Gavagan–Van Nuys–Wagner Act

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Anti-Lynching Legislation

Major legislation:



The Gavagan–Van Nuys–Wagner Act, also known as the Gavagan–Wagner Act (or Wagner–Gavagan Act),[1] Wagner–Van Nuys Act (or Wagner–Van Nuys Anti-Lynching Bill),[2] and Anti-Lynching Bill[3] of 1937–38, was proposed anti-lynching legislation in the United States Congress, subsequent to two failed attempts at enacting the Costigan–Wagner Act in 1934–35.

Despite bitterly fought efforts yet again to enact landmark federal provisions outlawing lynching, the Act died in a Senate filibuster, marking yet another episode of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's inability to prioritize protection of Southern blacks over his liberal New Deal agenda he relied on Southern Democratic support for. Roosevelt's personal history of racism,[4] evident in snubbing black four-time Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens from a customary White House invitation the year previous,[5] was a likely influence on his practical lack of sympathy for protecting blacks from lynching.


For a more detailed treatment, see Costigan–Wagner Act.

According to a Gallup Poll in 1937 months prior to the bill's congressional maneuvering, a solid majority of the American public supported congressional legislation to designate lynching a federal crime.[6] Between three-quarters and four-fifths surveyed supported federal action in all regions except for the Pacific Coast and South, though even the latter saw a majority in the affirmative.

Edward P. Costigan, who cosponsored the previous federal anti-lynching bill, was no longer in Congress, retiring in the 1936 elections due to "nervous exhaustion."[7]

Legislative history

Joseph A. Gavagan in the late 1930s.

Sponsored by Democrats Joseph Gavagan in the U.S. House as well as Frederick Van Nuys and Robert F. Wagner in the Senate, the Gavagan–Van Nuys–Wagner Act resembled its Costigan–Wagner predecessor in large part though lacked provisions concerning labor-related racketeer/riot violence, and aimed to broaden the Lindbergh Kidnapping Act to prosecute lynchings such as the horrendous torture and murder of Claude Neal.[7]

U.S. House

Even in the U.S. House, where there was no filibuster to prevent a floor vote, "all manner of trickery and opposition" was employed by opponents who conspired to stifle effective action.[8] Powerful Texas representative Hatton W. Sumners, who controlled the House Judiciary Committee, had "emasculated" a separate anti-lynching bill introduced by Arthur W. Mitchell, the first black Democratic congressman, which subsequently was regarded by the anti-lynching movement as pointlessly weak to accomplish justice. A successful discharge petition by the NAACP managed to free the Gavagan bill from the House Rules Committee, which came to a floor vote in lieu of Mitchell's.[8]

Subsequent to a double lynching in Duck Hill, Mississippi, sharp urgency motivated an efficient passage of the Act.[8] On April 15, 1937, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill by a vote that split along both party and regional divides,[9] with 96% of Northern Republicans in the affirmative, a lower 92% of Northern Democrats supporting, and six Southern Democrats voting in favor. A handful of non-Southern, rural progressive Democrats in the North and West opposed the legislation mostly for law enforcement–related complications.

Future president and then-congressman Lyndon B. Johnson opposes the Act

LBJ opposed every legislative civil rights effort in the first two decades of his political career.[10]

Lyndon Johnson, at the time a young, staunchly pro–New Deal U.S. representative from Texas, denounced the Gavagan–Wagner Act:[11]

Mr. Chairman, this bill is pernicious. Commendable in its purpose to suppress lynching, which no one condones and against which no one is more bitterly opposed than I, yet the means by which it attempts to eradicate this evil is revolting and shockingly illegal and unconstitutional. Lynching and mob violence are indefensible, but they are no more indefensible than this bill, which is a reckless, arrogant, and illegal attempt upon the part of the Federal Government to usurp the lawmaking and the law-enforcing powers and agencies of the State governments.

The bill does more than destroy State rights; it completely destroys State sovereignty, and makes the States, including all State and county officers, responsible, not to the State governments of which they are a part, and to which they have sworn allegiance, but responsible to the ukase of Federal officers, Federal courts, and Federal bureaucrats. The despised force bill of reconstruction days was no more a wanton or reckless disregard of the inherent and exclusive rights of the States than this vicious measure...

