Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Waving the Flag of Federalism

Senator Lamar Alexander’s refusal, along with 14 other Republican colleagues, to co-sponsor the anti-lynching resolution of apology that passed unanimously Monday night raises questions about his judgment. Senator Frist’s decision to delay the bill until nightfall and to deny a roll-call vote raises even more about his.

Official apologies by the Senate are, to be sure, mostly meaningless legislation. But Monday’s resolution was not simply a belated attempt to speak to the shame of the nation for that grievous chapter in our history. It was an apology demanded specifically by the sins of the US Senate for both their actions and inactions on our behalf during the 1920s and 1930s.

The Dyer anti-lynching bill of 1918 was proposed 5 times before finally in 1922 passing the House of Representatives (despite the no-votes of 7 Tennessee Representatives) and emerging from a Senate committee with an endorsement and the support of President Harding. The bill would have made lynching a federal crime, and would have punished law enforcement officials who failed to heed their duty to protect the accused from mob punishment. It had the support of a majority of the Senate and a majority of the American people. But a group of Southern Senators, including Tennessee’s Kenneth McKellar, filibustered the bill to death, as they did subsequent versions that passed the House in the 1930s. The bill’s supporters never forced a vote ending debate, though it likely would have passed.

The US Senate disgraced itself and let down the American people in its failure to speak forcefully in favor of the rule of law and due process. For that, it has reason to apologize as a body. According to the Tuskegee Institute, nearly 5,000 lynchings occurred in the US between 1882 and 1950. One successful cloture vote would have empowered the federal government to intervene during the last 27 years of that stretch, during which—for instance—in Georgia alone, a black man was lynched every 2 days.

During one of those filibusters, Senator McKellar famously inveighed against the proposed legislation as unconstitutional, but cited as his example of offending text a quotation from the 14th amendment to the US Constitution, guaranteeing the rights of recently freed slaves. Sitting in the same chair that McKellar used to keep the practice of lynching a condoned expression of racism across much of the country, Senator Frist did not find a bi-partisan apology for that injustice to be worthy of the light of day or even a roll-call vote. In so doing, he provided cover for those Senators, including apparently Senator Alexander, who do not want their names associated with such a gesture of institutional contrition.

Lamar is certainly not opposed to sponsoring meaningless legislation, as his website touts his leadership in commending the UT women’s basketball coach, and in celebrating black history month. But this apology resolution was a different kind of act, an acknowledgement of the history of the body he now occupies on our behalf, a body which could have passed meaningful legislation to officially oppose and hopefully curtail what Congressman Dyer, writing in 1918, called “the shame which lynchings cast upon the nation.” Signing his name to this legislation (as Senator Frist, to his credit, did) would have allowed us all to say, through Senator Alexander, that the Senate should have acted when given the chance; that Senator McKellar, on this point, was in the wrong.

But does Senator Alexander in fact believe that he was wrong? Speaking in January to the National Council of County Association Executives, he said: “I can wave the lantern of federalism as Congress debates conflicting principles…. Our nation is at its best when action is taken, not in Washington, D.C., but community by community…. In this Congress, I hope we can do a better job of making sure that the federal government carefully considers the consequences of preempting state authority and only does so when absolutely necessary.”

I am told by a staffer in his office that Senator Alexander does in fact support the resolution of apology, despite his refusal to sign on as a sponsor as 85 of his colleagues have done. Perhaps this holdout is his symbolic attempt to “wave the lantern of federalism,” but turning the spotlights on in that dark corner of the Senate’s history would seem to be the more admirable course.

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