The U.S. Senate, seeking to close a dark chapter in its history, has formally apologized for failing to pass anti-lynching legislation first proposed more than a century ago.
There are some 4,700 lynchings that have been documented in the United States between 1882 and 1968, mostly of African American men who died at the hands of racist mobs. But the true number of lynchings is not known. Few of the killers were ever convicted by what were then nearly always all-white juries.
The U.S. House of Representatives, responding to pleas from several American presidents, three times voted to make the crime a federal offense. But each time, southern lawmakers blocked the legislation from coming to a vote on the Senate floor, arguing that such a law would interfere with states' rights.
Monday night, the Senate passed a non-binding resolution by voice vote apologizing to the deceased victims of lynchings and their families. Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee is Senate Majority Leader.
"Though deep scars will always remain, I am hopeful we will begin to heal and close the wounds caused by lynching," Mr. Frist says.
Two lawmakers from southern states cosponsored the bill.
Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, says she was motivated to act after seeing the book Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, a collection of graphic postcard photographs taken at lynching scenes.
She says lynching was in her words, an American form of terrorism documented in at least 46 states, although most lynchings occurred in the south.
"This was really an act of terrorism, domestic terrorism. And I think it is quite appropriate today that we are discussing this, as our country leads the fight against terrorism abroad," Ms.Landrieu says.
The other cosponsor is Senator George Allen, a Virginia Republican:
"The Senate is going to be on record condemning the brutal atrocities that plagued our great nation for over a century," he says.
At the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan acknowledged the painful era in America's past.
"This was a terrible, dark chapter in our own nation's history, and scores of African Americans and their families were brutalized and suffered great injustices," Mr. McClellan says.
Although some victims of lynchings were crime suspects, many had not been accused of anything more than looking at a white woman or talking back to a white man. African American landowners were frequent targets.
Victims often were brutalized, beaten or burned, before they were shot or hanged. Many lynchings were attended by large crowds.
Ninety-one-year old James Cameron is said to be the only known lynching survivor. Then 16-years-old, he was arrested in August 1930 in Marion, Indiana, and taken to prison along with two friends for the murder of a white man and alleged rape of a white woman. A mob broke into the prison and took the three out. Mr. Cameron told his story on Capitol Hill, recalling that his two friends were hanged, and a noose was then placed around his own neck.
"They had a rope around my neck and they were going to lynch me between my two buddies. I prayed to God, I said Lord have mercy, forgive me my sins. And then everything got deadly quiet. There were thousands of people there who had been hollering for my blood," Mr. Cameron says.
As the noose tightened, a voice shouted out that the boy was not guilty of any crime. He was returned to his cell and later convicted of being an accessory to a white man's death. He was pardoned in 1993, by then Governor Evan Bayh, who is now a U.S. Senator from Indiana.
Mr. Cameron was on hand for the Senate action, as was Ruth Smith Wells, whose grandfather, Anthony Crawford, a successful cotton farmer, was killed by a white mob in Abbeville, South Carolina in 1916 after complaining that a white buyer was paying him less for his cotton than white growers were receiving.
"It is very meaningful to me that America is recognizing the terrible, horrible crime that was committed to all of the persons who were lynched," Ms. Wells says.
Ms. Wells was among 200 descendants gathered to witness the Senate action.