Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill
The Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, commonly known as the Dyer Bill, was anti-lynching legislation introduced in the United States House of Representatives in 1918 by "Old Guard" Republican congressman Leonidas C. Dyer of Missouri's 12th congressional district, among the regions in the U.S. plagued with antiblack race riots in the late 1910s. Although eventually passing the House in 1922 with rallying support by the NAACP, it faced opposition in the U.S. Senate by Southern Democrats who, with the aid of progressive Republican maverick William Borah, effectively blocked the legislation over weak support by the Republican majority.
President Warren G. Harding, despite his reported "lack of familiarity" on the decibel levels of racist atrocities facing black people nationwide as a result of Progressive Era–inspired repressions, persistently endorsed the Dyer Bill during the 1920 U.S. presidential election and afterwards, vowing to sign it the moment it reaches his desk if passed by Congress.
Political observers have noted the defeat of the Dyer Bill as the onset of black disenchantment with the Republican Party due to its lack of commitment on the national level in the 1920s—present in both the "Old Guard" whose ranks abandoned civil rights for business priorities since the Gilded Age as well as insurgent progressives—that continued in subsequent decades. Although a majority of black support for the GOP continued in the 1920s, the Northern bloc shifted during the New Deal era for economic motivations, and the Southern bloc in the 1960s when bribed by the Great Society which established the de facto modern "Democratic plantation."
- 1 Legislative provisions
- 2 Birmingham Address: Harding initiates traction for congressional anti-lynching action
- 3 U.S. House: initial defeat, later passage
- 4 U.S. Senate: filibuster, Republican inability to overcome
- 5 Aftermath
- 6 References
- 7 External links
The Dyer Bill defined lynching as:
|“||...an assemblage composed of three or more acting in concert for the purpose of depriving any person of his life without the authority of law as a punishment for or to prevent the commission of some actual or supposed public offense.||”|
Three components defined the bill: punishment of state and municipal officers who failed to protect lynching victims, punishment of the mob itself, and mandatory compensation by the county, within which the lynching occurred, towards family members of the victims. In the event that the lynching victim was kidnapped from one county and murdered in another, both counties would be fined $10,000. The constitutional basis was rooted in the 14th Amendment, which guarantees "equal protection under the law."
Birmingham Address: Harding initiates traction for congressional anti-lynching action
In his famous "Address at Birmingham" given in the Deep South state of Alabama, President Warren Harding spoke in favor of racial equality and better treatment of black people—among the segregated audience, the black side eagerly cheered while the white side was mostly silent with only scatterings of vocal approval. In The Crisis, civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois expressed lukewarm support for Harding, who quickly alarmed Southern Democrats. Mississippi senator Pat Harrison asserted:
|“||To encourage the Negro, who, in some States, as in my own, exceeds the white population, to strive through every political avenue to be placed upon equality with the whites, is a blow to the white civilization of this country that will take years to combat. If the President's theory is carried to its ultimate conclusion, namely, that the black person, either man or woman, should have full economic and political rights with the white man and white woman, then that means that the black man can strive to become President of the United States, hold a Cabinet position and occupy the highest places of public trust in the nation.||”|
—Byron Patton "Pat" Harrison (D–MS)
Sen. Harrison also invoked Southern racial and gender tropes, railing against Harding's call for racial equality in fearmongering that "white women should work under black men in public spaces, as well as in all trades and professions, [which would be] impractical, unjust, and destructive of the best ideals of America."
U.S. House: initial defeat, later passage
As questions over the constitutionality loomed over the Dyer Bill, its sponsor L. C. Dyer (R–MO) in 1921 consulted with Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court William Howard Taft, whose policies as president he supported, just prior to Taft's confirmation by the U.S. Senate. Taft confidentially assured Dyer of the bill's constitutionality, which the Missouri Republican in turn relayed to the NAACP.
