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Senate Apologizes For Not Enacting Anti-Lynching Legislation, A Look at Journalist and Anti-Lynching Crusader Ida B. Wells

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The Senate passes a resolution to apologize for its failure to enact anti-lynching legislation. We hear excerpts of Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu speaking on the Senate floor and we talk about the history of lynching, focusing on pioneering journalist and anti-lynching crusader, Ida B. Wells. We speak with her grandson, sociologist Troy Duster as well as historian Nell Irvin Painter. [includes rush transcript]

On Monday, the U.S senate passed a non-binding resolution to apologize for its failure to enact anti-lynching legislation. The resolution states that the Senate “expresses the deepest sympathies and most solemn regrets of the Senate to the descendants of victims of lynching, the ancestors of whom were deprived of life, human dignity and the constitutional protections accorded all citizens of the United States.”

More than 200 anti —lynching bills were introduced in congress in the first part of the century and the House of Representatives passed anti-lynching bills three times. However, the legislation was repeatedly blocked by Senators from the South and almost 5,000 people -— mostly African-Americans — were lynched between 1882 and 1968.

This time, the resolution was introduced by two senators from the South–Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu who is from Louisiana and Republican Senator, George Allen, from Virginia. Landrieu called lynching “an American form of terrorism.” She also referenced the song anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” as well as pioneering journalist Ida B. Wells, who was a fearless anti-lynching crusader, suffragist and women’s rights advocate.

  • Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), speaking on the Senate floor, June 13, 2005.

We speak with the grandson of Ida B. Wells, Troy Duster. He is a professor of Sociology at NYU and Berkeley and president of the American Sociological Association. He is author of several books, his most recent is titled “Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society.” We are also joined on the phone from Princeton by Nell Irvin Painter. She is a leading historian of the United States. From 1997 to 2000, she was Director of Princeton’s Program in African-American Studies.

  • Troy Duster, grandson of Ida B. Wells Barnett, the famed journalist and anti-lynching campaigner. Also professor of Sociology at NYU and Berkeley and president of the American Sociological Association. He is author most recently of “Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society.”
  • Nell Irvin Painter, Professor of American History at Princeton University. She is author most recently of “Creating Black Americans,” coming out this fall from Oxford University Press.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This time the resolution was introduced by two senators from the South, Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu from Louisiana and Republican Senator George Allen from Virginia. Landrieu called the lynching, (quote), “an American form of terrorism”. She also talked about the anti-lynching song, “Strange Fruit.”

SEN. MARY LANDRIEU: Jazz legend Billie Holiday provided us with some real texture in her story and song, “Strange Fruit,” which I will submit to the record. She defied her own record label and produced and published this song on her own, was threatened by her life because she continued to sing it. But like so many things, words can’t always describe what’s happening, even though speeches were given, words were written, newspapers were published. But something in the way she sang this song, something in the pictures that described the event, must have touched the heart of Americans, because they began to mobilize, and men and women, white and black, people from different backgrounds, came to stand up and begin to speak. And they spoke, Mr. President, with loud voices and with moving speeches and with great marches. But the Senate of the United States, one of the most noble experiments in democracy, continued to pretend to act that this was not happening in America and continued to fail to act.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Mary Landrieu, democrat of Louisiana, addressing the Senate floor Monday. Landrieu went on to talk about the pioneering journalist, Ida B. Wells, who was a fearless anti-lynching crusader, suffragist, women’s right’s advocate.

SEN. MARY LANDRIEU: In March of 1892, three personal friends of Ida B. Wells opened the People’s Grocery Company, a store located across the street from a white-owned grocery store that had previously been the only grocer in the area. Angered by the loss of business, a mob gathered to run the new grocers out of town. Forewarned about the attack on their store, the three owners armed themselves for protection, and in the riot that ensued one of the businessmen injured a white man. All three were arrested and jailed. Days later, the mob kidnapped the men from jail and lynched them. This was the case that led Ida B. Wells to begin to speak out against this injustice.

