenever calls were raised for the federal government to intervene and prevent white mobs from burning, blowtorching and shooting to pieces Black men, women and children, the response from filibustering Senators and Southern Democratic representatives was: Let the states do their job and keep the federal government out of it.
But it was precisely the failure of the states that precipitated the call for a federal anti-lynching law. There was consensus within Black communities that lynching was a phenomenon that needed to be stopped by any means necessary and often state governments were complicit in lynchings themselves. Sheriffs were known to, in many cases, acquiesce to the mob and hand over those accused of crimes in order to be publicly and brutally executed. In the face of such a milieu, for many, calls for the accountability of states fell on deaf ears. So they appealed to the highest authority in the land—the federal government.
Thus for many Black communities, the critique of the federal government has often not been that it has done too much, but rather that it has done too little.
It is critical for the cause of justice today to acknowledge that lynching did not stop because of legislation, nor did it stop because of a national moral revolution. It stopped because lynching became bad for business. It stopped because organizations such as the NAACP publicized lynching’s brutality, especially the gruesome lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco.
Some might argue that lynching never truly stopped. Instead those seeking to maintain white supremacy found more ingenious, subtle, and lasting ways to form and enforce lethal institutional power.
Public death still occurs in the form of unarmed Black people being killed by police. Lynchings moved from the public square to the execution chamber, as capital punishment took the place of public murder. And the slow death of mass incarceration has tied the noose around entire communities.
It is good news that the House voted for this legislation. For the House to make lynching a federal crime after 120 years of attempts is an important act. But there must be an effort to dispel the narratives that undergirded the practice of lynching: narratives that suggest that federal legislation preventing the murder of Black people is a violation of states’ rights.
The threat of physical harm at the hands of white supremacy has not passed, nor shall it until everyone recognizes that states have many rights, but preventing the protection of Black life is not one of them.