Today’s post is by Miriam Kleiman, National Archives Program Director for Public Affairs.
Even long after the Civil War, thousands of African Americans were hanged, burned and shot to death, beaten, and tortured by white mobs who celebrated these atrocities and were rarely prosecuted for their crimes. In 1918, Rep. Leonidas Dyer of Missouri submitted a bill (HR 13) to establish lynching as a federal crime. Dyer said that lynching—and the refusal by localities and states to prosecute the perpetrators—violated victims’ 14th Amendment rights.
Following congressional action on child labor and Prohibition, Dyer appealed to his colleagues and questioned their priorities:
If Congress has felt its duty to do these things, why should it not also assume jurisdiction and enact laws to protect the lives of citizens of the United States against lynch law and mob violence? Are the rights of property, or what a citizen shall drink, or the ages and conditions under which children shall work, any more important to the Nation than life itself? (Congressional Record, House, 65th Congress, 2nd session, 5/7/1918, pages 6177–6178.)
While his bill faltered, racial violence intensified and increased. Black servicemen who had fought for their country in World War I came home to an outbreak of racial violence known as the “Red Summer” because of the extent of bloodshed.
The Tulsa Massacre of 1921 was one of the worst instances of mass racial violence in American history. The violence centered on Tulsa’s Greenwood District (aka “Black Wall Street”), a commercial area with many successful Black-owned businesses. In 24 hours, hundreds were killed, thousands displaced, and 35 city blocks were burned to ruins.
The Tulsa Chapter of the American Red Cross aided many victims and compiled a report with photos of riot scenes, devastated areas, National Guard troops, destroyed homes, dead victims, and massacre survivors in temporary housing. Warning: Some images are graphic and viewers might find them disturbing.
With NAACP support, Representative Dyer heightened his efforts. In 1922, after the so-called “Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill” had passed the House and awaited a Senate vote, Dyer submitted a “Red Record of Lynching Map” to Congress showing lynchings by state and naming congressmen who opposed the bill.
The map was created by a leader in the anti-lynching crusade, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, editor of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight and author of two anti-lynching texts, Southern Horrors and The Red Record.
Dyer reintroduced the measure in each new Congress in the 1920s to no avail. Nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress during the first half of the 20th century alone, and such efforts continue today.
Learn more in Rediscovering Black History blog posts:
- “Portal Spotlight: Civil Unrest and the Red Summer” by Bob Nowatzki, Archives Technician, National Archives at College Park, MD.
- “When the Government Can’t Help” by Netisha Currie, Archives Specialist, National Archives at College Park, MD.
Additional online resources:
- National Archives Records on Civil Unrest and the Red Summer
- U.S. House: Anti-Lynching Legislation Renewed
- National Archives News special topics page: African American History
- Resources for African American Research
- Read the eyewitness account of the Tulsa massacre by attorney Buck Colbert Franklin (John Hope Franklin’s father) in Smithsonian Magazine