Failed Democratic opposition
Southern Democrats in the House, although unable to block the Bill's ultimate passage in the chamber, vilified the legislation. Louisiana representative James B. Aswell, repeating the traditional Democratic canard alleging rape as "the primary cause of the mob spirit," castigated Dyer himself as attempting to deny justice for rapists. South Carolina congressman and future United States Supreme Court justice (as well as Secretary of State under the Truman Administration) James F. Byrnes stated to an applause by the Southern bloc:
|“||It is the criminal Negro and the agitator of the North and East, both black and white, Negroes and white negroettes that mislead you into grievous error on this ignoble legislation.||”|
—Rep. James F. Byrnes (D–SC), 1922
Byrnes also branded proponents of the anti-lynching bill as a mob determined to violate constitutional principles; Mississippi Democratic representative Thomas U. Sisson, who suggested the genocide of black people worldwide, furthered Byrnes's comparison in graphically portraying the supporters of the Dyer Bill as stabbing a bleeding Constitution; Hatton W. Sumners of Texas criticized perceived influence by NAACP lobbyists.
Georgia progressive Democratic representative and Klansman William D. Upshaw, despite his professed opposition to lynching, opposed the Dyer Bill. Another, West Tennessee representative Finis Garrett (a future appointee by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to a federal court), viciously reviled Republicans in a virulent rant:
|“||You gentlemen do not know what it is to live in a section where a wife dare not travel alone in the fields. Whenever you put these ideas in the heads of those few black beasts of the ten million of their race, you are increasing the commission of crime.||”|
—Rep. Finis J. Garrett (D–TN)
On January 26, 1922, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Dyer Bill (H.R. 13) by an overwhelming margin of 230–120; around 700 black individuals packed the Senate gallery to witness the floor debate and passage. 93% of Republicans voted in the affirmative, compared to only 7% of Democrats; along regional divides, it was supported by 95% of Northern Republicans, 50% of Southern Republicans,[note 1] 58% of Northern Democrats, and >1% of Southern Democrats.
When the Dyer Bill was sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee, President Harding and the NAACP began to rally public support behind the legislation. In a heavily black district in Chicago, the Republican representative relayed to constituents the words of Harding:
|“||If the Senate of the United States passes the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, it won't be in the White House three minutes before I'll sign it, and, having signed it, I'll enforce it.||”|
—Pres. Warren G. Harding, cir. Jan. 1922
U.S. Senate: filibuster, Republican inability to overcome
At first, optimism was high about Senate passage—the Republicans controlled the chamber 59–37, needing only the support from five additional Democratic senators (assuming firm GOP unity behind the Bill) to reach the 64-senator threshold needed to overcome a filibuster.
"Old Guard" conservative Republican senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Sr., the sponsor of the Federal Elections Bill of 1890, helped initiate the legislative introduction of the Dyer Bill into the Senate though quickly placated the party's side of the debate into California colleague Samuel M. Shortridge, a diligent supporter of the anti-lynching legislation praised by the NAACP:
|“||We are extremely fortunate in having Senator Shortridge chosen to lead the fight for the bill. He is the one member of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary who has all along held the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill to be entirely constitutional. A number of the other Republican members were in favor of the bill and pledged their support, but were doubtful about the constitutionality of certain of its provisions. Senator Shortridge has all along stood one hundred per cent for the bill. Furthermore, Senator Shortridge is a brave fighter. In the discussions which took place in the Committee he never hesitated to meet the stock arguments of the southern members of the Committee with a frontal attack and demolish them. When these southern members put up the subtle argument of white man to white man, that if the Anti-Lynching Bill were enacted it would encourage the crime of rape among Negroes in the South, Senator Shortridge met them with facts and statistics and hammered them into silence.||”|
The NAACP also noted the support for the bill by Shortridge's California senatorial colleague Hiram Johnson as "one of the most powerful figures in Congress, has pledged himself to do whatever lies in his power in behalf of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill." Johnson wrote in a letter to the organization's assistant director Walter F. White:
|“|| I duly received your letter of July. 14, relating to the Anti-Lynching Bill. I have been in touch with this bill while it has been pending before the Judiciary Committee. Many questions arose concerning the various provisions of the bill, and the objections in the opinion of the majority of the Judiciary Committee were finally met by amendments, and the bill favorably reported.
In common with you and with all American citizens, I insist upon the enforcement of the law and abhor its violation. is no worse blot upon our civilization than mob violence and lynching. The bill now presented by the Judiciary Committee meets the evil and endeavors to afford a cure. I am very glad to do what lies in my power in behalf of this measure.
