January 5, 1934 – The Costigan – Wagner Anti-Lynching bill is Proposed to the Senate

As Wil Haywood reports in his book Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America, from 1900 to 1934, “there had been thirty-five hundred recorded lynchings in the United States; there had been only twelve convictions.” [Note: Statistics exist from 1882 forward; had Haywood taken those numbers into account, the total would have been over forty-six hundred.] Previous attempts to introduce anti-lynching legislation at the federal level had met with no success. Haywood adds, “President Roosevelt agreed with the need for an anti-lynching bill, but he retreated from southern opposition to it, and the bill gained no traction.”

In 1934 the NAACP launched a campaign to obtain passage of an anti-lynching bill introduced by Senators Edward P. Costigan of Colorado and Robert Wagner of New York on this day in history. Like those that preceded it (and failed), the Costigan-Wagner bill placed responsibility for its enforcement with local authorities. Sheriffs who failed to take appropriate action to protect prisoners in their custody could be penalized under the act. Provision was also made to compensate the families of those who had been victimized by mob action.

Senator Edward Prentiss Costigan

Senator Edward Prentiss Costigan

Thurgood Marshall, then serving as Solicitor General of the U.S., sent a letter to Maryland Senator Millard Tydings, urging him to lend support to the Costigan-Wagner Anti-Lynching Bill. Senator Tydings had delayed in taking a stand on the proposed bill and Marshall sought to convince the senator that it was in his interest as “a champion of fair-play and justice” to support the bill. But Senator Tydings had a number of objections to the law, including his belief that the law infringed on “state’s rights.”

Thurgood Marshall in 1936

Thurgood Marshall in 1936

Marshall disagreed, writing in a letter to Senator Tydings on January 29, 1935:

This bill does not deprive the states of a single right which they now have. When the officers of the state either act on behalf of the mob or fail to use reasonable means to prevent them from acting, as was done in the lynching of Claude Neal in Florida; when daily newspapers told of the proposed outrage and invited all to attend; and when the lynching was over, the lawless element with the sanction of officials of the state continued to spew their venomous wrath upon innocent, law-abiding tax-paying Negro citizens . . . how in the name of justice and decency can anyone talk of protecting the rights of such a state when it has forfeited all rights to be classed as a state because of open treason and rebellion?”

It was not until April 15, 1935 that Senator Costigan served notice upon the Senate that upon conclusion of debate on [a farm bill] he would demand consideration of the anti-lynching bill introduced by himself and Senator Robert F. Wagner of New York.

A filibuster was immediately organized to resist the bill’s passage in the Senate.

Much to the disappointment of the African-American community, this bill did not pass and lynchings continued in many Southern states well into the fifties.


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