Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 1: NAACP’s Anti-Lynching Campaign in the 1920s

Created December 22, 2009


The Lesson


This lesson focuses on the constitutional arguments for and against the enactment of federal anti-lynching legislation in the early 1920s. Students will participate in a simulation game that enacts a fictitious Senate debate of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. As a result of completing this activity, students will gain a better understanding of the federal system, the legislative process, and the difficulties social justice advocates encountered.

Guiding Questions

  • Why did the NAACP pressure the federal government to enact anti-lynching legislation?
  • What were the constitutional arguments for and against federal anti-lynching legislation in the 1920s?
  • Why did Congress fail to enact anti-lynching legislation in the 1920s?

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the history of the NAACP's anti-lynching campaign in the early 1920s.
  • Analyze and evaluate the constitutional arguments for and against federal anti-lynching legislation in the 1920s.
  • Assess the significance of the failure of Congress to enact anti-lynching legislation and its impact on social justice in the United States.


The first phase of the NAACP's anti-lynching campaign was the Republican-led attempt to pass the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill in 1921-22. In 1921, L.C. Dyer, a Republican Congressman from St. Louis, Missouri, introduced a revised version of his 1918 anti-lynching bill in the House of Representatives. In essence, this bill gave the federal government the authority to punish lynch mobs when the agents of the individual states, that is, the municipal officers, failed, neglected, or refused to provide the victim with equal protection under the law. The municipal officers would be tried in a federal district court. If convicted, they could be fined up to $5,000, incarcerated for a maximum of five years, or both; the county where the lynching occurred was also subjected to a $10,000 fine payable first to the victim's family, if any, second to the parents, if still alive, or finally to the United States Government.

For the next year and a half, the NAACP, in concert with Dyer and other sympathetic Republican legislators, worked in vain to make the bill a law. The bill managed to pass the House of Representatives and get a favorable report from the Senate Judiciary Committee before it was killed by the threat of a Senate filibuster. Although the Southern Democrats in the Senate led the charge against the bill, some Republican Senators, of which William Borah from Idaho was the most prominent, raised serious questions about the bill's constitutionality. Throughout this battle, President Warren Harding paid lip service to the need for a federal anti-lynching bill, but refused to pressure a Republican-controlled Congress to give him one to sign. James Weldon Johnson, the Secretary of the NAACP, and his assistant, Walter White, tried in vain to overcome Borah's constitutional objections and Harding's indecisiveness.

Perhaps more significantly, the bill's failure tarnished the image of the Party of Lincoln within the black community and sounded the "siren song" of a black exodus to the Democratic Party. As James Weldon Johnson put it in November 1922, "The fate of the Anti-Lynching Bill is the culmination of a series of disappointments under the present administration which completely rids the Negro of the old idea that he must now, henceforth and forever more vote the Republican ticket for the sole reason of what the Party did sixty years ago."

When one examines the NAACP's anti-lynching campaign of the 1920s critically, it becomes clear that the congressional debate about the Dyer Bill serves as a window for students to view how Americans in the 1920s understood the federal system. Participants on both sides of this issue articulated interpretations of the Constitution that secondary students need to know in order to comprehend the controversy surrounding the New Deal a decade later.

NAACP Blots of Shame map showing distribution of lynchings in the U.S.

“3436 Blots of Shame on the United States: 1889-1922.” A map prepared for the NAACP in 1922 and published in newspapers. The map graphically details the extent and intensity of lynchings by region and state.

The proponents of the Dyer Bill formulated a constitutional defense that foreshadowed New Deal liberalism. The federal government, they argued, had an obligation to help its citizens when the individual states were unable or unwilling to do so. They interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment broadly, so its provisions applied to the actions of the mob. As Walter White contended in a final effort to persuade Senators of the constitutionality of the bill in December 1922, "It is not only against the act of killing that the Federal Government seeks to exercise its power through the proposed anti-lynching law but against the act of the mob in arrogating to itself the functions of the State and substituting its actions for the due processes of law guaranteed by the Federal Constitution to every person accused of a crime." Since numerous "eminent legal authorities" concurred with White, the NAACP urged the Senate to allow the Supreme Court to decide questions of constitutionality after the bill was enacted.

The approach the NAACP urged involved, in Senator Borah's words, "the very lowest form of constitutional immorality." In Borah's view, legislators who relegate questions of constitutionality solely to the Supreme Court shirk their ethical responsibilities and endanger our system of government. As a coordinate branch of government, Congress must police itself with some form of internal constitutional review before it enacts legislation. In other words, individual legislators cannot vote for a law, no matter how well intentioned, if they believe it is unconstitutional. Those who do otherwise are, as Borah put it, "the lawless brothers of those who, under more trying circumstances, take the law in their own hands and join the mob."