—Rep. Lyndon B. Johnson (D–TX), 1937

New York Republican Hamilton Fish, III, later a sponsor of the subsequent 1940 Gavagan–Fish Act, retorted:[11]

Fish refuted Johnson's arguments.
The gruesome lynching at Duck Hill, Miss., of two colored men taken out of the hands of the sheriff in broad daylight proves the immediate need for a Federal anti-lynching law. The victims had just pleaded not guilty when seized by a cowardly and brutal mob of lawless ruffians, armed to the teeth, who tortured and burned the two young Negroes to death by use of a blowtorch. It amounted to a rape of justice, liberty, civil rights, equal rights, human rights, and human lives and of the Constitution itself. Every member of the mob, amounting to 100, who, in defiance of the law and the courts, took part in this barbaric abomination should be apprehended, tried, and convicted to long terms in prison.

This is a typical lynching case, and the actual test of the ability of certain Southern States to protect colored citizens from violence is whether the members of the mob are arrested and convicted. If they are, then there is no real need for Federal anti-lynching legislation, but if not then even the southern Democrats should vote for the bill. But, judging from past experience, I doubt if the members of this atrocious, bloodthirsty mob will be convicted and imprisoned; only time will tell. I am unwilling, however, to believe that intelligent, law-abiding southern people have any sympathy with rule by mob violence, torture, or with such bestial acts, and that they must see the need for Federal legislation.

—Rep. Hamilton Fish, III (R–NY), 1937

Minority Northern Democratic opposition

Frank E. Hook.jpg Guy L. Moser bioguide picture.jpg

Frank Hook (D–MI) (left) and Guy Moser (D–PA) (right) opposed the Act on non-racial grounds.

Among the small fraction of Northern Democratic congressmen who voted against anti-lynching legislation during the New Deal era, few appeared to share the crude racial motivations held by their Southern party colleagues. Frank E. Hook, a New Deal congressman from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, voiced concerns about the legislation's impact on police in relation to prosecuting gangs,[12] concurring with the assessment of Pennsylvania representative Guy L. Moser who opposed Section 4 that authorizes the prosecution of officials who fail to apprehend lynchers within thirty days:[13]

Progressive Democrat Walter M. Pierce opposed the Act.
Mr. Chairman, I have investigated cases for the Federal Government that have led to the prosecution of those guilty of crime. In innumerable instances it was not possible to apprehend within a given limit of time. The time I consumed was never restricted. In the investigations that led to the obtaining of evidence on which to apprehend, and on which to convict, frequently many months were necessarily consumed, and at times years, approaching dangerously near the deadline of the statute of limitations—3 years. I cannot under any circumstances vote to make my people liable under such prima-facie evidence amenable to the proviso therein mentioned.

—Rep. Guy L. Moser (D–PA), April 15, 1937

Oregon Democratic congressman Walter M. Pierce, previously a governor of the state, however, opposed anti-lynching legislation on racial grounds due to his heavy progressive, eugenicist background, and past Ku Klux Klan connections. Although absent on the vote,[9] Pierce indicated his intent to vote against the Gavagan–Wagner Act.[14]

U.S. Senate

Sen. Frederick Van Nuys of Ind.jpg WAGNER, ROBERT. SENATOR (cropped).jpg

The Democratic senatorial sponsors of the anti-lynching bill: Frederick Van Nuys (left) and Robert F. Wagner (right).

The Wagner–Van Nuys Act was approved by a Senate Judiciary subcommittee,[15] though never gained support from FDR. According to historian Nancy Weiss Malkiel:[16]

Gavagan later recalled that he had received "very little support from the White House" in any of his efforts in behalf of the antilynching bill. "This apparent disinterestedness on the part of the White House in legislation of this type always puzzled me," he explained, "and although I attempted on several occasions to procure an answer to the query, I was unsuccessful. I finally gave up the attempt, convinced that perhaps after all, President Roosevelt was taking first things first and felt that the more demanding questions were more vital to the nation at that particular time than any equal rights legislation."

