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June 11, 2005
You Mean The Filibuster Isn't The Center Of The Republic? (Updates Galore)

The Senate will debate whether to apologize for its role in blocking federal intervention in the quaint Southern tradition of lynching, in part by using the filibuster to block legislation making such vigilante murders a federal civil-rights offense. The Washington Post digs into its archives to reprint part of an 1894 report of the lynching of Stephen Williams, accused of "manhandling" a white woman -- the usual but hardly the only excuse for such murders -- and then notes that the Senate had three explicit opportunities to stop the practice:

At the time, there was no federal law against lynching, and most states refused to prosecute white men for killing black people. The U.S. House of Representatives, responding to pleas from presidents and civil rights groups, three times agreed to make the crime a federal offense. Each time, though, the measure died in the Senate at the hands of powerful southern lawmakers using the filibuster.

The Senate is set to correct that wrong Monday, when its members will vote on a resolution to apologize for the failure to enact an anti-lynching law first proposed 105 years ago. ...

Mob killings were often carnival-like events, attended by men, women and children who were not afraid of facing legal consequences, said Lawrence Guyot, 66, a Washington educator and civil rights activist.

Refreshments were sold. Trains made special trips to lynching sites. Schools and businesses closed to give people a chance to attend. Newspapers ran ads announcing locations and times. Corpses were displayed for days. Victims' ears, fingers and toes were taken as souvenirs, as well as parts of the ropes that hanged them.

"Lynching was the socially acceptable way to demonstrate control," Guyot said. "It sent a message that not only did this happen to this person, but if you as a black person thought about stepping outside of our racial code, it can happen to you. We want it to be public. We want everybody to see it. We want the body to stay up there as long as possible and all the gory details to be known."

Much of America, though, was revolted by the practice.

Some white writers, notably Mark Twain, railed against it. Two leading civil rights groups, the NAACP and B'nai B'rith's Anti-Defamation League, sprang up in part to counter lynching. Black journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett devoted her career to ending lynching. Seven presidents, starting with Benjamin Harrison in 1891, argued for making it a federal offense.

None of this swayed the Senate, where southern lawmakers insisted that a federal law would intrude on states' rights. One debate tied up the Senate for a total of six weeks in 1937 and 1938, and supporters were never able to break the filibuster.

That's what made the recent debate over the use of the filibuster such a tragic joke. Having Senator Robert Byrd, a former KKK recruiter, get up in the well of the Senate and lecture the GOP and the nation that ending the filibuster presented a danger to the Republic amounted to historical revisionism of the worst kind. While Harry Reid talked about Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (one of Frank Capra's worst and most idiotically idealistic films), the real, non-Hollywood Senate used the filibuster to ensure and to tacitly endorse the racial control that lynching provided. It isn't too far of a stretch to call it Southern terrorism.

Thanks to racists like Byrd, that tradition of filibustering continues today. In fact, Byrd (who isn't even mentioned in this article) filibustered the original Civil Rights Act in 1964, eating up 14 hours of debate before his own caucus finally put an end to his embarrassing display. It is a practice that allows the entire democratic process of the United States to be held hostage by a minority, even if it now requires a larger minority than before the rule changes which eliminated the need for continuous speechmaking.

Forget Capra films and Jimmy Stewart railing from a Hollywood set about corruption. This is the true legacy and historical purpose of the filibuster. Shame on those Senators who lined up next to Robert Byrd and proclaimed that protecting this rule from modification amounted to "saving the Republic". That ghoulish statement offended the ghosts of the people who met death at the hands of mobs while the Senate found itself held hostage to racist sympathizers who used that procedure to stop a nation from putting an end to that outrageous and disgusting practice.

The Senate has the right to set its own rules, including the filibuster for its internal processes, including legislation. That doesn't make the practice glorious or righteous. If the Senate wanted to truly make amends for its transgressions, it would eliminate the procedure that kept the nooses in play for decades without fear of prosecution.

ADDENDUM and BUMP: I'm putting this on top for the morning. The more I think about this story, the more incensed I become. The Gang of Fourteen stood in front of the American people and proclaimed that rescuing the filibuster amount to "saving the Republic", and the other thirteen stood there and endorsed that point of view from Robert Byrd, of all people.

What I would like to know is what lives the Senate saved through the filibuster? What overarching principle has the filibuster ever protected that would counter the cost of the innumerable victims of lynching that the filibuster allowed? The only principle the filibuster has ever protected, as far as I see, is naked partisanship and in the case of lynching, racial oppression and terror. And yet, these same modern-day Senators stood with a man who used the filibuster to keep blacks from voting and justified its use against confirming judges to the appellate court. Thatincludes one nominee, Janice Rogers Brown, whose family suffered under the threat and terror of lynching because of the same filibuster the Democrats used to keep her from her bench assignment. That isn't ironic; it's morally depraved.

The despicable nature of that ploy has yet to be fully argued. Perhaps this latest effort to give the proper historical perspective to the filibuster will awaken the American people to its true use in our history to extend terror and oppression, and finally force the Senate to disavow the antidemocratic procedure that has been stained with the blood of hundreds, if not thousands, of victims that the Senate could have saved.

UPDATE: Two bloggers believe that I go too far. Decision '08 lets me off the hook easy; the Commissar doesn't. Read both; you decide.

UPDATE AGAIN: Neither does Beth.

Perhaps I should refrain from blogging when I get pissed off ... but if you read this carefully, you will not see me calling the Gang of 14 lynchers or racists. Their self-aggrandizing rhetoric about saving the Republic, especially coming from the only member of the Senate to have filibustered the Civil Rights Act and vote against both black Supreme Court justices, is something I find appalling considering the history of how the Senate has used the filibuster in the past. And given that history, its use in keeping Brown off the appellate bench -- given her childhood and its relation to the lynching that the filibuster allowed to continue -- is particularly repellent. And I'm still waiting for an example of some greater good accomplished by the filibuster that makes up for all of its victims.

On the other hand, at least the compromise resolved that particular injustice, which may be the only positive aspect of it from either a Constitutional or historical point of view. I'm mindful of Beth's admonitions, but as the Post article shows, you can't talk about the filibuster in honest terms without pointing out its application in keeping the federal government from interceding on behalf of black Americans for decades. Next time, I'll try to temper my irritation before I post.

UPDATE IV: I'm going to let the trackbacks handle most of the criticism I'm getting on this post, but I want to note that the phrase "quaint Southern tradition" is unfair; lynching was a "quaint American tradition", as a number of people have told me via e-mail and comments, including a few here in the Upper Midwest. Six Meat Buffet weighs in on that and a few other points. And when Beth, Preston, and Rick tell you you're drunk ... well, it might be time to give the keys up for the evening.

Sphere It Six Meat Buffet weighs in on that and a few other points. And when Beth, Preston, and Rick tell you you're drunk ... well, it might be time to give the keys up for the evening.&topic=politics"> Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at June 11, 2005 10:54 AM

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Tracked on June 11, 2005 5:53 PM

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Tracked on June 11, 2005 7:16 PM

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