Lynching permeated American life for almost 100 years. Lynchings often focused on African Americans and their perceived violations of Jim Crow etiquette, whether real or not. The result was mob action and the violent death of men who were usually innocent.
The list of transgressions that resulted in a lynch mob was long and varied and included everything from rape and murder to indolence, unruly behavior, and acting suspiciously. Often times, lynchings were treated like circuses with whites enjoying the spectacle of the execution as entertainment, taking pictures and saving them as souvenirs. Less than 1 percent of participants were ever convicted. Most of the almost 5,000 reported lynchings between 1882 and 1968 (3,445 were of blacks) occurred in the South, but the problem was nationwide and, by 1918, all but six states had experienced lynchings. The lynching of a black person by a white mob was rarely investigated, even more rarely prosecuted, and almost never punished. This was despite the fact that by the 1930s most southern states had specifically outlawed lynching. These laws were often ineffective because they were not enforced. In the rare instance where an indictment was issued, juries would not convict, even though the incidents and perpetrators were often common knowledge.
Local sheriffs tended to be apathetic toward the laws and commonly took no action to prevent mobs from taking possession of the prisoner and killing him. In addition, rarely was an attempt made to apprehend the lynchers. Finally, not only was law enforcement usually absent, but often, the very person charged with preventing the lynching took an active part. At the federal level, all three branches of government failed miserably. Federal judicial interference was rare. In one case, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in, because, as Justice Holmes noted in Moore v. Dempsey (1923), the conviction of five black men in Arkansas under the shadow of threats of mob violence amounted to judicially sanctioned lynching. If the state courts could not provide minimal procedural fairness, then the federal courts had a clear duty to ‘’secure to the petitioners their constitutional rights” (Bennett 1999).
Congress also failed to respond. Early on during Reconstruction, Congress passed several civil rights acts to outlaw black codes, provide for criminal sanctions against any person involved in private conspiracy to violate another’s federal rights, and stifle the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). However, many of these laws were declared unconstitutional, and those that were not were later repealed by Congress. In addition, more than 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress with none becoming law. Although the House of Representatives passed anti-lynching bills three times, the legislation was blocked repeatedly by senators from the South. During the Woodrow Wilson administration, Congress not only failed to pass anti-lynching legislation but entertained at least twenty bills calling for more segregation. Congress came closest to passing anti-lynching legislation in 1921, when the House passed the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, but it failed in the Senate (see Dyer, Leonidas C.). The debate in the House, although rooted in constitutional and legal arguments, revolved mostly around racist attacks that were practically a defense of lynching. The bill passed 231_119. In the Senate, the argument of unconstitutionality and a threatened filibuster, which Republicans made no real effort to block, stalled the bill without a vote.