Gavagan's analysis was on the mark. No matter that blacks had voted overwhelmingly Democratic in 1936.[note 1] Even in the second term, as the pace of recovery legislation slowed, Roosevelt and his aides faced matters that they judged to be of greater importance than questions of race. Tommy Corcoran spoke aptly to the question of priorities: "We had first of all the court fight, and then we had the purge fight, and then we had the third-term fight, and then we had Hitler and the war." For "a practical person" like Roosevelt, that left “only a little niche" for racial issues.

—"Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR," p. 243

FDR prioritizes court packing in lieu of civil rights

For a more detailed treatment, see Court packing.
Liberal godfather FDR did not support the Gavagan–Wagner Act.

Instead of focusing on the anti-lynching bill when the Judiciary Committee approved it, Roosevelt was concerned with a scheme to packing the Supreme Court following conservative rulings striking down sections of the New Deal as unconstitutional.[16] The effort at appeasing Southern Democratic politicians by opposing anti-lynching legislation, in seeking their support for the New Deal, was at its epitome with Roosevelt exasperating for sufficient unity to enact his controversial and widely despised plan of unilaterally manipulating the Supreme Court to facilitate a political agenda.[16]

Due to the "court reorganization" proposal taking priority, the Wagner–Van Nuys Act was not taken up until the following year.[17] When the Democratic Senate Majority Leader Joseph T. Robinson suddenly died, his successor Alben Barkley, the future vice president under Harry Truman, was "determined to prevent consideration of the anti-lynching bill until the more important administration bills were out of the way." At the next congressional session in January 1938, when the Act came up for debate, there was a filibuster lasting six weeks which opposing parliamentary maneuvers failed to stop.[17]

The filibuster briefly paused when the Senate agreed to temporarily take up a relief bill.[17] When approached by a reporter on January 14, 1938, about the Wagner–Van Nuys Act, President Roosevelt declined to address the bill, stating, "I should say there was enough discussion going on in the Senate." A national news outlet deceptively sugarcoating Roosevelt's stance as "benevolent neutrality" failed to assure adamantly firm anti-lynching activists, who viewed the president's inaction as a sign of carelessness.[17]

Southern Democratic filibuster

Left to right: Democratic U.S. senators Tom Connally, Walter F. George, Richard Russell, Jr., Claude Pepper.
Northern old-school progressive Republican William Borah consistently collaborated with Southern Democrats to obstruct civil rights legislation.

In January 1938, when the United States Senate took up the anti-lynching bill yet again, Southern Democrats launched a parliamentary blockade; The New York Times reported on January 11 that Tom Connally of Texas was "ready for [the] usual filibuster."[18] Richard B. Russell, Jr., of Georgia accused the Act of being a Communist tool for the establishment of "a Soviet Negro Republic,"[19] and James F. Byrnes of South Carolina branded it a Northern Democratic scheme to appeal for black support.[20]

William E. Borah, a longtime progressive Republican from Idaho, notably aided the Southern Democratic obstruction.[21] After Russell finished in associating anti-lynching legislation with the Communist Party, Borah walked over to applaud the speech, subsequently denouncing it as violating "states' rights."[22] An exhilarated Russell extolled his Idaho colleague whose name "the people of the South will ever revere,"[23] and Borah's influence led another liberal Northern senator, Republican-turned-Independent George Norris, to oppose the Wagner–Van Nuys Act.

According to an editorial at The Crisis in February 1938:[24]

Senator William E. Borah of Idaho, who has broken his record of inconsistency by maintaining almost unbroken opposition to the aims and aspirations of Negro citizens, professes to see a wrecking of the doctrine of states rights if the bill passes. Mr. Borah saw no such wrecking of the other federal legislation which has invaded steadily the rights of the states, but in this matter Negroes are involved, so he roars his opposition.


This is familiar philosophy from the Old South. Borah more than once has joined in espousing it, all the while posing as a constitutionalist, and a Socrates on the democratic process. As a result of this debate a question intrudes even more insistently than it has heretofore: How long will our democracy be able to stand if we blink at the abrogation of it in respect to the rights of a great minority group?

