The U.S. Senate did the right thing Monday in approving a resolution apologizing for the body's failure to pass anti-lynching laws during the first half of this century. But senators need not congratulate themselves too heartily.
While 80 of the Senate's 100 members, including Georgia senators Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, signed on as co-sponsors of the resolution, the world's greatest deliberative body was looking for all the cover it could find in executing the vote. The issue was debated at night and resolved with a voice vote.
In a voice vote, senators indicate support for, or opposition to, a measure in unison, meaning there is no individual accountability.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, the Louisiana Democrat who was a chief sponsor of the bill along with Republican Sen. George Allen of Virginia, offered some insight into the Senate's handling of the resolution in an interview with the Associated Press. Asked why the debate was held at night and the vote on the resolution was a voice vote, Landrieu said both were the result of her acceptance of conditions offered by the Senate's leadership.
There were nearly 5,000 victims of lynchings - the vast majority of them black - between 1882 and 1968. During those years, almost 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress. The House of Representatives passed three such measures between 1920 and 1940.
None ever made their way through the Senate, as Southern senators used the filibuster, extending debate as a delaying tactic. According to Allen, as quoted by the Associated Press, senators opposed to anti-lynching legislation over the years spent a total of six weeks filibustering against such measures.
So, with the blood of 4,743 lynching victims crying out from the ground for some measure of justice - however delayed it might be - the U.S. Senate used the cover of night, and the more despicable cover of a voice vote, to take not a bold and courageous stand, but a lukewarm acceptance of responsibility for one of the most heinous chapters in American history.
Allen, in comments to the Associated Press meant to praise his Senate colleagues, said, "It's not easy for people to apologize, but I think it does show the character of the Senate today."
The vote certainly did show "the character of the Senate," and found the body sorely lacking in that commodity.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., was closer to the mark. An Associated Press report from Tuesday quotes Kerry as saying, "It's a statement in itself that there aren't 100 co-sponsors."
The United States has been struggling since the civil-rights era began in the 1960s to extricate itself from a shameful past in which many of its citizens were denied rights as basic as the right to vote, and were treated harshly as they attempted to assert their rightful place in this country.
Landrieu and Allen were, in fact, motivated to introduce the resolution by the recently released book "Without Sanctuary, Lynching Photography in America." The book features a collection of photos, taken in many instances by participants in the killings.
The resolution apologizing for its inaction with regard to anti-lynching legislation provided the Senate with a real opportunity to take a stand against the past. Senators should have taken a much bolder approach to the issue.