Her great-grandson is with us today. He’s told his story through the halls of Congress, to give testimony to her life and to her courage and to her historic efforts. Without the work of this extraordinarily brave journalist, this story could never really have been told in the way it’s being told now, today, and talked about here on the Senate floor. To her, we owe a great deal of gratitude. She knew these men personally. She knew that they were businessmen. They were not criminals. She knew that they were successful salespeople, not common thugs. And she wrote and she spoke and she tried to gather pictures to tell a story to a nation that simply refused to believe.

Forty-two years and a thousands of lynchings later is the case of Claude Neal, of Marianna, Florida. After 10 hours of torture, Claude Neal (quote) “confessed” to the murder of a girl with whom he was allegedly having an affair. For his safety, he was transferred to an Alabama prison. A mob took him from there, they cut off his body parts, they sliced his sides and stomach. And then people would randomly continue to cut off a finger here, a toe there. From time to time, they would tie a noose around him; throw the rope over a tree limb. The mob would keep him there in that position until he almost died, then lower him again, to begin the torment all over. And after several hours, and I guess the crowd exhausted themselves, they just decided to kill him. His body was then dragged by car back to Marianna, and 7,000 people from 11 states were there to see his body in the courthouse of the town square. Pictures were taken and sold for 50 cents apiece.

And one might ask, how do we know all of the grisly details of Claude Neal’s death? It’s very simple. The newspapers in Florida had given advance notice, and they recorded it, one horrible moment after another. One of the members of the lynch mob proudly relayed all the details that reporters had missed, seeing it in person. Yet, even with the public notice, 7,000 people in attendance and people bragging about the activity, federal authorities were impotent to stop this murder. State authorities seemed to condone it. And the Senate of the United States refused to act.

AMY GOODMAN: Mary Landrieu, democratic senator from Louisiana, speaking on the Senate floor on Monday. We’re joined today in the studio by the President of the American Sociological Association, Troy Duster, not as well known: the grandson of Ida B. Wells. Yes, Professor Duster teaches sociology at New York University and U.C. Berkeley and is author of a number of books, his most recent called Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society. We welcome to you Democracy Now!

TROY DUSTER: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: You were born after your grandmother, Ida B. Wells, died?


AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about her, her significance in this country’s history?

TROY DUSTER: Well, first perhaps a personal story about my grandmother. She apparently was a very fierce, strong personality. My mother described her as someone who didn’t keep friends very long, because she had this idea that one should have almost a litmus test about justice. So the idea that lynching could occur without redress was apparently deeply mired in her ideas about this country. And I think it goes back to her childhood, where she grew up in Reconstruction, where there was a period in which whites and blacks had hope that there might be some kind of justice. And when the northern troops withdraw, she sees the complete reversion, and lynching becomes the symbolic act to take blacks back to a period where there was no justice.

AMY GOODMAN: She was a journalist?

TROY DUSTER: She was a journalist, yes. She actually began as a schoolteacher. But she saw that journalism would be a vehicle for mobilizing blacks to some action.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined on the telephone by Princeton University Professor Nell Painter, leading historian in the United States, from 1997 to 2000 Director of Princeton’s program in African American Studies. Can you talk about the significance of what happened yesterday on the floor of the Senate, the vote on this non-binding resolution to apologize for not passing anti-lynching legislation? Professor Painter?

NELL IRVIN PAINTER: Good morning. There are at least two ways to talk about the resolution. One is the more optimistic, and the other is the less optimistic. The more optimistic is simply that it’s extraordinary, considering the sorry history of anti-lynching legislation. We usually say that more than 200 bills were proposed. Certainly there were four or so very promising approaches in 1920 and 1922, the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill in 1937, and 1940, the Gavagan Bill, and then Hubert Humphrey’s bill in 1940 and President Truman’s attempt in 1948. So it’s extraordinary what the Senate did, and it’s something that I never thought that I would live to see. So in that sense, it’s extraordinary, and it’s very positive.

On the other side, however, it’s a resolution, it is not a law. And even though Mary Landrieu’s eloquent statement captures some of the tragedy of lynching and the shame of lynching, she only grazed the surface. Protests against lynching on the part of African Americans and their allies go right back to the very beginnings of African American citizenship, that is, to Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction. The campaign included petitions — I myself wrote about a petition from black Louisianians to the Department of Justice — letters explaining what was going on from the 1870s right up to the present time, rallies, proposed laws, even the arts. So the campaign has been long and deep. And I’m afraid we still can’t say with certainty that the last lynching has occurred.

