FDR tiptoes around the lynching issue

Posted by | April 30, 2007

The movement to put anti-lynching legislation in place gained new momentum with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. The president’s wife Eleanor had been a long-time opponent of lynching. During that year, lynchings had decreased to a new low of ten incidents and during the entire decade “only” 88 blacks were lynched.

 1936 lynching of Lint Shaw in Royston, Georgia
Appalachia, though hardly immune to race hatred, was not cursed with the higher number of lynchings to be found in the Plantation South. W. Fitzhugh Brundage, of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, explains:

“Only a small portion of Appalachia, specifically the area along the borders within the foothills, was devoted to monocultural agriculture with all of its attendant evils, including lynching. In rough proportion to the degree that a particular region diverged from the plantation South, the likelihood of habitual mob violence in that region shrank. Of course, neither the pursuit of economic justice nor the rejection of violence lay behind the absence of violence in agricultural labor relations in Appalachia.

Mountain landlords simply devised a system of labor that was exploitative, stable and lucrative but that did not rest upon the steady application of coercive methods. They showed little interest in mimicking their low country counterparts, who assumed the prerogative to regulate violently all aspects of black life.

Thus, the enduring stimuli for lynching that were so abundant in the plantation districts of the South were largely absent from rural Appalachia. The point is that although the color line was etched into the day-to-day reality of race relations in Appalachia during the twentieth century, few whites believed that the the upheavals of the late nineteenth century required them to defend violently and habitually their property, livelihood, rights, or status from a black threat.”

‘Appalachians and Race: The Mountain South from Slavery to Segregation’ Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001. John Inscoe, ed.

In 1935, members of Congress proposed a new bill, The Costigan-Wagner Act, which attacked one of the main aspects of lynching. The legislation proposed federal trials for any law enforcement officers who failed to exercise their responsibilities during a lynching incident.

Roosevelt refused to speak out in favor of the bill. He argued that the white voters in the South would never forgive him if he supported the bill and he would therefore lose the next election. The Costian-Wagner Act received support from many members of Congress but the Southern opposition managed to defeat it (Sen Richard Russell, GA, filibustered with 6 days of non-stop talking!)

Again, the bill was defeated despite overwhelming public support. A national poll taken in 1937 that “found 65 per cent of all southerners supported legislation that would have made lynching a federal crime” (Tolnay and Beck, p. 202.) However, the national debate that took place over the issue helped to bring fresh attention to eliminating the crime of lynching.

Tolnay, Stewart E. and Beck, E.M. (1995) “Festival of Violence” Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press

lynching, appalachian+culture appalachian+history history+of+appalachia

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  • […] Franklin D. Roosevelt resisted Republican efforts to pass a federal law against lynching. (1935.  FDR refused to speak out in favor of  Costigan-Wagner Act, which attacked one of the main aspects of lynching. The legislation proposed federal trials for […]

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