The Crisis, Feb. 1938, p. 49

North Carolina senator Robert R. Reynolds, a Nazi sympathizer, partook in the filibuster as one of the floor leaders, calling the issue a "local mule hole" and denouncing the Act as an effort to "lynch" the Constitution's guarantee of "states' rights."[21] Due to his impending reelection, he "felt he had to defend the traditions of the South," and the move was noted as "expediently designed to defeat the bill and keep him on good terms with both the administration and the voters of North Carolina." On January 6, Reynolds rambled about Communism, the Civil War, foreign policy, as well as North Carolina mountains, and his filibustering continued for an additional three hours two days later; the Democratic majority leader, Alben W. Barkley, regarded the speech "entertaining and instructive."[21]

Ellender takes cough drops after filibustering the Wagner–Van Nuys Act for 28 hours in a period of six days.[25]

Liberal Florida senator Claude Pepper stated in his opposition towards the Act:[26]

Whatever may be written into the Constitution, whatever may be placed upon the statute books of this Nation, however many soldiers may be stationed about the ballot boxes of the Southland, the colored race will not vote, because in doing they endanger the supremacy of a race to which God has committed the destiny of a continent, perhaps of a world.

—Sen. Claude D. Pepper (D–FL), 1937–38

The most persistent filibusterer, recruited by Sen. Russell, was Allen J. Ellender of Louisiana, a protégé of Huey Long.[27] Despite his openly white supremacist views deeming blacks "inferior," Ellender claimed to like black individuals personally and grounded his opposition to the Act on supposedly constitutional grounds. His relative youth by senatorial standards rendered him capable of filibustering better than his Southern Democratic colleagues. Biographer Thomas Becnel writes that Ellender's stamina, deemed "tough as a mule" by an office worker, led to his staff "frantically scurrying for materials on race for him to read from the floor."[27] Ellender also declared, "I believe in white supremacy, and as long as I am in this Senate, I expect to fight for white supremacy."[28]

Josiah Bailey, Reynolds's senatorial colleague from North Carolina who participated in the previous filibuster of the Costigan–Wagner Act, commented on the Wagner–Van Nuys Act, "I fear it, I dread it, I fight it... Reconstruction all over again... will destroy the South."[28] He spoke forcefully in racial tones against the legislation when filibustering:[29][30]

in the hour that you come down to North Carolina and try to impose your will upon us about the Negro, so help me God, you are going to learn a lesson which no political party will ever again forget. That is the truth. Some may not like me for saying it now, but one of these days those who do not like it will say, 'Would to God we had listened to the warning.' The civilization in the South is going to be a white civilization; its government is going to be a white man's government.

—Sen. Josiah W. Bailey (D–NC), January 1938

Civil rights activist Louis Austin, a frequent opponent of Reynolds and Bailey, regarded the latter as "[making] a jackass of himself."[31] Austin noted the irony of North Carolina's Democratic "liberty loving senators" enabling "the right to lynch," sarcastically commenting tongue-in-cheek:

Bilbo was among the most outspokenly white supremacist senators in U.S. history.
Thank God the right to lynch is a white man's right. He alone enjoys the lust of human blood. He alone enjoys carrying in his pockets human toes, fingers, etc. of a dead Negro, as a reminder that he is supreme ruler of this nation."

—Civil rights activist Louis Austin, 1938

Although most Southern senators avoided direct racial attacks and framed Jeffersonian-grounded constitutional bases for their opposition, Mississippi demagogue Theodore Bilbo set off a virulent tirade in his "floodgates" speech,[32][33] calling Walter F. White a "flat-nosed Ethiopian" and branding supporters of the Wagner–Van Nuys Act as "mulattoes, octoroons, quadroons."[20] He ranted and seethed in his infamous "floodgates" speech:[20][34]

If you succeed in the passage of this bill, you will open the floodgates of hell in the South. Raping, mobbing, lynching, race riots, and crime will be increased a thousandfold; upon your garments and the garments of those who are responsible for the passage of the measure will be the blood of the raped and outraged daughters of Dixie. as well as the blood of the perpetrators of these crimes that the red-blooded Anglo-Saxon white Southern men will not tolerate.

—Sen. Theodore G. Bilbo (D–MS), January 1938

Cloture failure (Republican betrayal?)

