WASHINGTON – When she was young,Ruth Smith Wells never knew what happened to her grandfather. She said it was something she knew not to ask about.
Wells' grandfather,Anthony Crawford,was lynched in 1916 by between 200 and 400 residents of Abbeville,S.C.,for accusing a white man of cheating him on the price of cotton.
“My mother was a Christian woman,and she would never,never,never talk about it,” Wells,75,said.
Wells,of Philadelphia,said she learned what happened through whispered conversations among family members. Her family scattered to different parts of the country to escape the pain and fear of staying in the same town that betrayed her grandfather.
Led by two Southern lawmakers,the Senate voted Monday to apologize for its predecessors' failure to stop one of darkest periods of American history,when justice fell at the hands of mobs,lynching 4,473 people between 1882 and 1968.
Sens. Mary Landrieu,D-La.,and George Allen,R-Va.,said the apology is to acknowledge the Senate's rejection of legislation proposed more than a century ago that might have spared the lives of many African Americans.
Despite pressure from seven presidents and three anti-lynching bills approved by the House of Representatives,the effort always fizzled in the Senate,which was controlled by Southern lawmakers who used the filibuster to stop it.
“A lot Americans still objected to growth of powerful government. It wasn't only a white,Southern,racist concern. It was a fight over states' rights as well,” said James Madison,author of “Lynching in the Heartland” and a professor at the University of Indiana.
One of Landrieu's predecessors was notorious for his railings against anti-lynching legislation in 1938.
According to an article in the Journal of Southern History,“The South and the Politics of Anti-lynching Legislation,1920-1940,” by George C. Rable,“Allen J. Ellender of Louisiana held the floor for a record six days – twenty-seven hours and forty-five minutes of fervid oratory.”
Madison said that,while lynching is an important part of the nation's history,black Americans are much more aware of that part of U.S. history.
“It has never been on the periphery for black Americans. They always knew about it. The purpose of lynching was for whites to send a message. They left the bodies hanging as a message to stay in your place,” Madison said.
At a news conference before the vote,enlarged,faded photographs of some of the most notorious lynchings were propped up in a room in the Capitol. The haunting pictures showed bodies dangling from trees and spectators huddled around lifeless black bodies – some were young girls in their dresses gazing upward,expressionless.
Landrieu said even more disturbing was that lynching was not a crime,but an amusement for a mob.
One of the photographs was of Wells' grandfather.
Landrieu said it was photographs such as these that were collected first in an exhibit and then in a book,“Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photographs in America,” that inspired her to push for the Senate's apology.
“The book tells the stories as pictures can only do. It is indisputable evidence of what occurred,” Landrieu said.
Madison said the exhibit,which opened almost a decade ago and still travels around the country,has renewed the debate and study about lynching in America.
Even though the apology would not rewrite history,Wells said it might help some move on. “An apology is only words but it is a forward step,a recognition of these horrific crimes,” Wells said. “But there are other forms of lynching,of racism.”