To the Editors:
Jerome Bruner in his article “Do Not Pass Go” [NYR, September 25] wrote: “Starting around 1992 violent crime in America began declining…nobody is quite sure why.” Surprisingly, after taking an agnostic position on what might pass as an explanation for the fluctuations in the rate of violent crimes, about one specific violent crime, lynching, he is quite definite. He wrote: “It ended when it was made a federal offense in 1936….” That the mere enactment of a law could have so dramatic an effect would certainly be interesting if true. Lynching did decline throughout the 1930s but not because of a federal anti-lynching statute. For no federal anti-lynching statute was enacted in 1936 or any other year during the 1930s, despite the NAACP’s many years of effort and the climactic struggle for such legislation led by Senator Robert Wagner during the 1935–1936 legislative sessions. Just why did lynching decline, to borrow Professor Bruner’s phrase, “nobody is quite sure why.”
New York City
Jerome Bruner replies:
Alan Kennis is quite correct. The first federal anti-lynching law was not passed until 1968, when lynching was specifically criminalized by federal legislation by the Civil Rights Act. That act specified that conspiring local officials, as well as participating citizens, would be held liable to prosecution in lynching cases. Many state legislatures, of course, also enacted anti-lynching statutes from the 1890s on, with the aim of sanctioning sheriffs and jailers who turned over suspected criminals to lynch mobs, in some instances even requiring counties to pay compensation to the families of lynch victims. But these were rarely enforced.
The frequency of lynchings in the South did indeed decline from the mid-1930s on. It is difficult to know why. Did state anti-lynching statutes, after all, have some slow-working effect? Was it the courageous but failed effort to introduce federal anti-lynching legislation in the mid-1930s, led so vigorously by Senator Wagner, that finally kindled some law enforcement resolve in Southern sheriffs? Or was Southern culture itself changing, partly in response to widespread anti-lynching sentiment in the rest of the country? As I’ve already said, “nobody is quite sure.”
I certainly did not mean to imply that simply “passing a law” is all that is needed to remedy so persistent an evil as lynching. I meant, rather, and only as an aside, that assigning criminal liability appropriately and effectively may be a useful first step in remedying such evils.
November 20, 2003