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Senate Apologizes For Lack of Federal Laws to Prevent Lynching

The U.S. Senate has formally apologized for not passing laws decades ago that would have made lynching a federal crime. The apology comes too late for some and remains contentious for others, but it's a sign the country is trying to move forward to right the wrongs of the civil rights era.

Since the 1880s - nearly 5,000 Americans, men, women and children are known to have been lynched in the United States. Most were African-Americans, most from the South, a region that unsuccessfully tried to break away from the United States in the 1860s in order to preserve slavery.

James Allen, author of "Without Sanctuary," says during that time, Congress tried but failed to pass more than 200 bills that would have made lynching a federal crime. The bills were killed by senators from the Southern states. "They filibustered. The Senate has more blood on their hands by not stopping it."

The Senate finally issued a formal apology but the resolution was not passed on a roll call vote and did not have unanimous support.

But the apology means a lot for at least one family in Abbeville, South Carolina. It was here in 1916, in the town square, that Anthony Crawford, a prosperous black farmer, was lynched by a mob of more than a hundred people. Phillip Crawford says his great-grandfather refused to accept the price offered for his cotton and made the mistake of talking back to a white storekeeper. "He was dragged around the square several times and then out to the fairground where they lynched him and shot him."

But in Philadelphia, Mississippi, righting old wrongs means re-opening the case of three civil rights workers who were murdered more than four decades ago.

On June 21st 1964, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner disappeared while investigating a church burning in the segregated south. Authorities found their bodies 44 days later, beaten and shot to death, their burned station wagon pulled from a swamp. The horror of what took place became a turning point in the civil rights movement and became the inspiration for the Hollywood film, "Mississippi Burning".

Now 41 years later, an 80-year-old man, Edgar Ray Killen becomes the first to go on trial for their murders. Mr. Killen maintains he is innocent. "I'm accused of murdering someone that I didn't even know existed until the news media wrote that they were missing."

The trial is another painful reminder of the town's past, but for many here, black and white, the trial is important. Jerry Mitchell is a reporter with a local newspaper. "I think the significance of the indictment and trial is it basically shows that Mississippi has begun to look at its past."

The trial, like the Senate apology, may have come late, but U.S. government officials say it's still better than never.