Of course, this played into the hands of Senate conservatives, especially the Southern Democrats, who objected to the bill because it violated the Tenth Amendment or states' rights. After all, police powers were reserved to the individual states in our federal system. Lynching was murder and the states, which all had anti-lynching laws on the books, were responsible for prosecuting the wrong doers. Better enforcement of existing state legislation, not intrusive federal legislation, was the answer to the lynching problem in the United States. Time and again, the opponents of the anti-lynching laws proudly pointed to Supreme Court decisions, such as The Slaughterhouse Cases, United States v. Cruikshank, and The Civil Rights Cases, which narrowly defined provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment to apply to the actions of the states, not the individuals that comprise them. The case law on the Fourteenth Amendment coupled with a rigid definition of federalism clearly caused the Dyer Bill to fail the test of constitutionality in the minds of conservative Senators.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan and the websites used throughout. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Anti-Lynching Campaign in the 1920s
  1. Students will participate in a simulation debating game that enacts a hypothetical Senate debate about the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. Have students use the Debating Game Document Worksheet and The Senate and the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill excerpts as reference tools for the game. Since the Dyer Bill died before it was actually debated on the floor of the Senate, students will be able to engage the primary source material as "Senators" in the Sixty-Seventh Congress preparing to debate the bill, rather than students of history constrained by the actual course of events. Because the Senate debate would have occurred at the end of the anti-lynching campaign, few, if any, available primary sources are excluded from this activity. The teacher in this situation has an obligation to make it clear to students what actually happened in the Senate before the game begins and to debrief the students after the game ends.
  2. Before students begin to analyze excerpts from documents written by participants in the anti-lynching campaign, teachers may need to provide the students with some background information about the historical origins of the Fourtheenth Amendent to the U.S. Constitution, the Supreme Court's evoling interpretation of the equal protection clause and the history of the NAACP.
  3. Each student will be assigned a document written by one of the participants in the anti-lynching campaign (See Combined Documents to Accompany the Debating Game)
  • President Warren G. Harding
  • Attorney General H.M. Daughtery
  • Guy D. Goff, Assistant Attorney General
  • James Weldon Johnson, NAACP Secretary
  • Walter White, NAACP Assistant Secretary
  • Moorfield Storey, NAACP President
  • Senator William Borah (R)
  • Senator James W. Wadsworth, Jr. (R)
  • Congressman Burton French (R)
  • Congressman Meyer London (Socialist)
  • Congressman Edgar Ellis (R)
  • Congressman Andrew J. Volstead (R)
  • Congressman John Sandlin (D)
  • Congressman Thomas Bell (D)
  • Congressman Patrick Drewry (D)
  • Governor Robert Carey (R-Wyoming)

The students will have to write a brief summary (approximately two or three paragraphs) of the document that includes a short biographical sketch of the document's author.

  1. The teacher will have the students present their document summaries to the class. The teacher needs to make sure everyone takes notes on what their classmates are saying since they will need a good set of class notes in order to complete the rest of the simulation game. After the students finished presenting their document summaries, each student will assume the role of a Senator preparing to debate the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill on the floor of the United States Senate
  2. The teacher will divide the class by state and political affiliations so it mirrors the composition of the Senate in 1922. The teacher should give the students an opportunity in class to elect a majority and minority leader as well as caucus with the other Senators from their party in order to plan a strategy for the floor debate.
  3. The teacher will have the students write speeches for the Senate floor debate. The suggested length is three to four double-spaced, typed pages, but could vary depending on the age and ability level of the students.
  4. Since the students will need a few days to get their speeches written, the teacher will want to provide the students with feedback about their speeches before the floor debate, and students may need to revise their speeches based on the teacher feedback, the teacher should focus class activities or lectures on other aspects of American life in the 1920s during this interim period.
  5. When the floor debate begins, the students will be required to deliver an abridged version of their speeches. The majority or minority leader will be responsible for making sure that the debate runs smoothly and stays within the required time limits. The students will have the chance to query each other as long as they stay within the parameters of acceptable parliamentary procedure.
  6. In order to make sure all students stay actively engaged in the activity and are held accountable for the information being presented, the teacher should encourage all students to take notes during the debate and incorporate some questions about the anti-lynching campaign into their unit test about American society in the 1920s.


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 evaluate the document summaries and Senate floor speeches 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 acceptable or need some revision. In addition to grading the document summaries and Senate floor speeches, the teacher should try to incorporate questions about the NAACP's anti-lynching campaign into their unit exam or culminating activity about American society in the 1920s.

Extending The Lesson

  1. Have the students complete a research project about lynching in late nineteenth and twentieth century America. They can examine the reasons for the rise of lynching and its impact on African-Americans in the South. For information about lynching and several graphic photographs of the victims of lynching, mature students could use Chronicling America and for photos http://www.withoutsanctuary.org. Note that a search of "lynching" in Chronicling America will bring up the following results.
  2. Have students examine the history of the Fourteenth Amendment from its ratification to the 1920s.

Have students pay special attention to how the Supreme Court narrowly interpreted the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment so they applied only to the actions of the states and not the individuals that comprised them.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

3-4 class periods class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > People
  • History and Social Studies > Themes
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. History
  • Debate
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Oral Communication
  • Oral presentation skills
  • Role-playing/Performance
  • Summarizing
  • Using primary sources
  • Writing skills
  • Tim Greene, Jersey Shore Area School District (Jersey Shore, PA)

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