Eventually, the Senate overwhelmingly voted against cloture, with nearly all Republicans joining half of Democrats in opposition.[35] Roy Wilkins accused a conspiracy "between the filibusterers and the supporters," the latter of whom he regarded as never wanting the bill to be passed in the first place and whom would ultimately "have to vote for it if it came up."[17] Several newspapers blamed both parties, regarding the cloture vote as evident of a betrayal of blacks by a trio of the White House, Republican senators, and some Democratic senators including the bill's sponsor.[36] The Senate Republican leader, Charles L. McNary, explained the party's votes against cloture:[37]

Republican leader Charles McNary criticized the 77-member Democratic majority for the Act's failed passage.
The entire Republican membership of the Senate, save two, sincerely desire to see the antilynching bill passed. I shall not discuss the merits of the bill. The Republican Senators are willing, and have been willing, to remain here from sunrise to evening star and from evening star to sunrise in order to have the bill passed. It is my deliberate judgment that if the bill had been handled with more aggressiveness, if so much timidity had not been shown in pushing it forward, if night sessions had been held as expected, the bill by this time would have been enacted into law.


My opposition to cloture being invoked against the right of a small minority has nothing to do with the merits of the bill. It is only a guise or alibi for those who are not willing to press forward to say that those who vote against cloture are not in favor of the bill. The responsibility for the failure to pass this bill lies with the Democratic administration. There are 77 Democrats enlisted under the banner of Democracy, 1 Independent, 1 Farmer-Labor, and 1 Progressive.

—Sen. Charles L. McNary (R–OR), January 27, 1938

Roosevelt, instead of urging any support for the legislation, supposed in a public statement that Congress could empower the Attorney General to investigate mob violence.[17] With the two attempts by Sens. Wagner and Van Nuys to achieve cloture failing, the U.S. Senate subsequently took up other legislation, leaving the Act permanently killed by the filibuster. The Pittsburgh Courier regarded the Democratic leadership as having "failed utterly."[17]