—Sen. Hiram W. Johnson (R–CA) to NAACP leader Walter F. White, early 1920s
Civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson of the NAACP convinced a number of Republican senators into supporting the Dyer Bill, such as conservatives Lodge of Massachusetts, William Calder of New York, and Charles Townsend of Michigan, in addition to progressives, namely Arthur Capper of Kansas and Albert B. Cummins of Iowa. As the November midterms loomed, sought-out black support for the Republican Party motivated party efforts to pass the Bill.
Judiciary Committee approval
At the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Dyer Bill elicited "a chilly reception." Newspapers reported by the end of May 1922 that every U.S. senator, save Shortridge, completely doubted the constitutionality of the bill, which languished for six months and failed to gain the support of Idaho progressive Republican William E. "Big Potato" Borah, who remained unconvinced even after an extensive correspondence with NAACP president Moorfield Storey. Despite professing sympathy with the anti-lynching movement, Borah insisted that federal legislation violated states' rights.
Borah's opposition was consistent in votes among the subcommittee as well as the full committee, siding with the Democratic fold in discontent. His arguments against the constitutionality of the Dyer Bill, believing that no authorization was provided by the 14th Amendment for federal prosecution of civil rights violations, provided an alibi and effective excuse for lukewarm senatorial colleagues who quietly opposed the Bill—this particularly loomed to hold true for the Western bloc, which had sided with the South in thwarting civil rights efforts, most notably the previous Federal Elections Bill of 1890 defeated by a coalition of Silver Republicans and the Democratic Party.
Plummer B. Young, the editor of the Norfolk Journal and Guide's, publicly predicted a reversal of the Judiciary Committee's prepared disapproval following the mass murder of nineteen white miners in Herrin, Illinois, by a white mob, noting that the (white) U.S. senators would only feel compelled to barely approve anti-lynching legislation following the massacre. On June 30, the committee approved the Dyer Bill "unexpectedly," validating Young's farsighted observations.
Defeat of the Dyer Bill
Renewed motivations for the passage of the Dyer Bill followed after the lynching of Oscar Mack in Kissimmee, Florida; Mack, after obtaining a government contract permitting him to deliver mail from the railroad station to the post office, angered local whites particularly as he beat other contenders for the position. An assistant postmaster, foreseeing a violent attack, gave Mack a pistol, which was used in self-defense on July 16 in retaliation against a white supremacist mob firing into his home. Mack shot and killed two aggressors among the mob, intensifying anger among local whites who despised black self-defense.
A government agent involved in Mack's case over the mailing contract, Leon Howe, desperately urged federal protection of Mack against a mob lynching:
|“||This case appears to offer an opportunity to obtain Federal jurisdiction, as Mack was a government employee. This agent holds no brief for negroes, but from my brief residence in Florida I am convinced that some federal action should be taken in such cases as these.||”|
—Agent Leon Howe, cir. July 1922
The Dyer Bill was first introduced into the Senate by Charles Curtis, the Republican Majority Whip at the time and future vice president under Herbert Hoover. "Indian Charley" Curtis with his roots in Topeka, Kansas, as a Native American, was well-established among party ranks though posed worries on the bill's shepherding through the chamber due to his conservative reputation possibly alienating populist Western Republican senators if he led the party debate. The conservative Lodge, despite his past support for civil rights legislation, barely offered any support for the Dyer Bill, fearing white backlash against his potential support of a "bill of questionable constitutionality." The Republican caucus turned to Shortridge, who although eager to lead the caucus was highly inexperienced for the task.
Borah claimed that most Republicans who voted for the Dyer Bill believed it to be unconstitutional, only giving bare minimum support to continue presenting an appearance of the party maintaining its pro–civil rights origins. Borah's accusation served to embolden the Southern Democratic opposition, who seized upon weak, supposedly nominal Republican support to castigate the legislation's constitutionality.
Floor showdown: the legislation is killed
Despite approval of the Dyer Bill by the Judiciary Committee already at the end of June, Republican senators hesitated to introduce the bill to the floor throughout August 1922 and the first half of September. Procrastinating until the final full day of the congressional session prior to adjourning as the midterm elections approached, Shortridge in the afternoon of September 21, securing the floor, prepared to introduce the bill. However, upon yielding towards two party party colleagues, Mississippi Democratic senator Byron P. "Pat" Harrison invoked a point of order, interrupting for two hours. By the time Shortridge had the ability to regain the chamber, the absence of numerous senatorial colleagues, who departed for the evening, created the absence of a quorum.
