Costigan–Wagner Act

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President Roosevelt lashed out at the leader of the NAACP when asked to support anti-lynching legislation.

The Costigan–Wagner Act, also known as the Anti-Lynching Bill of 1935,[note 1] was proposed federal legislation in 1934 which aimed to prevent lynchings in the United States by imposing punishments for law enforcement officials who failed to stop them.[1] Introduced by U.S. senators Robert F. Wagner and Edward P. Costigan, it garnered support from Republicans and a minority faction of Democrats, though failed due to an obstruction by Southerners in addition to the overt lack of support by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was more concerned with passing liberal New Deal programs than addressing white supremacist terrorism.[2]


During the beginning of the New Deal era, the increasing willingness of the federal government to exercise increasing power on economic issues caused civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson to believe that the political atmosphere may also pave the way for passing legislation to combat lynching on the national level.[3] Johnson spoke to NAACP Executive Secretary Walter F. White, who subsequently requested Colorado senator Edward P. Costigan to introduce an anti-lynching bill before Congress. In his announcement of intending to introduce the legislation, Costigan stated:[3]

If mob violence is to run riot in America in place of orderly justice the end of free government on this continent will have to come. The sober sense of this country does not, and will not, sanction such lawlessness.

—Sen. Edward P. Costigan, November 29, 1933

The Act was presented to Congress by Sens. Edward P. Costigan of Colorado and Robert F. Wagner of New York, both liberal, pro–New Deal Democrats.[note 2] After Costigan suffered a stroke which hindered his political efforts, he needed a Senate consponsor, which Wagner agreed to cooperating as.[3] This stands in contrast to the leadership nature of the previous major anti-lynching bill presented in Congress, introduced by conservative Republican Leonidas C. Dyer.

California Democratic congressman Thomas F. Ford agreed to cosponsor the bill in the U.S. House.[3] White hoped for a Southern representative to act as a cosponsor in pursuit of reducing opposition from the region's elected politicians, though none were wiling to risk their political fortunes.

Initially, the Act faced the Senate Judiciary Committee. Many witnesses testified in favor of the anti-lynching bill during hearings held by the Van Nuys Subcommittee; most notably, NAACP leader White effectively refuted racially motivated propaganda narratives which had traditionally been exploited by Southern Democratic white supremacists to defend lynching.[4] The only opponent appearing before the subcommittee was Texas Democratic representative Hatton W. Sumners, who defended lynching under a banner of "justice" though mostly employed attacks on alleged unconstitutionality.[4] The Judiciary Committee soon approved the bill despite the testimony of Sumners.

Bill provisions

According to a newspaper at the time reporting on the legislation in the Senate:[5]

The Costigan-Wagner Bill provides for a Federal penalty of five years imprisonment or $5,000 fine, or both, to be placed upon any state officer who fails to protect a person in his charge from mob assaults. If he encourages a lynching, he will be subject to imprisonment for from five years to life. Any county in which a person is seized or put to death by a mob must forfeit $1,000 for the use of the victim's family. or if there is none, for the Federal government; this will bring pressure on the taxpayers who will thus be liable.

Vassar Miscellany News, May 1, 1935, p. 1

The aim and scope of the Costigan–Wagner Act was, according to some sources,[6] weaker than that of the preceding Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill of 1922. It would authorize prosecution of local police officers from a federal level for the failure to prevent lynchings could only materialize under the Act if individual states failed to prosecute such officers within thirty days, though also would impose fines on communities, where lynchings occurred, that would be given to dependents of victims.[3] The bill therefore made compromises to the traditional Jeffersonian adherence of the Democratic Party, though ultimately was opposed by anti–civil rights forces, who nonetheless viewed it as a purported infringement of "states' rights."

The reasoning behind the Act's provisions rested on the premise that the occurrence of lynchings was attributable to local police officers either directly colluding with or intentionally neglecting lynch mobs, in addition to the perception that such terrorism incidents could be prevented by community leaders if the matter was prioritized sufficiently.[3]

FDR's silence

Despite the civil rights activism of his wife Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR refused to publicly support the Act due to fears of alienating Southern Democrats who helped pass his New Deal agenda.[2] The president's closest advisers also refused to support the bill.[7]

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt arranged a meeting between her husband and one of the bill's cosponsors, Sen. Edward P. Costigan (D–CO), with the hope of persuading FDR to announce public support for the Costigan–Wagner Act.[7] During the private White House meeting on May 7, 1934, after NAACP leader Walter F. White issued counterarguments when Roosevelt gave excuses for not supporting the Act, the president angrily exclaimed: "Somebody’s been priming you. Was it my wife?" He further stated:[7]

If I come out for the anti-lynching bill now, [Southern Democrats] will block every bill I ask Congress to pass the keep America from collapsing. I just can’t take the risk.

