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.
"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. A complete version of the map can be found in lesson plan one.
Credit: “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.
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.