Walter White, head of the NAACP in the 1930s
Credit: Detail from the cover of The Biography of Walter White, Mr. NAACP by Kenneth Robert Janken (W W Norton & Co Inc).
In this lesson students will participate in a role-play activity that has them become members of a newspaper or magazine editorial board preparing a retrospective report about the NAACP's anti-lynching campaign of the 1930s. As the students analyze and synthesize a variety of primary sources, they will gain a better understanding of the reasons for the failure of anti-lynching campaign of the 1930s, the limits of liberal reform during the New Deal, and the NAACP's decision to shift its focus to a legal campaign to end segregation.
The Great Depression hit the black community in the South especially hard; not only were blacks among the first to join the ranks of the unemployed, but white southerners often vented their economic frustrations on them. The number of annual lynchings in the United States, which had been declining since the Dyer Bill failed to pass Congress, experienced an upsurge in years immediately following the Great Crash. The NAACP, armed with Walter White's exhaustive study of lynching in America, Rope and Faggot, looked to the New Deal liberals to reverse this horrific trend as they launched the second phase of their anti-lynching campaign. Their efforts quickly caught the attention of Democratic Senators Edward Costigan and Robert Wagner who agreed to co-sponsor an anti-lynching bill. Like James Weldon Johnson, L.C. Dyer, and other anti-lynching bill proponents in the 1920s, the drafters of the Costigan-Wagner Bill believed culpability for lynchings lay at the feet of cooperative or indifferent local officials as well as the mob, and that fines levied against an entire county would motivate southern communities to stop lynchings. This bill afforded the federal government the power to prosecute the lynchers if the state refused to do so after thirty days, penalize municipal officers who were found negligent and fine counties where the lynching occurred up to ten thousand dollars.
Although President Franklin D. Roosevelt publicly denounced lynching and endorsed the bill's objective, he tempered these statements by expressing doubts about the constitutionality of the Costigan-Wagner Bill. Throughout the Senate debate, FDR was unwilling to risk losing the support of the Southern Democrats for his New Deal by actively campaigning for the Costigan-Wagner Bill, which ultimately became the victim of a Senate filibuster in 1935. The NAACP, undeterred by this major setback, shifted its attention to the House of Representatives where Representative Joseph Gavagan used a discharge petition to force the House Judiciary Committee to release the Gavagan Bill, the House version of the Costigan-Wagner Bill, in April 1937. Although this bill easily passed the House of Representatives, it again failed to overcome a Senate filibuster in 1938. By the time the Gavagan Bill passed the House again in January 1940, the NAACP had resigned itself to the legislative reality of the bill's inability to pass the Senate; the Board of Directors thought it was more prudent and fiscally responsible to concentrate their limited resources on "work for the branches, the fight against educational inequalities, and legal defense." Walter White in a personal letter to a colleague explained the organization's limited support this way, "There has been for some months, especially since the filibuster, a growing feeling among some members of our Board that a disproportionate amount of time and money was being put into the anti-lynching fight to the neglect of some other phases of our work."
The unwieldy nature of the NAACP's legislative struggle for an anti-lynching bill in the 1930s is complex but unraveling that history has a collateral benefit for secondary students. By understanding the legislative wrangling and posturing that took place at any given time during the campaign, the bill's ultimate failure will enlighten many students about the limits of public opinion in the thirties and the opposition to social justice in this period. One way teachers can encourage this insight is to have students participate in a role play activity that has them become members of a newspaper or magazine editorial board, such as The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Macon Telegraph, and The Crisis, preparing a retrospective piece about the anti-lynching campaign for publication in early 1940.
In order for the simulation game to be successful, the teacher must hold all students accountable for fulfilling their assigned roles; therefore, the teacher needs to review newspaper and magazine retrospectives before the students deliver them to the rest of the class. This will ensure that the students convey accurate information during the simulation game; it will also help foster a more interactive environment since the students will know, based on the teacher's feedback, that their answers are either acceptable or are in need of some revision. In addition to grading the retrospectives submitted by the various student groups, the teacher also needs to evaluate each student's textbook entries about the NAACP's anti-lynching campaign of the 1930s.
1.Have students research Eleanor Roosevelt's role in the anti-lynching campaign and her attempts to get President Roosevelt to become a more aggressive advocate for social justice.
Have students examine the groups that comprised the New Deal coalition and the major tenets of New Deal Liberalism in order to assess the relative importance of social justice initiatives during Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency.
3 class periods