I should add also, that even though the vast majority of the victims of lynching were African Americans, mostly men, but also some women and children, that other Americans also were victims, notably Mexicans, but also white people, including white women. So this is a tragedy in African American history, but more than that, it’s a tragedy, it’s a miscarriage of justice in American history.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Nell Painter. And I want to get Professor Duster’s response in just a minute, as we continue with our discussion of the non-binding resolution apologizing for not passing anti-lynching legislation in the Senate yesterday.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are Professor Troy Duster, President of the American Sociological Association, NYU Professor of Sociology; also Nell Painter, Professor at Princeton University. Troy Duster’s book is called Whitewashing Race. I’m Amy Goodman. As we talk about the anti-lynching resolution, your thoughts, Professor Duster.

TROY DUSTER: I’m a sociologist, and so what comes to mind is the way in which lynching was used as a device to disenfranchise and make it impossible for blacks to be competitive economically. We tend to think of these as individual acts, but what was happening in the South in this period was that lynching was used as a message to those other blacks who might be engaged in what was called uppity behavior, and that meant direct competition with whites. So it was not just that we have 4,000 people who were killed. The important thing sociologically is that those were killed were done in a public way to intimidate other blacks.

And what Ida B. Wells was doing was trying to draw the parallel between the patterns of lynching and the nature of competition. The connection to today is not that far-fetched, because one can see the ways in which competition between whites and blacks is being eroded by certain kinds of strategies. The current situation for the last, say, 20 years, where over a million and a half people have been placed in prison, taking them out of the capacity to vote, to return to society, to be engaged in productive economic labor, all of this is subtle. It’s not like lynching. But there are some real parallels here between what happened in 1890 to 1910, in terms of the erosion of competition, in the last 20 years of our country’s history, where many, many blacks are disenfranchised and unable to engage in competition in the marketplace.

AMY GOODMAN: Last night John Kerry spoke after George Allen and Mary Landrieu. And he said he wanted a vote counted, every senator on the record, yes or no on this resolution. Janet Langhart Cohen, the wife of the former Defense Secretary William Cohen, is a member of the group that pushed for this apology and also wanted them named because she wanted those named who were not willing to go on the record against the apology. How important is this?

TROY DUSTER: Well, I think an apology is a first step. I mean, I don’t trivialize the apology. But I think if it’s only going to be a moment in history that’s forgotten, it’s of not much consequence. What I think the apology might do, if it’s done appropriately, is like a pebble in the water. If it spreads out in concentric circles to engage the country in a different kind of understanding of its history, we tend to be a nation with a memory of five to ten years. And so when people talk about things like affirmative action or Head Start, they tend to think of this very short period. So I think it’s important to put the apology, to open up the consciousness of the nation to what actually happened in Reconstruction, what happened when the South went back to a period of complete domination: white supremacy. That conversation has not been held. The apology might therefore have an important function, if we use it as a device for reintroducing the idea that we need to repair this history.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about what it means to whitewash race, but I want to turn to Professor Nell Painter for a minute on this issue of senators not being counted by name on this resolution. Your thoughts, Professor Painter?

NELL IRVIN PAINTER: Well, first of all, I’d like to second what Troy Duster said about history. Interestingly enough, he’s been very eloquent about historical meaning here. I think it’s less important that senators be counted by name now. I think that might have made a difference in the ages filibuster in the 1920s or the 1930s or the 1940s or the 1950s or the 1960s. But I think in a sense this is kind of a feel-good measure right now. I don’t know what the vote was. But I would guess that it was unanimous.

I think that there’s some other issues, and here I don’t want to speak so much about history, but about the present day, that there are seams that are running through this, this resolution. One is the whole question of reparations, which is standing behind the question of apology. And reparations goes two ways. One is what Professor Duster has called the repairing of history, and the other has to do with monetary compensation.

Then there are the whole issues of terrorism and torture that are so much a part of our daily news coming out of Afghanistan and Iraq and Cuba and, of course, the parallels between Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and lynching. Already we’ve seen cultural commentators talking about the idea of the people posing with the bodies as if the bodies were game, something to that effect.

