Curriculum

NAACP's Anti-Lynching Campaigns: The Quest for Social Justice in the Interwar Years

Henry Mencken, author of note, testifies at the Senate Judiciary sub-committee hearing on the Anti-Lynching bill that 'no civilized country can condone lynching.' 2/14/35
Photo caption

Henry Mencken, author of note, testifies at the Senate Judiciary sub-committee hearing on the Anti-Lynching bill that "no civilized country can condone lynching." 2/14/35

In the twenty-first century, American citizens expect the federal government to protect their civil rights if the states fail to do so. This expectation is a consequence of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s and was not engrained in the political and constitutional history of the United States for most of the twentieth century. In fact, most Americans prior in the first half of the twentieth century embraced the notion that police powers (i.e. laws that govern safety, health, welfare, and morals) were reserved to the individual states and saw little, if any, role for the federal government in protecting the health and safety of individuals.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) aggressively challenged this prevailing assumption during their anti-lynching campaign. Although NAACP's successful legal assaults on segregation in the 1940s and 1950s tend to overshadow the organization's earlier activities, obtaining federal anti-lynching legislation was their primary goal from 1909 to 1939. Unfortunately, this important chapter in the history of the NAACP has largely been forgotten or, at best, relegated to a footnote in most American history textbooks. In part, this can be explained by the fact that in both the 1920s and the 1930s proposed bills failed to become law. At the same time, much can be learned about how Americans in the interwar years understood the federal system, interpreted the Constitution, and responded to calls for social justice by examining the NAACP's anti-lynching campaign.

This teaching unit is divided into two lessons: one that examines the NAACP's efforts to get the Republican Party to enact anti-lynching legislation in the early 1920s and one that analyzes the various attempts by New Deal Democrats from 1934 to 1939 to pass a federal anti-lynching bill. Teachers may choose to use only one of the lessons, incorporate both of them into their existing curriculum, or make them the foundation of a thematic unit about social justice in the Interwar Years.

Guiding Questions

Why did the NAACP lobby the federal government to enact anti-lynching legislation?

What were the constitutional arguments for and against federal anti-lynching legislation in the interwar period?

 

Why did the legislation fail?

Learning Objectives

Explain the history of the NAACP's anti-lynching campaign in the early 1920s and 1930s.

Assess the significance of the failure of Congress to enact anti-lynching legislation and its impact on social justice in the United States.

How do President Franklin D. Roosevelt's unwillingness to support federal anti-lynching legislation and Congress's inability to enact a bill help to delineate the limits of liberal reform during the New Deal?

Evaluate the reasons for the failure of the NAACP's anti-lynching campaign in the 1930s.

Analyze the motives of the opposition to the various anti-lynching bills and the reasons for President Franklin D. Roosevelt's reluctance to support the bills.

Why did the NAACP shift its focus from anti-lynching legislation to legal challenges to segregation by the end of the 1930s?