On this day in 1940 the United States House of Representatives passed a bill imposing fines on county or state officials who negligently failed to protect persons in their custody from seizure by a mob who injured or killed those persons – or, as it was better known, an anti-lynching bill.1
“Why is President Roosevelt so strangely silent on this bill?” asked Franklin Roosevelt’s own local Congressman, Representative Hamilton Fish, Republican of New York.2
Scarcely a soul did not know the answer to Fish’s question. The bill split the Democratic Party. Sponsored by Joseph Gavagan, a Democrat and the Congressman for Harlem, the bill had nearly universal support in the North and none in the South. The vote in the House was 252 to 131 in favor. No Southerner voted for the bill; Democrats from the North, Midwest, and West favored it by nearly five to one.
Similar bills had passed in 1937 and 1938. They met their demise in the Senate, whose filibuster rules permitted a Southern minority to kill the bills.
The NAACP campaigned vigorously for the anti-lynching bills. Its leader, Walter White, noted “the states have continued as they have in the past, to do nothing about lynching. The federal government must act.”3
Senator Robert Wagner, Democrat of New York, supported the bill. So did any number of high profile Democrats, including Eleanor Roosevelt.
Gallup polls showed Americans closely divided but favoring the measure, with 50% in favor, 41% against, and 9% with no opinion.4
Senator Pat Harrison, Democrat of Mississippi, addressed himself to the president, saying, “We see the people of the South confronted with the terrible situation of a Democratic majority betraying the trust of the Southern people.… The next thing, in all probability, will be to provide that miscegenation of the races cannot be prohibited, and when that has accomplished … to say that every colored man in every Southern State should take part in the primaries in the State!”5
That outcome remained far in the future. It was 1940; the Gavagan bill had no chance when the president viewed the fight against Nazism as his chief priority.
He had seen the world that way, really, since the moment Adolf Hitler became German chancellor in January 1933. Roosevelt then told Rexford Tugwell that Hitler’s “black sorcery appealed to the worst in men; it supported their hates and ridiculed their tolerances” and his rise was a “portent of evil for the United States.”
And so from the moment he took office, Roosevelt was racing the clock; recovery from Depression meant not only ending the crisis and restoring prosperity, but restoring the United States to a physical and moral strength sufficient to fight Nazi Germany.
But to do it, as Tugwell said, “He had to compromise with Hitlerites in our own electorate.”6
1“Anti-lynching Bill is Passed by House,” NYT 1/11/40, p. 17.
2“Quick Passage of Measure,” Chicago Defender 1/13/40, p. 1.
3Cited in Harvard Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks, 221.
4Gallup Poll, Jan, 1940. Retrieved Jan-10-2015 from the iPOLL Databank, The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut. http://www.ropercenter.uconn.edu/data_access/ipoll/ipoll.html
5Cited in Sitkoff, 220.
6Rexford Tugwell Papers, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library. See also the brilliant Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself (Liveright, 2013).