Opinion

Why politicians, and everyone, need to think about legacy

Anti-lynching bill should be a reminder of how history will judge the present

Visitors at the National Memorial For Peace And Justice in Montgomery, Ala., on April 26, 2018. The memorial includes over 800 hanging steel columns, each representing a county where people were lynched. (Bob Miller/Getty Images)

OPINION — At least the bill was approved on a voice vote. That was the bill that would make lynching a federal crime, passed in the Senate late last week — in 2019.

Let that sink in. The legislation still must be approved by the Democrat-controlled House, which is expected to happen with no problem, and be signed into law by President Donald Trump. But it would be unwise to take anything for granted since similar legislation has stalled for more than 100 years, held up by elected public servants who felt that taking a stand would be too politically risky.

Certainly, many of those 19th- and 20th- century leaders believed that extrajudicial punishment was the right of the majority, a right to use the rope or the torch or the bullet to exact retribution on those they considered inferior and to use that power to show what could happen to those who did not “know their place.”

More recently, this week in fact, an Alabama newspaper publisher wrote a column longing for a return to the days of Ku Klux Klan-style “justice” for his enemies, which include “Democrats in the Republican Party.” But whether or not it was (and is) a sincere belief of those who stood in the pro-lynching camp, it definitely was a calculated one.

Those politicians did not want to be punished at the ballot box by constituents who made up the mob or tacitly approved of its actions. They were followers, not leaders, thinking of the present — their present — and not their legacy, what the world would think of them after they left it.

Today’s politicians would do well to pause — not so easy as each day brings a confounding rush of ever-escalating news events — to consider what their names would mean to children and grandchildren who carry it on, and what the world’s judgment would be of the policies they left behind.

What are the headlines now? A president taking a stand and declaring a national emergency to fulfill a campaign promise to “build the wall,” while forgetting the part about Mexico paying for it. Will historians wonder why he made this unprecedented move while illegal immigration numbers were trending down and the drugs flooding the country were mostly coming through legal points of entry?

Also watch: Trump announces national emergency on border, despite likely legal challenge

Will senators who are supporting him, such as South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, be willing to be known for following this president when they labeled far less drastic actions by his predecessor, President Barack Obama, an overreach of executive power? Will those on the fence, such as Maine Republican Susan Collins, translate dithering into a principled break with their party?

Predicting what Trump’s use of emergency powers would lead to is impossible, but clues from the past and his record so far indicate the unpredictable could veer into uncharted, scary territory.

This feels like one of those times when legacy is at stake. Who will be honored, vilified or forgotten?

Three senators — Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, both Democrats running for the presidency, and Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina — joined in bipartisan co-authorship of the anti-lynching bill, with Scott saying the Senate “sent a strong signal that this nation will not stand for the hate and violence spread by those with evil in their hearts.”

Before describing the crime and prescribing the punishment, the bill lays out a horrific list of some cold, hard historical facts in the “Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018”:

“The crime of lynching succeeded slavery as the ultimate expression of racism in the United States following Reconstruction. … Lynching was a crime that occurred throughout the United States, with documented incidents in all but 4 States. At least 4,742 people, predominantly African Americans, were reported lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1968. Ninety-nine percent of all perpetrators of lynching escaped from punishment by State or local officials. Lynching prompted African Americans to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (referred to in this section as the ‘NAACP’) and prompted members of B’nai B’rith to found the Anti-Defamation League.

Nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress during the first half of the 20th century. Between 1890 and 1952, seven Presidents petitioned Congress to end lynching. Between 1920 and 1940, the House of Representatives passed three strong anti-lynching measures. Protection against lynching was the minimum and most basic of Federal responsibilities, and the Senate considered but failed to enact anti-lynching legislation despite repeated requests by civil rights groups, Presidents, and the House of Representatives to do so.”

It is not as though there have not always brave voices calling for justice. The journalist, suffragist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells, a heroine and role model of mine, was honored this month with a street bearing her name in Chicago, the city she called home. But in her time, in 1892, she barely escaped with her life after angry mobs raged at her denunciations of lynching in the Memphis Free Speech and destroyed the newspaper’s offices.

It was expedient all those years for lawmakers to say “no,” staining their own legacies as they are remembered as obstacles to progress, horrid historical footnotes. Those who disapproved of lynching but decided to stand silently by are remembered for being too afraid of losing the votes of the racists and bigots. Generations that followed have asked how they ignored the terror in front of their eyes that gruesomely cut down fellow Americans for the sake of political survival.

Recognized in the bill is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, opened in Montgomery, Alabama, on April 26, 2018, which “is the Nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.” Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, the nonprofit organization behind the memorial, has also made the connection between injustice then and now.

It’s interesting that it took three African-Americans to introduce this bill last year, with others then signing on as co-sponsors. Would it have been more powerful if, instead of the anonymity of a unanimous voice vote last week, each senator had loudly taken a stand?

You don’t have to be a senator or president or member of Congress to live a life and leave a legacy to be proud of. Yet the view from history and the here and now shows it’s not so easy to do.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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