Gavagan–Fish Anti-Lynching Bill
The Gavagan–Fish Anti-Lynching Bill, also known as the Gavagan–Fish Act and Anti-Lynching Bill of 1940, was the third major effort at enacting federal anti-lynching legislation in the New Deal era. Sponsored this time by liberal Democrat Joseph A. Gavagan and isolationist Republican Hamilton Fish, III, both of New York, it passed the U.S. House similar to the previous Gavagan–Wagner Act though died in the Senate due to a filibuster.
|“|| Every time a colored man or woman is lynched or burned at the stake in American it means the Emancipation Proclamation has been suspended and that their civil and equal rights have been destroyed under the law and Constitution. I would be derelict to those colored soldiers who served under my command and who paid the supreme sacrifice on the battlefields of France fighting to make the world safe for Democracy if I did not raise my voice and do everything in my power to help pass a Federal anti-lynching bill in order to make America safe for their own people, their families and sons... The time has come to put an end to mob violence and the hideous plague of lynching....
Five thousand Americans have been lynched in the last 50 years in this great free country of ours, that is supposed to be the most civilized in the world. The rest of the world laughs at us every time we say we stand for justice and law and order. They bring up that stigma of lynching law and throw it back in our face....
—Rep. Hamilton Fish, III (R–NY), cir. 1939–40
Years later, a repulsed Fish denounced Roosevelt's exhorting of the American people:
|“||...to fight a world war to protect democracy in Europe [while] he refused to support my efforts to extend the blessings of democracy to American blacks.||”|
|“||We know where the President of the United States stands on all racial and religious questions in foreign lands, but we would like to know here he stands on enacting an antilynching bill at the present time in the United States of America. He has been strangely silent about that, a matter which vitally affects the security of some 13,000,000 colored people in America. One word from the White House and that bill would come flying through the Senate and be enacted into law. Day after day we hear about President Roosevelt's views affecting foreign lands, but when it comes to making democracy safe in America and safe for 13,000,000 colored people, he is strangely silent. The White House continues to be as silent as a tomb when the colored people ask for an endorsement of the Gavagan–Fish anti-lynching bill.||”|
On November 21, 1939, a conference was held at Rep. Gavagan's office, which included the congressman himself, Rep. Fish, and several NAACP leaders: executive secretary Walter F. White, national legal committee chief Arthur B. Spingarn, and future United States Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, then a legal counsel. During the meeting, Fish agreed to drop an anti-lynching bill of his own to support Gavagan's.
The anti-lynching bill was dislodged from committee due a discharge petition signed by 218 representatives whom the NAACP wrote to; the organization's branches across the country were reminded to visit their respective congressmen and urge their attendance at Congress on January 8, 1940, the scheduled date for the bill's introduction.
The Gavagan–Fish Act was called up into the United States House of Representatives on January 8, 1940. Two days later, the chamber passed the bill by a 252–131 vote; 95% of Republicans voted in favor while only 47% of Democrats were in the affirmative. Among Northerners (outside the South), only seven Republicans voted against the anti-lynching bill compared to eighteen Democrats.
Among the minority Northern Democratic opposition was Oregon representative Walter M. Pierce, an associate of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and old-school progressive white supremacist. Pierce, influenced by heavy racial prejudices described by some historians as "reactionary populism," consistently opposed anti-lynching bills among numerous civil rights efforts.
Hearings on the bill in the Senate were conducted by the subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, consisting of Frederick Van Nuys (D–IN), the chairman (and sponsor of the previous Wagner–Van Nuys Act), Matthew M. Neely (D–WV), Tom Connally (D–TX), Warren Austin (R–VT), and Alexander Wiley (R–WI). Connally, who filibustered previous anti-lynching legislation, announced his intent to block the Gavagan–Fish Act as well.
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