—Franklin D. Roosevelt, May 7, 1934

Even when graphic images of the lynching of Rubin Stacy appeared in a number of newspapers, Roosevelt refused to support the Act.[8]

Senate opponents block the Act

Costigan at a subcommittee hearing.

Due to the Senate under the control of Democrats, who swept elections nationwide in the wake of the Great Depression amid backlash against Republican policies, the battle for the bill's passage was uphill from the start. The fact that the Senate Majority Leader was Joseph T. Robinson of Arkansas only ensured the bill's defeat. Although mainstream sources mostly ignore his anti–civil rights role,[note 3] When Costigan asked Robinson to help pass the Act on the grounds that FDR voiced a limited level of support (Roosevelt issued a reply at a presidential news conference, the day after meeting with White, where he expressed lukewarm backing for a Senate vote), no reply was returned by the Arkansas Democratic leader.[9] The Colorado senator soon requested unanimous consent on the Senate floor to take up the bill as a means of bypassing sought-out approval from the chamber's leadership; the motion was denied when Southern Democrats Kenneth McKellar and Ellison D. "Cotton Ed" Smith refused consent.[9]

Wagner (left) and Costigan (right) in mid-February 1935 before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee.

In 1935, the Costigan–Wagner Act was reintroduced, particularly motivated in response to the brutal torture and lynching murder of Claude Neal.[9] The legislation was blocked by Southern Democrats in what The New York Times designated "one of the most determined filibusters of recent years."[5] Mississippi senator Pat Harrison, who previously led the white supremacist congressional circle defeating the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill of 1922, proposed allowing the bill to be taken up, whereupon he would immediately introduce a motion to lay it aside. The more radical Southern Democratic proposal, consistent with their parliamentary orthodoxy, was to directly filibuster it to death.[5]

Several Southern Democratic senators employed different arguments in denouncing the Act when filibustering. South Carolina senator "Cotton Ed" Smith, a virulent demagogue, spouted racially motivated diatribes while Walter F. George of Georgia denounced lynching though spoke out against the bill on professed constitutional grounds.[10] Alabama senator Hugo Black (previously a member of the Ku Klux Klan) attacked the Act in absurdly arguing that it was an attack on labor unions, and the filibuster continued from Hugo Black, Josiah Bailey, John H. Bankhead, Tom Connally, and James F. Byrnes.[10] Costigan and Republican leader Charles McNary diligently led the support for the bill, though faced endless tirades of Southern Democrats employing various arguments, including Bankhead claiming that the Republican Party used it to hinder New Deal legislation.

Prominent progressive leader Joe T. Robinson attempted to defeat the Act using a motion to adjourn the Senate.

Robinson played a crucial part in killing the Costigan–Wagner Act. He introduced a motion to adjourn the Senate until the chamber would hold a debate over a separate piece of legislation, thus indefinitely stalling off passage of the Act.[5] This stood in contrast to the two other proposals by anti–civil rights forces which suggested either laying it aside or directly filibustering it to death.

On April 26, 1935, the adjourn motion was narrowly defeated by a 33–34 vote, with most Republicans voting against it while only a third of Democrats opposed it.[11] However, as reported by The New York Times two days later, the anti–civil rights forces were prepared to use "extended oratory" and "other parliamentary devices" against the Act.[12] Although the initial adjourning attempts fell short, backdoor maneuvering and political trading ultimately resulted in a motion passing on May 1.[13][14] Several senators who voted against the adjourn motion in late April switched sides to support the move in early May, including Harry S. Truman, James E. Murray, and Champ Clark.[15]

Subsequently, former Republican congressman Leonidas C. Dyer, the author of the 1922 anti-lynching bill, stated that practical efforts to pass federal anti-lynching legislation would prove futile when Congress is controlled by the Democratic Party. Dyer believed that petition efforts by White and other prominent black leaders, which urged legislative action, faced a bleak outlook.[13]

Progressive Republicans collaborate with Southern Democrats

Southern Democrats were not the only opponents of the bill; some progressive Republicans also were frequent opponents of anti-lynching legislation due to their professed adherence to a Jeffersonian view of the federal government. Independent progressive leader and GOP maverick George Norris, most notably, denounced the Costigan–Wagner Act as unconstitutional.[16]

Alongside Norris, staunch progressive Republican William E. Borah of Idaho also opposed the Costigan–Wagner Act. According to author Joseph M. Hernon:[17]

Toward the issue of civil rights for African Americans, both Borah and Norris turned a morally blind eye. They joined most of white American in benign neglect, if not active discrimination against "Negroes." And Borah's opposition to the Costigan–Wagner Antilynching Bill succeeded in preventing cloture of a southern filibuster in 1935.

Lynn Frazier, a prominent progressive Republican from North Dakota aligned with the state's left-wing Nonpartisan League, was among the vote-switchers who supported the adjourn motion on May 1.[14][15]

Huey Long's announced opposition

Despite popular mythology, Huey Long was not ahead of his time on racial issues.