In the subsequent 1922 midterm elections, the Republican Party's majorities in both houses of Congress were slashed to narrow majorities as a result of dissatisfaction towards the Harding Administration. the Senate Republicans lost a net of six seats, shrinking their majority from 59 to 53 and narrowing chances of obtaining cloture against a looming Democratic filibuster if the Dyer Bill was brought up in the subsequent Congress. Although the 68th Congress would not take place until after the lame duck session, President Harding's urge to Senate Republicans to pass the Dyer Bill proved futile, no longer carrying significant influence due to the resounding midterm defeats.
Shortridge's parliamentary skills proved unable to overcome that of Democratic opponents Harrison and Oscar W. Underwood of Alabama, the latter of whom stated to the New York Evening Globe that "this Bill is not going to become a law at this session of Congress." In the lame duck session, Shortridge tried taking up the bill once again November 27 at the urging of James Weldon Johnson during a special session of Congress called by Harding for the purpose of approving subsidies benefiting the overseas shipping industry; he faced a prepared Democratic filibuster led by Sen. Harrison and later described by a correspondent of the New York Tribune as "the most effective [old timers] have seen in years." Amidst a deadlock the following day, the Republican caucus affirmed to continue fighting on behalf of the Bill, though Southern Democrats were more forceful in their determination to see its defeat, vowing to let the filibuster sustain until the end of the lame duck session.
Democratic threats to block any Senate business until the Dyer Bill was withdrawn—consistent with their history of parliamentary tactics—caused the lukewarm Republicans, who did not place anti-lynching legislation as their top priority, to abandon the fight. On December 2, the Senate Republican caucus agreed to surrender the battle; two days later, Lodge, along with Republican colleague James Eli Watson of Indiana, acquiesced to Harrison, who demanded the GOP to avoid bringing up the Dyer Bill in the subsequent congressional session. The Massachusetts Republican also provided assurance to Underwood that the Bill would not be brought up again for the remainder of the lame duck session.
Civil rights activists denounced the lack of Republican efforts to pass the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill in spite of their opportunities. The president of the NAACP, Moorfield Storey, regarded the legislation's opponents as "in earnest, and its friends in Congress are not." James W. Johnson noted that "the Southern Democrats roar like lions, and the Republicans lay down like scared possums," and wrote to W. E. B. Du Bois:
|“||I should not say "The Republicans did not intend to pass the Dyer Bill," I think they would have been glad to pass it and they had more than enough votes to do so. The fact is, they were not willing to put up the fight necessary to overcome the Democratic opposition. You could say, The Republicans did not try to pass the Dyer Bill." I do not believe the majority of the men on the Republican side hate and despise us " if they do, there are no words left for the sentiments of the majority of men on the Democratic side. The Republicans are disinterested, they want to keep the Negro in the Republican Party, but his insistence upon recognition embarrasses them. I think "wished to ignore us," expresses more exactly the attitude. "Cowardice and Politicians" were the main characteristics of the Republicans.||”|
—Johnson to Du Bois, early 1920s
Johnson wrote on December 13, 1922, "An Open Letter to Every Senator of the United States" exhorting them to note the occurrence of four lynchings in the nation since the 4th earlier that month when the Dyer Bill was abandoned:
|“||This outbreak of barbarism, anarchy, and degenerate bestiality and the blood of the victims rest upon the heads of the Southern senators who have obstructed even discussion of the measure designed to remedy this very condition. And the responsibility rests equally with the Republican majority who surrendered with hardly a struggle to the lynching tactics of the Democrats.||”|
—Johnson, "An Open Letter to Every Senator of the United States," Dec. 13, 1922
Lodge, angry at the sharp criticism landed towards him by Johnson, who stated, "You said to me bill would not be abandoned on terms laid down by filibusters," responded, "I said nothing whatever about terms because nothing of that sort arose, and the words you attribute to me were never uttered by me. Nothing of that sort was said."
Congressional Republicans attempted to assure Johnson of their ability to pass anti-lynching legislation by adjusting parliamentary rules, and the Harding Administration told the NAACP of its shared disappointment in the failed effort at passing the Dyer Bill; however, civil rights leaders remained deeply dissatisfied. In subsequent congressional sessions throughout his political career lasting until 1933, Rep. Dyer reintroduced his anti-lynching bill never to any avail.
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- Among the Southern Republicans, those elected from normally Democratic districts voted against the Bill.