  1. Bottorff, Ray, Jr. (March 18, 2022). Subject Matter Expert (SME) - Civil Rights Blog #6: Records Regarding Lynching and Anti-Lynching Efforts in the National Archives. History Hub. Retrieved May 17, 2023.
  2. June 11, 1937. LYNCHING BILL APPROVED; Senate Group Backs the Wagner-Van Nuys Measure. The New York Times. Retrieved May 17, 2023.
  3. November 17, 1937. Senators in a huddle. Washington, D.C., Nov. 17. Senator Tom Connally, of Tex. Left; who started the filibuster aimed at the Anti-Lynching Bill confers with Senator George Norris, of Neb. right. Library of Congress. Retrieved May 17, 2023.
  4. Sun-Times staff (August 30, 2016). 5 white U.S. Presidents who used the n-word. Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved May 18, 2023.
  5. Reed, Lawrence W. (August 21, 2015). Jesse Owens: "Character Makes the Difference When It's Close". Foundation for Economic Education. Retrieved May 18, 2023.
  6. McCarthy, Justin (May 11, 2018). Gallup Vault: 72% Support for Anti-Lynching Bill in 1937. Gallup. Retrieved May 17, 2023.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Weiss Malkiel, Nancy Joan (1983). Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR, p. 241. Internet Archive. Retrieved May 18, 2023.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 "Farewell to the Party of Lincoln," p. 242.
  9. 9.0 9.1 April 15, 1937. TO PASS H. R. 1507, AN ANTI-LYNCHING BILL. Retrieved May 18, 2023.
  10. Coutu, Diana (April 2006). Lessons in Power: Lyndon Johnson Revealed. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved May 29, 2023.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Bean, Jonathan J. (June 18, 2009). Race and Liberty in America: The Essential Reader, pp. 168–69. Google Books. Retrieved May 29, 2023.
  12. April 15, 1937. Congressional Record—Senate, pp. 3,551–52. Retrieved May 19, 2023.
  13. Congressional Record, April 15, 1937, p. 3,528.
  14. McCoy, Robert R. (2009). The Paradox of Oregon's Progressive Politics, pp. 409–10. JSTOR. Retrieved May 19, 2023.
  15. June 11, 1937. LYNCHING BILL APPROVED; Senate Group Backs the Wagner-Van Nuys Measure. The New York Times. Retrieved May 17, 2023.
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 "Farewell to the Party of Lincoln," p. 243.
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 17.4 17.5 17.6 "Farewell to the Party of Lincoln," p. 244–45.
  18. January 11, 1940. ANTI-LYNCHING BILL IS PASSED BY HOUSE; Vote for the Gavagan Measure, 251 to 132, Includes 108 Democratic Members SENATE DEFEAT EXPECTED Connally Is Ready for Usual Filibuster--Southern Group Sets Up State's Rights. The New York Times. Retrieved May 24, 2023.
  19. Gould, Lewis L. (October 31, 2005). The Most Exclusive Club: A History of the Modern United States Senate, p. 149. Google Books. Retrieved May 24, 2023.
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 Fleegler, Robert L. Theodore G. Bilbo and the Decline of Public Racism, 1938–1947. pp. 8–9. Internet Archive. Retrieved May 24, 2023.
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 Pleasants, Julian M. (2000). Louis Austin and the Carolina Times: A Life in the Long Black Freedom Struggle, pp. 114–15. Google Books. Retrieved May 26, 2023.
  22. Fite, Gilbert C. (1991). Richard B. Russell, Jr., Senator from Georgia, pp. 168–69. Google Books. Retrieved May 26, 2023.
  23. Caro, Robert A. (1982). Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson III, p. 185. Google Books. Retrieved May 26, 2023.
  24. February 1938. The Crisis – Editorials, p. 49. Google Books. Retrieved May 26, 2023.
  25. January 26, 1938. Cough drop erases throat of Senate filibuster. Washington, D.C., Jan. 26. Senator Allen J. Ellender of Louisiana, has suddenly become fond of cough drops since he spoke for 28 hours in six days during the present filibuster by [...]of Southern Senators against the Anti-Lynching Bill. Library of Congress. Retrieved May 24, 2023.
  26. Leuchtenburg, William E. (2005). The White House Looks South: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, p. 59. Google Books. Retrieved May 24, 2023.
  27. 27.0 27.1 Becnel, Thomas (1995). Senator Allen Ellender of Louisiana: A Biography, pp. 79–80. Google Books. Retrieved May 24, 2023.
  28. 28.0 28.1 Peters, Charles (2017). We Do Our Part: Toward a Fairer and More Equal America, p. 44. Google Books. Retrieved May 26, 2023.
  29. Black, Earle; Black, Merle (2002). The Rise of Southern Republicans, p. 32. Google Books. Retrieved May 26, 2023.
  30. Christenson, Ron (2008). The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics: The Personalities, Elections, and Events That Shaped Modern North Carolina, p. 204. Google Books. Retrieved May 26, 2023.
  31. Gershenhorn, Jerry (2018). Louis Austin and the Carolina Times: A Life in the Long Black Freedom Struggle, pp. 55–56. Google Books. Retrieved May 26, 2023.
  32. Thompson, Julius E. (2001). Lynchings in Mississippi: A History, 1865-1965, p. 110. Google Books. Retrieved May 24, 2023.
  33. Dunn, Susan (2010). Roosevelt’s Purge: How FDR Fought to Change the Democratic Party, p. 236. Google Books. Retrieved May 24, 2023.
  34. Mace, Darryl (2014). In Remembrance of Emmett Till: Regional Stories and Media Responses to the Black Freedom Struggle. Google Books. Retrieved May 24, 2023.
  35. January 27, 1938. TO IMPOSE CLOTURE ON DEBATE H.R. 1507, AN ANTI-LYNCHING BILL. Retrieved May 26, 2023.
  36. "Farewell to the Party of Lincoln," p. 246.
  37. McNary, Charles (January 27, 1938). Vol. 83, Part 1 — Bound Edition, p. 1,165. Congressional Record. Retrieved May 18, 2023.


  1. Although left unspecified by the author, black support for the national Democrats in 1936 was mostly, if not entirely in the North, where voting rights were not suppressed. Most antiblack repression (lynching being the epitome) occurred in the South, where there was seldom an opportunity to vote as a result of Jim Crow Laws.

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