And then there’s also the question of filibuster, which has been very much in the news. During the early part of the 20th century and the middle part of the 20th century, filibusters killed anti-lynching legislation. And that was the ways in which filibuster was used, most commonly in cases of racial justice. So I would say that these current issues are something that I would like to keep my eye on.

But in terms of history, this comes at a time in which the United States is under a great deal of criticism from around the world, rather like in the 1950s, during the Cold War, when the United States was criticized. The Soviet Union notably criticized the United States for segregation and racism and white supremacy. In the 1950s, African Americans once again helped rehabilitate the perception of the United States through cultural ambassadors, sometimes scholars, most famously jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie. So racism and anti-racism are once again doing heroic work in starting up the vision of the United States on the world scene.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Duster?


AMY GOODMAN: The issue of whitewashing race?

TROY DUSTER: Well, there’s an easy idea that we have reached a point in the 21st century when race should no longer be a consideration in human affairs in the United States. We want to go back to, at least I think, to a period in which Martin Luther King said, we’re beyond that. We’re now to the point where people’s character or their conduct is all that matters. But what that ignores is this historical legacy that Nell Painter was talking about. If you go back only to the 1930s and talk about the way in which people were able to get houses through housing acts, race was a key figure here, a key element. You got a house for the 1% or 2% loan, but only if you were white. And over the next 60 years there was something called the accumulation. Blacks were not part of that accumulation. So currently today, median net worth of whites is 10 times that of blacks. Just off the top, 10 times the net worth of whites to black. And so the idea that we should simply forget this history, and, (quote) “whitewash” race is to ignore the power of the accumulation of wealth.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, Professor Nell Painter of Princeton University, and Professor Troy Duster of New York University, President of the American Sociological Association, author of, among other books, Whitewashing Race, also the grandson of Ida B. Wells. Thank you very much for being with us.

TROY DUSTER: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now go to an excerpt of a documentary called Black Press that examines the history of America’s black newspapers. It first aired on PBS in 1999. This is an excerpt that talks about Ida B. Wells.

NARRATOR: The White South called it “redemption.” But for African Americans, the post-Reconstruction period was a reign of terror. Mob violence directed at black Americans was ignored by the federal government and condoned by Southern white newspapers.

VOICEOVER: “There is nothing which so fills the soul with horror, loathing and fury as the outragin’ of a white woman by a negro. It is the race question in the ugliest, vilest, most dangerous aspect. The negro as a political factor can be controlled. But neither laws nor lynchings can subdue his lusts.”–Memphis Commercial, May 17, 1892.

NARRATOR: The 29-year-old editor of another Memphis newspaper, The Free Speech, traveled the South to investigate cases of lynching. The editor was Ida B. Wells. What she found and put into print caused an uproar among white southerners.

VOICEOVER: [quotation from Ida B. Wells] “It is a sacred convention that white women can never feel passion of any sort, high or low, for a black man. Unfortunately, facts don’t always square with the convention. And then, if the guilty pair are found out, the thing is christened an outrage at once. And the woman is practically forced to join in hounding down the partner of her shame.”

NARRATOR: On June 4, 1892, while Ida B. Wells was in New York on her first trip north, her paper, The Memphis Free Speech, was attacked by a lynch mob.

VERNON JARRETT: They actually destroyed this woman’s press, and intended to destroy her body, take her life, to the extent that she walked the streets with a pistol under her blouse or apron or, according to legend, two pistols on occasion.

NARRATOR: Fearing for her life, Wells did not return South for 30 years. She continued her groundbreaking work on the staff of the New York Age.

JANE RHODES: She really set the stage for a very radical, very activist kind of black journalism. And as a black woman, she was also an inspiration because there were so few African American women who had worked in journalism before. And when they did, it tended to be sort of a social service-oriented journalism, not the sort of powerful, radical, you know, vociferous journalism that said, 'We won't stand for this, we must do something about the kinds of violence affecting African Americans.’”

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of Black Press: Soldiers without Swords, produced/directed by Stanley Nelson. This is Democracy Now!, DemocracyNow.org.

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