Sen. Huey Long (D–LA),[note 4] the nation's prominent far-left demagogue, was absent on the adjourn motion,[11] although he made it abundantly clear of his foremost opposition to anti-lynching legislation, stating:[18]

You can quote me as saying I'll vote 100 percent against the Costigan–Wagner anti-lynching bill that's brought up there in Washington. We just lynch an occasional n*****. No federal anti-lynching bill would help that.

—Huey P. Long, cir. 1934–35

In an interview with Roy Wilkins, Long provided excuses for not supporting anti-lynching laws:[19]

You mean down in Washington Parish? Oh, that? That one slipped up on us. Too bad, but those slips will happen. You know while I was governor there were no lynchings and since [Governor Allen] has been in he hasn't had any. This one slipped up. I can't do nothing about it. No sir. Can't do the dead n**** no good. Why, if I tried to go after those lynchers it might cause a hundred more n*****s to be killed. You wouldn't want that, would you?

—Huey P. Long, February 1935


  1. January 5, 1934. ANTI-LYNCHING BILL OFFERED IN SENATE; Costigan-Wagner Plan Paves Way to Jail Officers Who Fail Against Mobs. WOULD FINE COUNTY $1,000 Money Would Go to Victim's Kin -- Cummings Is Not Backing a Lynching Measure. The New York Times. Retrieved December 1, 2022.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Masur, Louis P. (December 28, 2018). Why it took a century to pass an anti-lynching law. The Washington Post. Retrieved December 1, 2022.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Greenbaum, Fred (1967). "The Anti-Lynching Bill of 1935: The Irony of "Equal Justice—Under Law"," p. 72–73. Internet Archive. Retrieved December 2, 2022.
  4. 4.0 4.1 "The Anti-Lynching Bill of 1935: The Irony of "Equal Justice—Under Law"," pp. 74–75.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 May 1, 1935. ANTI-LYNCHING BILL ENGAGES SENATE IN LENGTHY FILIBUSTER. Vassar Miscellany News, Vol. XIX, No. 45. Retrieved December 1, 2022.
  6. Ness, Immanuel (2004). Encyclopedia of American Social Movements, p. 134. Google Books. Retrieved December 2, 2022.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 February 12, 2016. Eleanor Roosevelt’s Battle to End Lynching. Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. Retrieved December 1, 2022.
  8. Costigan-Wagner Bill. NAACP. Retrieved December 2, 2022.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 "The Anti-Lynching Bill of 1935," pp. 76–77.
  10. 10.0 10.1 "The Anti-Lynching Bill of 1935," pp. 79–82.
  12. Catledge, Turner (April 28, 1935). ANTI-LYNCHING MEASURE MEETS DOGGED HOSTILITY; Opponents of Costigan-Wagner Bill Ready to Fight It With Extended Oratory and Other Parliamentary Devices. The New York Times. Retrieved December 1, 2022.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Brown, Mary Jane (2017). Eradicating this Evil: Women in the American Anti-Lynching Movement, 1892-1940. Google Books. Retrieved December 2, 2022.
  14. 14.0 14.1 TO ADJOURN UNTIL 3:30 THE SAME DAY. Retrieved December 2, 2022.
  15. 15.0 15.1 "The Anti-Lynching Bill of 1935," p. 83.
  16. Barnes, Harry W. (August 1969). Voices of Protest: W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, p. 6. Institute of Educational Services. Retrieved December 1, 2022.
  17. Hernon, Joseph M. (1997). Profiles in Character: Hubris and Heroism in the U.S. Senate, 1789-1990, p. 154. Google Books. Retrieved December 2, 2022.
  18. Jeansonne, Glen (1992). Huey Long and Racism, p. 280. JSTOR. Retrieved December 1, 2022.
  19. Simkin, John (September 1997). Costigan-Wagner Act. Spartacus Educational. Retrieved December 3, 2022.


  1. It was introduced in both 1934 and '35, though the prominent debates and public attention occurred in the latter, and therefore it's not as commonly referred to as the "Anti-Lynching Bill of 1934."
  2. Although anti-lynching bills in the 1930s were typically introduced by liberal New Deal Democrats, the New Deal Coalition itself was not united over the issue.
  3. This is likely due to Robinson's indisputable reputation as a hardline progressive leftist among the Southern bloc; due to contemporary left-wing academics defining civil rights as a "left-wing" position and white supremacy as "right-wing," pointing out Robinson's role as an obstructor of civil rights legislation would destroy their own narratives.
  4. Unlike Robinson, whose anti–civil rights record is ignored by academia, Long's reputation has been directly sanitized and whitewashed by many academics (most notably T. Harry Williams) and mainstream sources into being portrayed as farsighted on racial issues.

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